Many tenants struggle to get their entire security deposit (a.k.a damage deposit) back when their rental or lease agreement ends. Some renters think that sweeping a broom across the floor before heading out is enough, and then are shocked when they only get a sliver of their security deposit returned. A landlord will return a security deposit remainder with a long, itemized Rental Inspection Report detailing how the money was spent.

As a renter, this itemized list can be your worst enemy if you don’t know what your security deposit actually covers because you might assume every item on the report is fair game. However, knowing what your landlord can and can’t use your deposit for can save you from getting swindled.

What Is a Security Deposit?

A security deposit is a fixed sum of money, specified in your Rental Agreement, that is held by the landlord until the end of the lease in case there are any damages to the property. Many states have different limits for how much a security deposit can be, and some states don’t have a cap on the limits at all. Typically, the amount is one month’s rent, but the limit can be anywhere between one and three-and-a-half months’ rent.

Some rental agreements will contain stipulations for what the security deposit can be spent on, but most landlords will just put in a general statement about how it covers damages “other than normal wear and tear.”

What Constitutes “Normal Wear and Tear”?

Think of wear and tear as a natural deterioration of the unit caused by people living in it. Things like curtains fading from sun exposure, carpets wearing down from use, or scuffs and patches on hardwood from being walked on repeatedly fall into this category.

Wear and tear doesn’t cover deterioration caused by misuse, negligence, or general filth. This means things like punching a hole in the wall or tearing down a set of blinds during a fight or a party in the unit don’t count as wear and tear.

Landlordology has a more extensive list of “wear and tear” versus “damage” on their website for your reference, but the big “damage” items that will almost certainly dip into your damage deposit are:

  • Large holes in the wall, including a large number of nail holes from hanging pictures (but only if the holes require patching and repainting)
  • Appliances and fixtures that were broken due to negligence, such as cracked bathroom tiles or broken fridge shelves
  • Filth like excessive mold or mildew build-up in the bath/shower, or water stains on wood floors due to inadequate cleaning
  • Missing smoke or carbon monoxide detectors
  • Pet messes like urine stains

If you want to ensure you get every penny back, don’t forget about washing down walls, wiping out the fridge, and dusting. Usually, tenants are only required to do a “broom clean” of the unit, just to ensure the floors aren’t sticky or crunchy. However, some rental agreements may require tenants to steam clean carpets before moving out.

A landlord can’t use your deposit to pay for basic cleaning, but if you leave trash all over the apartment, food rotting in the fridge, and a layer of grime in the bathroom, your landlord will definitely deduct cleaning costs from your deposit.

Can My Landlord Make Me Pay for Painting?

If you painted the walls of your apartment during your lease, your landlord may be able to use your security deposit to have the walls repainted depending on certain criteria.

Most landlords won’t let you paint unless you agree to return the walls to their original (or a neutral) color before moving out. If that’s the case you’re in, your deposit is safe as long as you do the necessary repainting.

If you’ve painted without the landlord’s permission and there’s a clause in your lease that says no painting, your security deposit will most likely be used to cover the costs of repainting.

A landlord usually has to repaint their unit(s) every few years for basic upkeep, which is why they normally can’t deduct the cost of paint or hiring a painter from your deposit. However, if you’ve painted the walls an unusual shade, your landlord has the right to use your security deposit to cover the repainting costs.

Take Note of Your Living Space and Keep an Accurate Record

The general rule is that a landlord can only use your damage deposit to cover actual damages to the property. As long as you leave your unit in the same condition as when you moved in (or as close as humanly possible), you should get your entire deposit back.

Some renters want to use the security deposit as their last month’s rent, but this is usually ill-advised. In many states, the use of the security deposit as last month’s rent is prohibited, and even if your landlord agrees to it, you’ll still be on the hook for any damages left over.

The best way to ensure fairness and accuracy is to do a thorough walk-through with the landlord when you first move in—be sure to take photos of anything that might be considered damage. If you can prove that you didn’t cause any damage, you won’t have to pay for it.

You can also fill out your own Rental Inspection Report, the itemized checklist mentioned above, for your records. Usually, landlords use the inspection report to document any deductions they make to your damage deposit, but there’s nothing stopping you from using the form to your advantage too.

Keeping a strict, accurate record of what you do and don’t do to affect the condition of the apartment is a good way for you defend yourself if need be. Going through the checklist before your move-out inspection will also help to ensure there aren’t any surprises when you get your deposit back.

Posted by Spencer Knight

Spencer Knight is a writer whose nonfiction has appeared in Spinal Columns, The Bolo Tie Collective Anthology: Volume I, and filling Station.