Security Deposit for Rent: What to Expect When You Sign a Lease

When it comes to renting, there are costs that everyone is familiar with. These include application and move-in charges, first and last month's rent, utilities, parking, storage and so on. In particular, the security deposit is one large expenditure that's standard for anyone who signs a lease for a rental property.

The term "security deposit" is pretty vague, though, so a lot of renters aren't sure what it's for. For many people, it seems like a way for the property management company to squeeze even more money out of a renter! In this article, we'll answer all your questions related to this crucial, one-time payment. That way, you'll be as informed as possible when it comes time to sign the lease and pay all the associated rental fees.

What is a security deposit?

A security deposit is a set amount of money that a tenant pays to a landlord prior to moving into a rental property. Essentially, it's like insurance for the managers/owners to protect their property from damage. The amount of money varies by state or property. So, the payment could be one months' rent, two months' rent (also known as twice the amount) or another flat fee set by the property manager.

The funds are held by the manager for the duration of the lease. In fact, state laws dictate that the money must sit in a bank account. At the end of the lease, the landlord returns that money to the tenant, in part or in full, following a move-out inspection of the rental. Or, the property manager can keep it to cover damage other than normal wear and tear. If the damage costs less to fix than the security deposit, the landlord will return the remaining amount to the tenant. So, you might not lose all of the last months' rent, but you could lose some of it.

Choosing a credit card to pay a security deposit

When do I pay my security deposit?

The entire security deposit is usually paid when you sign the lease. Often, they'll also be paying for the first months' rent, last months' rent and any other related costs. Tenants pay security deposits by check, money order or electronic payment.

How much is a security deposit?

In general, the amount of the security deposit will be the equivalent of one months' rent, or maybe two. For example, if your monthly rent is $500 and your landlord requires first and last months' rent for the deposit, you'll need to have $1,000 on-hand for the security deposit.

Credit score can also impact how much you need to put down. Low credit scores can turn into a higher security deposit unless you have a co-signer.

Other factors, like the rental application, determine how much to charge for an apartment security deposit. A potential tenant with solid employment history and no criminal record is likely charged less. Also, the rental type and quality, state laws and local market rates all play a part. Often, states limit the security deposit amount, so that renters aren't totally price gouged.

Why do landlords collect security deposits?

While not all property managers collect security deposits, it's a pretty standard part of the rental agreement. Property ownership is a difficult business with significant risk, so this helps landlords cover their bottom line.

Property owners collect security deposits as a financial safeguard to protect their properties from damage or other irresponsible actions by residents. Here are some examples of what a security deposit would cover.

Property protection

Accidents happen over the course of a lease. If a tenant breaks a light fixture or cracks the drywall, the cost to fix those would come out of the security deposit as they were the tenant's fault. Knowing that they'll be out of a hefty chunk of change if they aren't careful incentivizes people to avoid damaging the unit. Renters who want to get their entire security deposit back should treat the apartment with care and respect.

Financial protection

Security deposits also cover any bills or rent that are delinquent at the end of the lease agreement. So, if you were behind on rent for one month and still haven't paid that back to your landlord by end of the lease, or you have unpaid utilities on your account, they could take the amount out of the deposit.

Pet protection

If you'll be sharing your new home with a furry best friend, chances are you'll have to pay a pet deposit, in addition to the security deposit. This would cover any damages your pet makes to the rental, like tearing up or soiling the carpet. Some landlords will also charge a small amount in "pet rent" on top of the deposit.

What does a landlord do with a security deposit?

The security deposit is "just in case" coverage. For the duration of the lease, the funds will be kept by the landlord in a bank account that generally is separate from their business bank account.

Because of this, the security deposit may collect interest. Some state laws say that the tenant gets those earnings when the landlord returns the deposit money, but in others, the landlord retains the interest earnings. This is something to think about and confirm with your landlord before you lease the apartment.

A security deposit will pay for a damaged wall.

Can my landlord make deductions from my security deposit?

Remember, a security deposit is a measure to protect the property manager, not the tenant. There are certain circumstances under which your landlord can deduct from it. Here are the most common reasons a renter won't get the security deposit back.

There's significant damage

Wear and tear are normal and expected, which is why it's the landlord's job to fix or repair things like old appliances, worn-out carpeting and mold damage. However, if you gouge a hole in the drywall or generally damage the unit in an abnormal way, it's your responsibility to pay for repairs, and the cost of such repairs will come out of your deposit. So, if you want to get your security deposit back, treat the rental unit gently.

In most states, though, there are provisions in place to protect the tenants from having unreasonable or unnecessary dollars taken from their deposit by the landlord. For example, in California, landlords can't withhold security deposits to pay for things like painting or carpets unless they were totally wrecked by the renter.

The landlord is also prohibited from using a deposit to fund repairs for preexisting problems in an apartment. Don't be afraid to ask for an itemized list of repairs if you suspect something dishonest is going on.

You owe unpaid rent or fees

If you have any late fees or unpaid apartment rent at the end of your term, your landlord can take that out of your security deposit. To avoid this, pay rent on time every month, and keep an eye on related bills, as well! Avoid overpaying, though. If you put down last months' rent at the beginning, don't forget and double down!

You broke the lease

Sometimes, a landlord can also deduct from your security deposit if you break the contract without providing adequate notice. So, avoid this unless it's absolutely necessary. If you can't get around it, give your landlord as much notice as possible. Everyone appreciates a thoughtful renter.

You left the unit in a mess

Not cleaning the unit before vacating is grounds for landlords to deduct from the security deposit. That's why it's always a good idea to make sure the apartment is tidy before moving out.

However, renters are only required to leave the unit as clean as it was when they first moved in, so that's what you should aim for: that it's clean enough to move in for the next tenants. Empty the refrigerator, wipe up any big spills and otherwise "broom clean" the place. Most landlords don't expect it to pass the white glove test but want it tidy and relatively easy for professional cleaners to handle. Don't lose a months' rent because you were too lazy to straighten up!

How long will it take to get my security deposit back?

This can vary by the property manager and state, but most require the landlord to return your security deposit within 30 days of the tenant vacating the premises. Your landlord will include the timeframe in your lease, so make note of that when agreeing to the lease. Also, pay attention to how your landlord will return the payment so you know what to expect when you leave your apartment.

If you're not getting some or all of your money paid back, the property manager has to provide a written explanation detailing why, including an itemized list of deductions. In many states, they even have to provide receipts detailing repairs.

You can file a complaint to get your security deposit back.

What if I don't get my deposit back?

If you don't get all or part of your money paid back, the simple answer is that it's probably because your landlord had to make deductions to cover costs. If you disagree with the reasons they deducted from the deposit, there are some options for recourse.

First, before you turn over the apartment keys, take pictures of every room and closet. That way, if the manager tries to pull a fast one you'll have photographic evidence.

Next, if you disagree with the deductions, write a demand letter to the landlord disputing them, and explain why you're entitled to the deposit refund. Be sure to retain a copy for your files.

If you're unable to come to a satisfactory agreement, you can file a lawsuit in small claims court, which handles cases valued at less than $10,000. This is a relatively inexpensive and relaxed court option. Or, you can turn to a professional mediator to help everyone see eye to eye.

Are there alternatives to security deposits?

Thanks to rent, application fees, security deposits and move-in charges and so on, renting is an expensive process. Luckily, there are some emerging security deposit options that cost less and are more efficient and painless for everyone involved.

Lease insurance

Increasingly, landlords are pursuing lease insurance options like LeaseLock to eliminate security deposits altogether. Similar to other types of insurance, the tenant or landlord pays a small fee (starting at $19 for LeaseLock) per month for coverage against thousands of dollars in property damage.

Pay-per-damage

Instead of dishing out a huge amount to the landlord upfront as a security deposit, some landlords choose to bill for damages on a case-by-case basis. They can only charge for damages up to the amount of a traditional security deposit, though, and a third-party company oversees the claim and process to ensure the landlord isn't over-billing the tenant.

Surety bonds

Facilitated through a third-party bonding company, surety bonds allow renters to only pay a small fraction of the security deposit to the landlord. Because the bonding company guarantees that the tenant will pay and abide by the terms of the bond, landlords are able to accept a much smaller amount as there's legal protection in place.

Be sure to review the lease terms for a security deposit.

Do security deposit laws vary by state?

The short answer is yes, security deposit laws can vary widely by state. Some states do not have statutory limits, which means they don't specify how much a landlord can charge for a security deposit. In that case, the amount is at the discretion of the landlord.

In other states, though, there's a cap limit to what the landlord can charge for a security deposit. Many states also have strict laws regarding when to return the security deposit to the tenant after vacating the premises. Here, you can find a full run-down of security deposit laws state-by-state.

Don't feel insecure about security deposits

Having to save and temporarily sign away a month's rent (or more!) for a security deposit can feel scary. But it's completely normal and is in the best interest of both parties. If you maintain the terms of your contract and don't leave anything grossly damaged, you should get your deposit back. So, as long as you keep the parties and destructive animals to a minimum, you're covered.

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. Readers are encouraged to seek professional legal or financial advice as they may deem it necessary.

Alia Hoyt A freelance writer based out of the Atlanta area, Alia has penned articles during her decade+ career for such sites as HowStuffWorks, TLC, Animal Planet, Zillow and many more. Her favorite things to write about include fitness, nutrition, travel, healthcare and general lifestyle topics. A graduate of the University of Georgia, Alia’s an avid Dawg, but she also loves reading, sewing, eating all things chocolate and playing sports with her husband, three boys and beloved border collie, Flash.

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