Typically, when you decide to put money down on a new apartment, more than the first month’s rent is required. Many landlords want either a “security deposit” or “damage deposit” upfront. While most of us immediately begin writing the check when asked, do you really know what that money is for? Are you ever going to see it again? Does it mean you don’t have to pay your last month’s rent?
What is a Security Deposit?
A security deposit is a fixed amount of money you pay your landlord, or management company, to cover any damage you might cause to the property. The landlord can’t spend that money while you live in the apartment. In most states, the law requires your security deposit be held in a special account until you move out and the landlord can check the apartment for damage. If there are no damages, the money must be returned to you. If there are damages, any money left over after fixing them must be returned to you.
Do Other Deposits Work the Same Way?
Many other required “deposits” aren’t actually deposits at all, and won’t be returned to you. For example, many property managers require a pet deposit if you have a dog or a cat, but those are more often fees than actual deposits and are non-refundable. This may vary from state to state, as some state laws place limits on payments a landlord can require before move-in.
Can I Tell the Landlord to Use My Security Deposit as the Last Month’s Rent?
Your security deposit is not intended to cover your last month’s rent. In fact, chances are good that your lease specifically says you cannot use your security deposit to cover the last month’s rent. That makes sense when considering the purpose of a security deposit: that practice would leave the landlord unprotected if the property was damaged. Also, that protection is the whole point of requiring a security deposit. Some landlords require the last month’s rent to be paid in advance, in addition to or instead of a security deposit. If that’s the case, your last month is covered— but that’s very different from a traditional security deposit.
How Do I Get My Security Deposit Back?
When you move out, your landlord may do a walk-through with you or check out the place after you’re gone. For your protection, it’s a good idea to take photographs before you move in and before you move out, to show the condition of the apartment when you got the keys and when you left it. Although the process varies a little from state to state, it basically goes like this:
- The landlord checks the apartment for damages
- The landlord makes any necessary repairs
- The landlord sends you an itemized list of damages and repair costs, along with any remaining balance on your security deposit
When you move out, be sure to give your landlord your new address. They are legally required to send you an itemized list of damages and the balance of your security deposit within a certain time period, but they can’t do that if they don't know where to find you.
Remember, too, your security deposit isn’t the limit of your liability. While you’re entitled to get some or all of your security deposit back — if you've done little or no damage — if the amount of damage exceeds the amount of your deposit, the landlord can bill — or even sue — you to recover the remaining damages.