Rights of Tenants: Security Deposits
What is a security deposit?
A security deposit is money you give to your landlord when you move in. Your landlord can use it to cover any unpaid rent or damages. You may not use your security deposit to cover your last month's rent unless your landlord agrees.
NOTE: A surety bond is very different from a security deposit. If your landlord suggests that you buy a surety bond, read our tips.
How much can my landlord charge for a security deposit?
Your landlord cannot charge more than two times your monthly rent. If you live in subsidized housing, your security deposit should be much less. Check with your housing authority.
Does my landlord have to return my security deposit to me?
If you owe back rent or you have damaged your apartment, your landlord may deduct those costs from your security deposit. If you owe your landlord more than the amount of your security deposit, he may sue you in court.
Does my landlord have to pay me interest when returning my security deposit?
No, not unless you both agreed to this. If you live in subsidized housing, check your lease or ask the housing authority. Your landlord may have to pay interest on your deposit.
(Go to Mobile Home Park rules.)
Can my landlord keep my security deposit to pay for routine upkeep?
No, your landlord cannot keep your security deposit for "normal wear and tear." Examples of "normal wear and tear" could be:
- a worn carpet
- chipped paint
- worn finish on wood floor
- faded or dingy paint
This means that your landlord cannot charge you for routine upkeep, such as periodic cleaning and painting.
The landlord can deduct the cost of fixing damages which are beyond "normal wear and tear." Examples of these damages could be:
- broken windows
- holes in the wall
- leaving trash or other items that have to be thrown away
- leaving your apartment so dirty that it's unhealthy or unsafe
If your apartment is damaged by a storm, a fire, or a vandal, tell your landlord right away. He cannot charge you for the repairs if you or your guests did not cause the damage. It is also a good idea to make a police report.
What kind of notice do I have to give if I am moving?
If you are a tenant at will (no written lease), you must give your landlord a 30 day written notice. The notice period should end on a rent day. You and your landlord can agree to a shorter notice period, if you agree in writing.
If you have a lease, read it to see what kind of notice you must give.
If you do not give the right notice, your landlord may try to charge you for time after you move. If you have a lease, she may try to charge you rent for the rest of the lease term. Again, this will depend on what the lease says.
Read here about a landlord who was sued by the Maine Attorney General for routinely charging early move-out fees. The Maine AG claimed that the landlord was violating this "mitigation" law. In a Consent Decree, the landlord agreed to pay a $10,000 civil penalty and to reimburse any former tenants who may have been charged too much.
Your landlord must try to re-rent your apartment as soon as she knows you have moved out. If she re-rents your apartment right away, she can only charge you for the time you were there and the time it took her to find a new tenant. For example, your rent is $500 a month and you moved out on the 10th day of the month without notice. Your landlord re-rents the apartment on the 15th of the month. You owe $250, or half a month's rent. Your landlord may charge you reasonable expenses for re-renting the apartment if you did not give the right notice.
Note: If you are moving out because your landlord has “substantially breached” the lease, the rules are different. You must give the landlord a written 7-day notice, served in-hand, or, after 3 good faith efforts, mailed by first class mail, with a copy left at the landlord's home. The notice should explain your intention to leave based on the landlord's failure to uphold his duties under the lease. If you follow these rules, then the lease ends, and you have no more responsibilities under the lease.
When does my landlord have to return my security deposit?
Your landlord must either return all of your security deposit or send you a letter telling you why he is not giving some or all of it back. He must send this letter to your "last known address." Give your landlord your new address, or make sure your mail is being forwarded so that you will get the letter.
If you are a tenant at will (no written lease), your landlord must give back the deposit or send you the letter within 21 days after you move out and return the key. If you have a lease, check to see what it says. If there is nothing in the lease about this, or if the lease gives more than 30 days, then your landlord has 30 days to return the deposit. This is the legal limit.
What can I do if my landlord does not return my security deposit?
- Step One
Contact your landlord and ask her to give back your deposit.
- Step Two
If the 21 or 30 days has gone by and you still don't have the deposit, send your landlord a letter asking for return of your deposit within 7 days. Write that if your deposit is not returned, you will bring legal action. Your landlord should return your full deposit. (We have a form letter you can use. You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view it. If you need help downloading this free software go here.)
- Step Three
Sue your landlord in Small Claims Court. Ask your District Court clerk for a pamphlet explaining the steps. You may also view it on line. In your written complaint, ask the Court to order your landlord to pay you two times the deposit amount plus your court costs. The judge will order this unless the landlord can show at the court hearing that she had good reason not to return the deposit to you.
Note: If your landlord lives in your building and there are 5 living units or fewer, then you can still sue to get your deposit back but you cannot get twice that amount.
If I take my landlord to court, can he/she sue me?
Keep in mind before you sue that if you owe your landlord money, he will probably bring these claims against you to counter your claim for return of the deposit. So, if you owe him more money than he owes you, suing in court is probably not a good idea. On the other hand, if he sues you, you can "counterclaim" for return of your deposit and for any other money he owes you.
Does my landlord have to keep my security deposit in any special account?
Yes. He has to keep security deposits in an account that is separate from his other accounts and safe from his creditors. This includes protecting your money from a lender who forecloses on the building and from a trustee in bankruptcy. If you ask, the landlord must tell you the name of the bank where the money is deposited and the account number.
What if my landlord doesn’t follow these "separate account" rules for protecting my deposit?
You can take your landlord to court. If you win you can get:
- "actual damages" (your losses)
- $500, or
- one month's rent,
whichever is greatest, plus your court costs. Also, the court can order the landlord to pay your lawyer's fees.
This right to sue starts on June 1, 2010 for all deposits paid after that date. For security deposits paid before that date, you can sue your landlord if he violates the rules after October 1, 2010. (This new law gives landlords an extra four months to bring pre-existing accounts into compliance.)
What if my landlord sells my building?
If your building is sold (or passes to a new owner for any reason), your landlord must give your security deposit to the new owner or give it back to you. If he gives it to the new owner, he must mail you a notice with that person's name and address and how much money was passed on to him. He can deduct charges for back rent or damages.
Remember, if you follow these tips, you will have a better chance of getting your security deposit back:
- Get a payment receipt and keep it.
- When you move in, make a list of the defects. Keep the list and give a copy to your landlord.
- Clean your apartment and take away all of your things, including trash.
- Take pictures or write down what is right and what is wrong with the apartment when you leave. Have a witness look over the apartment just before you move out. (He can testify in case you have to go to court).
- If you don't get your deposit back right away, leave your new address with the landlord (so he can send you your deposit).
- Try not to owe any rent when you leave.