I-Team Tips for Renters: How to Get as Much of Your Security Deposit Back as Possible

4March 2022

If you’re a renter, you know how hard it can be to get back your full security deposit – it can entail haggling with your landlord over fees they’re charging you when you move out. But you have rights, under law. Here are some steps you can take to get back as much of your deposit as possible.

When Trinh Lam moved out of an LA apartment, he gave his landlord 30 days’ notice, just as he’s supposed to per state law.

“It is important to me to make sure I’m following all of the rules,” said Lam.

Lam was expecting to get back his full $1,500 deposit, so he was peeved when his landlord held back $500, for things like cleaning and paint touch-up. They even claimed he owed two days of unpaid rent, which Lam says isn’t true.

“They have my money so they can give me back whatever they want and keep whatever they want,” he said.

Tenant rights’ attorney Christina Collins says renters call her everyday with security deposit disputes, so she has plenty of advice on getting your deposit back. First, she says to request a walkthrough with your landlord two weeks before you move out. By law, landlords must do this for you.

“This way you get sort of a heads up, so to speak, as to what it is the landlord is planning to charge you for,” said Collins.

Let’s talk about cleaning the unit. Collins says the law doesn’t give landlords an absolute right to charge you cleaning fees. So if you thoroughly clean the unit, the landlord shouldn’t charge you.

“Generally speaking, if you’re returning the property back to the landlord in the same condition, you should dispute any cleaning charges,” said Collins.

Next, things get a little stickier. Collins says your landlord can charge you for any damage to the property, but they can’t charge you for wear and tear. Unfortunately, Collins says the law doesn’t define what these terms mean. So, is worn carpet a damage to the property or just wear and tear? What about holes in the wall from hanging pictures? Collins says issues like these aren’t always black and white, and you may need to consult a tenant advocate.

“There’s sort of a layer of analysis that goes along with this, and what we’re looking at is whether or not it’s reasonable,” said Collins.

Collins also says landlords can get picky about when you give your 30 days’ notice, and they may find ways to ping you for extra rent. But she says if you follow the 30-day rule, stand your ground and don’t let them charge you.

And whatever the landlord does charge you, they’re required to share receipts or invoices for all of it, by law. The law also requires them to return your deposit within 21 days, or they could pay penalties.

As for Lam, after the I-Team reached out to his landlord, they refunded him some of what they charged him. It’s a battle he’s happy he fought, and he hopes other renters feel encouraged to stand up for their rights.

“As renters, you’re at the mercy of these landlords,” said Lam.

One more bit of advice: take pictures and videos of the unit when you move in and when you move out. You may need those if there’s a dispute. And if there is a dispute, you can always take your landlord to small claims court.

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