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Ways to Protect Your Security Deposit

Tips for tenants to ensure they get their money back

As a California tenant, there are several ways to protect your security deposit and some tips for tenants to ensure they get their money back. Landlords and property managers use security deposits to pay for any damage to the unit once a tenant vacates. While normal “wear and tear” is anticipated, any significant damage and repairs will be deducted from your security deposit after you move out.

Most tenants leaving a rental property want their security deposit returned as quickly as possible, either for use in a down payment on a new house or to deposit on a new rental unit. Unfortunately, some landlords take a long time to return the deposit or wrongfully withhold money from the deposit. If your landlord does not comply with the law, be prepared to assert your rights with the help of a San Francisco landlord-tenant attorney.

This article will give you an overview of how to protect your security deposit and tips for tenants to ensure they get their money back.

  • Inspect the Property Before Moving In
  • Review Your Lease or Rental Agreement
  • Don’t Confuse Last Month’s Rent With the Deposit
  • Give Proper Notice to Move-Out
  • Know Your Rights
  • Inspect the Property after Moving Out
  • Repair Any Damages
  • Deep Cleaning
  • Follow Up With the Landlord
  • Sue in Small Claims Court

Inspect the Property Before Moving In

One of the best ways to protect your security deposit is to document the condition of your rental unit before move-in. You can do this by taking careful inventory of the rental unit’s condition using a renter’s inspection worksheet. Be sure to record any existing damage and check all appliances to be sure they work.

A good inspection will provide detailed information and the location of the damage and may include photographs and video of the premises. The landlord and the tenant should both sign the inspection report, and each should receive a copy.

Review Your Lease or Rental Agreement

The best way to ensure you get your full security deposit back is to thoroughly review the rules and requirements of your lease or rental agreement. Remember what you are getting into when you move into a home, so you will know what to expect when you move out. Your lease will tell you what you are responsible for and the rules you must follow to be in good standing with your landlord.

Don’t Confuse Last Month’s Rent With the Deposit

Some landlords believe they can use last month’s rent for the same reasons a security deposit can, such as non-payment of rent or damage to the property. Some tenants believe they can apply for a security deposit for last month’s rent. However, this is not the case, unless expressly written into the lease agreement. It is crucial to outline the collection of each in your lease agreement thoroughly to avoid confusion. 

If you have paid a sum of money specified as “last month’s rent” before moving into a rental unit, you can surely use it to pay the final month’s rent before you vacate. That money cannot be used to pay for damages caused by the tenant or to clean the rental property after the tenant moves out.

Give Proper Notice to Move-Out

Rules surrounding lease termination differ from state to state and lease to lease. Generally, a tenant is expected to give the landlord at least 30 days’ notice when moving out. You may be required to pay an additional month’s total rent if you did not give your landlord proper notice. You might also have to wait a long time to get your security deposit back.

If you are leaving before your lease term ends, you can try to find another tenant to rent the property. If you do not, and the landlord does not re-rent the unit quickly, you might owe rent until the end of the lease term, and your security deposit will quickly be used up.

Know Your Rights as a Tenant

The laws governing renters’ rights and security deposit vary depending on location. Landlords must comply with strict guidelines on how and when to return security deposits. Landlords may face hefty penalties or lose the deposit entirely if these laws are violated. A San Francisco landlord-tenant lawyer can help you know what you are entitled to as a tenant.

How the Landlord May Use the Deposit

State law determines what your landlord may deduct from your security deposit under your rental lease agreement. The general rule is that tenants are not responsible for normal wear and tear. Most states prohibit using the security deposit to cover the cost of normal wear and tear. Normal wear and tear refer to ordinary wear that occurs through regular use, such as a worn-out pathway on the carpet or smudges on the wall.

In most states, a landlord can use the security deposit for the following purposes:

  • To cover the cost of a tenant’s default on rent
  • To clean the rental unit so they are as clean as when you moved in
  • To repair damage not resulting from normal wear and tear

When the Landlord Must Return the Deposit

On or before twenty-one days from the date the tenant moved out of the rental unit, the landlord must provide the tenant, by personal delivery, by first-class mail, or by email, the following: 

  • A copy of an itemized statement indicating the amount of any security deposit received and how the deposit has been applied toward back rent, cleaning, and repairs
  • Any remaining portion of the security deposit
  • A list of proposed deductions before they are made (if required by your state)

Inspect the Property after Moving Out

Some states have laws that require the landlord or property owner to notify the tenant of a scheduled inspection. Most landlords and property managers will schedule a walk-through of your unit before your move-out date to identify damage and make any major repairs needed before they list the unit again.

Repair Any Damages

This is the most common area where landlords deduct money from your security deposit. Once you have identified potential issues or damages and talked about what needs to be repaired during your walk-through, you can spend your last month in the property fixing anything required.

Deep Cleaning

One of the most important things you can do to ensure you get your full security deposit back is to fully clean out your unit. Take photos of your rental unit after it is cleaned, preferably during the walk-through with your landlord. This will create a good record of the move-out condition that can be referenced in case any issues arise on getting your deposit back. 

Follow Up With the Landlord

If you have done your part and your landlord is still withholding your security deposit, you may send your landlord a letter and try to reach an agreement. The agreement is a legal contract. You can go to small claims court if the landlord fails to honor it. 

Your demand letter should:

  • Cite state security deposit law.
  • Ask for exactly what you want, such as your total deposit amount, within ten days.
  • Include copies of relevant letters and agreements, such as your notice to move out.
  • Concisely review the main facts and justify why your landlord owes you money.
  • Say that you will promptly sue in small claims court if necessary.

Sue in Small Claims Court

If the tenant and landlord cannot agree, the tenant can sue the landlord about the security deposit return. A tenant may be able to recover monetary damages that amount to two to three times the security deposit, attorney fees, and court costs. 

A tenant may sue a landlord for:

  • Failing to return the security deposit
  • Failing to provide an itemized statement within the time required by law
  • Overcharging for the cost of repairs and/or cleaning
  • Failing to pay interest if their state or municipality requires it

The Role of San Francisco Landlord-Tenant Attorney in Protecting Your Security Deposit

Securing the return of your security deposit does not have to be a painful process. By protecting your deposit, you can ensure you get your money back when you move out and build a better rental history while following the law and avoiding unnecessary charges.

If you believe that your landlord has wrongfully withheld your security deposit, it may be worthwhile to consult with a San Francisco landlord-tenant lawyer at Steven Adair MacDonald & Partners, P.C. to explore your legal options. We have extensive experience handling landlord-tenant disputes and other real estate law issues.

With the help of our landlord-tenant law firm, you can protect your money and ensure a speedy return of your security deposit by taking a few proactive steps and familiarizing yourself with the law. Let us help you with ways to protect your security deposit and tips for tenants to ensure they get their money back. Contact us now to schedule an initial consultation and learn more about how we can help you protect your tenant’s rights.

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