Getting Your Security Deposit Back after Renting an Apartment

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The following is a post by MPFJ staff writer, SK. SK writes about the reasons we get into debt, changing the patterns that get us into debt, and examines small business ownership and real estate investing at her blog, American Debt Project.

Part of the reason why I accumulated debt so easily over the years was how frequently I moved. Although I enjoyed the chance to live in so many different places, I never considered the financial impact of not settling down in one place. 

All of those moving costs, new furniture, and security deposits have added up over the years. But when it comes to security deposits, I have finally figured out how to protect myself as a tenant in order to receive the maximum security deposit when I move out. Here are the lessons I have learned over the years when it comes to getting your landlord to refund your deposit promptly:

Know Your Rights

Landlord and Tenant protection laws are set by the state and city you live in. In California, there is an entire set of guidelines, and several cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have additional regulations. For example, in Los Angeles there is rent stabilization that limits most landlords from increasing rent more than 3-4% per year. I have seen instances where landlords in LA charged my friends more than that, and I pushed them to go back and demand they correct it. When it comes to security deposits, the laws are pretty clear about the following:

  • How long the landlord has to return your security deposit (In California it is 21 days)

  • What can and can’t be taken out from your security deposit (unpaid rent-yes, replacing a carpet with normal wear and tear-no)

  • How much can be charged for certain items: In California, landlords can deduct the cost of cleaning or repairs to original condition up to $125 without sending you an itemized invoice. If you knew this, it would be a lot easier to dispute a $175 cleaning fee.

Document Everything

It will be a lot easier to show your landlord that you left the apartment in good condition if you take pictures. Did you pay to have the carpet cleaned while you lived there? Keep the receipt! Make sure to take photos when you move in to document existing damage as well as when you move out to show how you left the unit. 

Before you relinquish the keys, take note of every possible item that you might be charged for and if possible, have an approach to not getting charged for it. I was really nervous that my landlord would charge me for the damage to the corner of a cabinet that my dog had chewed. Thankfully, she didn’t charge me anything, but if she had, I would be protected from paying the entire cost of the cabinet, since the cabinet was not new upon move-in. Knowing these things made me more comfortable and ready to handle any charges that might come my way.

Start with the Friendly Approach

I was lucky in this last move I just completed (and hopefully one of my last renting experiences!). I got back $1225 from a $1350 deposit, the $125 fee being for cleaning. If I wanted, I could have argued for the fee, but I was pleased enough with not getting charged any pet fees or damage fees that I let it go. 

However, in the apartment before this one, the process was not as easy. The management company not only didn’t want to return my $300 security deposit, they wanted another $600, most of which was for replacing a carpet and damage to the paint. When I got that notice, I was inflamed. I tended to get more angry back then! I immediately started writing an angry, righteous letter detailing all of the reasons why I didn’t owe them, they owed me. Later that day, I told my friend, who is a politician, about the issue. He spends all day negotiating with people and making people feel good. I figured whatever advice he gave me would probably work. He immediately told me not to send the letter. “Why don’t you go down there and talk with them?” He told me to go in with an easy, friendly approach, and if I showed them I hoped they would help me, they would be more willing to be reasonable than if I had sent an angry letter. 

So, I went in and spoke with one of the community managers (it was a huge complex) and it worked! They charged me $100 for cleaning, and I got my $200 security deposit refund back a couple weeks later. Lesson learned: don’t start off on the defensive when someone is holding your money. If you’re reasonable, they can be reasonable too (most of the time).

Renting can be expensive and most of us don’t want to rent forever. But you can always take these steps to protect yourself in the meantime. 

How about you all? Do you have any great tips on getting your maximum security deposit back?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

    ***Photo courtesy of


    1. John S @ Frugal Rules says:

      Great tip on documenting everything! We did this when we rented and it saved us a few times. We actually had to take our last landlord to court as they would not return our deposit. Thankfully we had kept very good records which resulted for a ruling in our favor and were able to get the deposit back.
      My recent post Frugal Friday: Blog Posts That Ruled This Week, More of the Same Edition

    2. myfijourney says:

      Tips from my many stays in apartments:

      – Make an effort to clean the place up. Most apartment walk throughs are relatively half-assed affairs.

      – Be friendly to the property managers throughout your stay. If they like you, they'll be more likely to keep the minimum.

      – Take photos when you move in and document a lot.

      – Minimize the security deposit if possible. It's a lot easier for a landlord to keep money they already have than to give you a new bill.

      – If you have pets, consider your deposit gone. Not just the pet deposit, but the regular one too.

      – Don't debate the cleaning fee. The apartment owner can charge whatever they want. And cleaning is easy. If you lived there, your apartment will never be as clean as when you moved in.
      My recent post Financial Independence and Retirement – Let’s get our definitions straight

    3. studentdebtsurvivor says:

      I've always gotten mine back in full without any struggles. I guess I've just been really lucky. I keep a very clean apartment, so if I got charged for anything I would be pretty pissed.
      My recent post Big Beer Companies Paid Me $350 Last Year

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