Most renters want their entire security deposit back ASAP. We get it. Moving is pretty pricey and getting your security deposit back can make a big difference, especially if you want to schedule a moving truck or decorate your new rental unit. And if you’ve kept your home in good condition, you don’t want to wait long to get your security deposit refund. 

How you move out can impact how much of your security deposit you’ll get returned... and when. To get the full amount of your security deposit back, plan your cleaning and move-out ahead of time, and  exercise your rights if you feel your security deposit refund isn’t being handled correctly. 

How to get your security deposit back when you move-out

Prepare ahead of moving out

1. Take photos when you move in

The first step to moving out properly happens right as you move into a new place. When you first arrive at your new place, be sure to have your camera handy. It’s best to take photos of your apartment prior to you living there, especially if there is any pre-existing damage. Double down by documenting any pre-existing damage in an itemized list for your landlord, and follow up with them about getting the damages repaired as soon as possible. In New York, your landlord is required to offer to conduct an inspection of the apartment with you when you first move in. That’s the time to address any pre-existing damage. If your property manager or landlord doesn’t manage to repair the damage or if something keeps breaking, you’ll have proof that you didn’t cause the initial issue. 

2. Give written notice

One of the golden rules of moving: Always provide your landlord or property manager with written notice, preferably well in advance before the end of the lease. Sometimes your lease agreement will specify how far in advance you need to provide proper notice when moving out. For example, in New York, most rental agreements will specify how many days’ notice you will need to alert your landlord that you will be vacating. Be sure to take a second look at your lease so you don’t break any rules that could cost you or deduct from your security deposit.  

Written notice usually comes in the form of a letter that includes the following:

  1. Your address and, if you have one, a unit number

  2. The date the letter was written 

  3. That you will vacate on a specific move-out date or before the end of your tenancy

  4. The day you plan on moving out

  5. A timeframe you’re available for a move-out inspection with your landlord

  6. Your new forwarding address and a request for information about your security deposit refund

3. Find a sublet if you’re leaving early

Are you relocating for a new job or have you found a prime piece of real estate prior to the end of your lease? Be sure to find someone responsible and that you trust to take your place.  It’s important to find a new tenant to take over the lease to avoid breaking the lease and damaging your credit. Be sure to check your lease agreement before you seek out a sublet. Some lease agreements don’t allow for sublets or have specific rules for new tenants taking over a lease. In some cases, they may have to pay their own security deposit for you to get yours back. 

Image of two renters packing a car with boxes

4. Clean up before you head out

How you clean your rental unit matters more than you think. Landlords often hire a cleaning service after you move out, but if the cleaning charges are more than expected, they can use part of your security deposit to cover the bill. Additionally, there may be some small repairs you need to make while cleaning to ensure that you won’t be charged for what’s called “normal wear.” 

Before you move out, remember to clean and repair your rental unit, starting with this list: 

  • Patch and repaint any large holes in walls 

  • Repaint your apartment to a neutral color, often pre-approved by the landlord

  • Treat stains in rug caused by pets and eliminate any odors also caused by pets  

  • Remove water stains on hardwood floors and window sills

  • Clean off sticky surfaces including those inside drawers and cabinets

  • Unclog toilets and drains

  • Reattach doors to their hinges 

  • Replace broken tiles or treat scuffed hardwood floors 

  • Deep clean the bathroom and kitchen

In some cases, the lease agreement can outline all minor repairs as the renter’s responsibility. Normal wear-and-tear such as nail holes and older, broken appliances are not the renter's responsibility. Be mindful of this when cleaning, and be sure to take photos of yourself making repairs and cleaning. 

5. Take pictures... again 

The proof is in the pictures. Take photos of any repairs or cleaning that you’ve done any time before, during, and after a lease. By documenting the repairs you’ve done, you can clear yourself from any charges that you may not be responsible for. 

When you have your final walkthrough, these pictures, as well as your move-in checklist will be vital. When you hand in your keys, you can address any concerns that arise during the final inspection with your move-in checklist and your photographic evidence. This will help reduce the cost of repairs that you’re responsible for, and help you get more of your security deposit back. 

What can your landlord use your security deposit for? 

In most states, security deposits sit in an escrow account, meaning your landlord legally can’t touch your deposit money until after your lease ends. 

Once your lease is done, they can then use part of the security deposit to cover the following:

  1. Any excessive wear-and-tear that you may have caused during the lease 

  2. Any unpaid rent

  3. Cleaning expenses to restore the condition of the unit 

You are not responsible for what is considered normal wear, such as nail holes, faded paint, warped cabinets or minor carpet stains. 

Image of a renter giving her landlord written notice to get her security deposit back

ProTip: Don’t skip out on last month’s rent. A lot of renters think that they don’t have to pay last month’s rent because the amount of the security deposit is equal to rent. If you skip the last month of rent, you’ll lose your full deposit. In New York, it’s illegal to ask for a renter to pay for last month’s rent upfront. 

Know your rights

As a renter, you have a right to know how your security deposit will be used, and a right to push back against your landlord if you feel they are using your security deposit unfairly.

When you move out, your landlord is required to send the following to you regarding your security deposit, usually within two-three weeks:    

  1. An itemized statement detailing every single thing your security deposit is being used for, including specific repairs, unpaid rent or fees, or specific cleaning costs

  2. The remainder of your security deposit, including state or city specific interest charges that they are required to pay 

Some states require that landlords send you a list of itemized deductions prior to using your security deposit. These states provide more time for you to resolve your issues with your landlord prior to taking action in small claims court. 

How to take your landlord to small claims court

All this and you’re still not seeing a refund of your deposit? If your landlord is not communicating with you despite having your new address, you can take your property manager to small claims court or draft a demand letter. Remember that you need to show proof that you emailed, called, and even texted for information about your security deposit, and that your landlord has missed the deadline in returning your security deposit.  

Prior to heading to small claims court, consider writing a demand letter with or without the help of an attorney. A demand letter is a letter that demands the return of the security deposit, sent directly to your landlord. It’s often considered as your last course of action to get your security deposit back before court. 

Remember the following when writing and sending a demand letter: 

  1. Document the facts or your side of the story. (Remind them that you have proof.)

  2. Ask for the exact dollar amount that you are owed, even if it’s not the full deposit.

  3. Give them a deadline for returning your security deposit.

  4. Provide your forwarding address for them to get in touch with you. 

  5. Use certified mail to send it.

If a demand letter doesn’t receive a timely reply,  you may need to seek out legal help or aid to head to small claims court. Connect with a lawyer to see if your deposit qualifies for small claims court or housing court. Most states specify what dollar amount qualifies for small claims court. A lot of small claims courts address lawsuits that are filed over $10,000 or less. An experienced attorney can help navigate filing small claims court lawsuits, or you can go it alone for less money out of your pocket. 

At Rhino, we know it can be difficult to get your entire security deposit back. In fact, a recent Rhino survey revealed that 59% of renters right now are not confident that they would get their full security deposit back. Instead of taking photos, cleaning excessively, waiting, and sometimes fighting for your security deposit from your landlord, ask if your rental property offers Rhino. Our security deposit alternative provides your property manager with the same protection a traditional cash deposit does, without giving you a headache. Get a quote today.

a headshot image featuring kt heins-nagamoto
KT Heins-Nagamoto

KT Heins-Nagamoto is a senior brand writer at Rhino. They advocate for security deposit alternatives and renter rights in everything they write.