Housing Hacks: Get That Security Deposit Back


We've all heard stories about really lousy landlords and, thanks to military moves, we might even encounter one ourselves every once in a while. But far more often we encounter basically good landlords who have made some mistakes, or cases of simple miscommunication.

No matter the reason for your landlord disdain, as the renter you have a number of legal rights and protections that you should know about. If any of these come up, your best course of action is to talk to a legal assistance officer in your local JAG office. They can provide you with free advice and, in some cases, even negotiate with the landlord on your behalf.

Perhaps the most common area of dispute between landlords and tenants involves the security deposit. Landlords will typically demand a security deposit (usually in the amount of one month's rent) up front at the start of the lease. The idea is that they will keep that money if the apartment is damaged. Security deposits like these are traditional and common, if not universal. And the landlord is required by law to return that deposit promptly at the end of the lease if there is no damage.

But problems arise when the landlord improperly keeps that deposit.

First, in many states, the land-lord must return the security deposit within 20 or, in some states, 30 days after the tenant has moved out and turned in the keys. If you owe anything for damages or back rent, those must be specifically listed in writing. If the landlord fails to do that, he could be forced to pay you double damages (for example, in Rhode Island the tenant will get twice the amount the land-lord improperly retained, in Massachusetts it is three times the amount) and your attorney fees. Again, these vary by state so, check with a local attorney or Legal Assistance Office.

The landlord can deduct both repair costs and unpaid rent from the security deposit. However, there are some important limitations. First, they can only deduct unpaid rent for rent owed. They cannot deduct for future unpaid rent. That means that if a lease is terminated early and the keys turned in, the landlord cannot use the deposit to pay for future rent that he or she lost.

Damages can also be deducted. The big limitation here is that the damage cannot be for "normal wear and tear."

But determining what "damage" is and what is "wear and tear" can be difficult to say the least. The best way to explain it is by providing examples. Wear and tear include: frayed carpets in the "high traffic areas," scrapes near the doors from moving furniture, reasonable nail holes from hanging pictures and a refrigerator that no longer works because of a worn out seal or hose.

Damage, on the other hand, would include: broken windows; holes in the walls; burns in the carpet; and just about any damage caused by a pet. A gray area is significant and unreasonable filth and/or mess.

There are a number of things you can do to protect yourself and your deposit

- If the land-lord demands more than one-month's rent, bring the rental agreement to the JAG office for review. Many states forbid that.

- Pay careful attention to the original agreements. Particularly note who is responsible for what as far as repairs and maintenance are concerned.

- Before you move in, take a few general pictures of the apartment and then take close-ups of anything that looks damaged before you moved in. For example crayon on the walls in the second bedroom, a cracked window, or a dented appliance.

- Get permission before doing any maintenance or painting. Depending on what color you choose, painting could be considered "damage."

- Make sure you and your guests comply with smoking and pet policies.

When it is time to move out, arrange a walk-through. Once it is over, if there is no damage, have them sign a note stating that they have received all the keys from you, that you are moved out, and that there was no damage. If there was damage, document it and determine what the land-lord plans to do for repairs. The JAG office can assist you with this process.

And at the first hint of trouble? Contact your Legal Assistance Officer. They will inform you of all your rights and make sure you are in as secure a legal position as possible.


Captain Matthew "Matt" Reid, is an Army Judge Advocate currently the full time Attorney Advisor for the Rhode Island. Prior to direct commissioning into the JAG Corps, he served as an enlisted intelligence analyst for 10 years.

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