How To Handle A Security Deposit Dispute

Something that every tenant has had to deal with at one time or another is the issue of your security deposit which you gave to your landlord at the beginning of your lease.  Usually, the security deposit is somewhere between 1 and 3 times your monthly rent. 

This is money put down as a sort of insurance for the landlord in case the tenant does damage to the apartment and just leaves.  

Good tenants rarely have to worry about getting most or all of their security deposit back.  They have taken good care of their apartment and didn’t do any damage above and beyond what would be considered normal wear and tear to their unit.  

Some tenants, however, may feel like they are being screwed out of this money at the end of their lease.  To them, they are leaving their apartment in relatively good condition and feel that they should deserve that money back.  And sometimes they are right on this matter.  

So, what do you do when your landlord says they aren’t going to give your security deposit back but you feel that you deserve to have it returned? 

In this article, I am going to walk you through what landlords can and cannot deduct from your security deposit, what constitutes normal wear and tear, and what to do if you need to dispute the security deposit with your landlord. 

What Can A Landlord Legally Deduct From My Security Deposit?

A landlord can deduct the costs and expenses they must incur in making your apartment like it was when you first started your lease.  “Normal wear and tear” is not considered to be excessive damage and should not be deducted from the tenant’s security deposit. has a great list of things that CAN be deducted from your security deposit and things that CAN’T be deducted from your security deposit.  Go through this list of acceptable charges and unacceptable charges. 

Is your landlord deducting the correct items?  If not, we will talk about how to dispute this with them. 

Things that CAN be deducted from your Security Deposit: 

  • Excessive holes in walls from picture hangers
  • Broken tiles or fixtures in bathrooms
  • Stopped toilet due to misuse
  • Broken walls
  • Removing paint put up by the tenant
  • Tears, holes or burn marks in carpets or curtains
  • Animal stains in the carpet caused by domestic animals or leaking fish tanks
  • Broken windows and window screens
  • Broken doors and locks
  • Appliances broken by negligence
  • Excessive filth in over or on the stove by burners
  • Clogged drains from misuse or negligence
  • Broken or missing window blinds
  • Flea and pest extermination
  • Excessive mildew and mold in bathroom
  • Excessively filthy bathtub, shower, sink, mirrors or toilet

Things that CANNOT be deducted from your Security Deposit:

  • Faded paint or wallpaper due to sunlight
  • Broken plumbing caused by normal use
  • Dirty blinds and curtains
  • Rug wear caused by normal use
  • Furniture marks in carpet
  • Warped doors caused by age, temperature or moisture
  • Warped windows caused by the flow of the glass
  • Dents in walls from door handles
  • Broken appliances, if not from misuse
  • Dusting
  • Faded curtains
  • Broken lightbulbs
  • Replacement batteries for smoke detectors
  • Picture or pin holes in walls, as long as not excessive

So, where does the list of things your landlord is charging you for fall on these two lists?  Are they obvious and evident?  Or is it something that you may want to dispute with your landlord?  

Regardless of what the items are and where they fall on the list, it should give you a pretty good idea of whether the charges are genuine or not.  It also gives you a good resource from here on out, so you can better protect your security deposit at the next place you rent at. 

Are Nail Holes Considered Normal Wear And Tear?

Nail holes are not considered excessive damage unless the nail and pin holes are extensive. 

This is a topic that comes up quite regularly at my apartment complex.  How do you determine what is “excessive” or not?  

While it sounds very subjective and a bit anecdotal, the majority of the time, when my manager calls me and says there were a TON of holes in the walls, I trust him that he knows what he is talking about.  He has done this every day for years and knows what is excessive or not about 10 seconds after he walks in the apartment. 

Apartments are tenants home, and most tenants want to make that home feel as homely as possible, and this consists of hanging things on the walls sometimes.  This is 100% well and good. 

A normal amount of holes in each room can be repaired and the paint touched up relatively quickly and if they have a normal distribution around the apartment in a reasonable quantity, I never make a big deal about it. 

There ARE apartments however that I walk through at the end of the lease that looked more like Swiss Cheese or this: 

Pepe Silvia | Know Your Meme

If my guys are going to be spending hours filling and fixing holes at this level, they are going to have to repaint the entire apartment whether it needed it or not. 

And that is pretty much going to eat up the entire security deposit right there.  

Remember that the apartment has to be given back to the landlord at the end of the lease in the same condition it was when you started renting.  Any expenses, outside of normal wear and tear, must be paid by the tenant to make the unit whole again. 

When Should I Get My Security Deposit Back?

Most states mandate that the landlord return the tenant’s security deposit within 21 days of them moving out. If they are not returning the entire security deposit, they must give the tenant an itemized list of things that need repaired or replaced, and their cost. 

A written, itemized list of the expenses incurred by the landlord is a good thing both for the landlord and the tenant.  This way, the tenant has documentation of just what the landlord needed to do to make the apartment whole again after they left.  This can greatly benefit the tenant in any dispute that comes from leaving the apartment complex. 

For instance, if the landlord says that there were tears in the carpet that need replaced, and you know for SURE that the carpet was in good condition on the day you moved out, this is something you can dispute.  (This is ALSO why taking pictures at the beginning and the end of your rent is SO very important.) 

However, if the list of things that the landlord give you has a tough time being argued against, then more than likely, they are probably right and the deductions are just.  

The biggest disagreements usually come from what the apartment looked like when a tenant moved in and what it looked like when they left.  I can tell you from personal experience that this is the excuse that tenants give me all the time.  “It was like that when we moved in.”  Is a phrase that I hear all the time. 

That is why I instruct my manager to take pictures of everything before they move in and when they move out.  When you can show the tenant the actual evidence on the before and after photos, usually the disagreement goes away pretty quickly. 

On the other end of that scenario, the tenant themselves can use the same technique to their advantage as well.  In this article, there is no better piece of advice I can give you regarding your security deposit than this: “Take pictures of every room on the day you move in, and on the day you move out.”  

Just keep the pictures on your phone, throw them up to the cloud, or store them in a folder on your computer.  That way, when the landlord doesn’t want to give you the whole security deposit back, you know EXACTLY what it was like when you moved in and exactly what it looked like when you moved out.  This is going to solve 99.9999% of disputes right there. 

I rarely have tenants that do this, but I let them take advantage of the pictures my manager takes as well.  If something is broken or damaged, we have the pictures that show it, and we can simply send them to the tenant to show them what we are talking about and why we are deducting that cost from their security deposit.  Without fail, the dispute ends at that point.  

But if we are wrong or mistaken, that works directly to the benefit of the tenant as well. 

Once any disagreement is resolved we make sure to get a check issued to the tenant within 3 weeks of them moving out.  And this is about the timeframe you should expect.  Now, if it is a few days later than this, just give your landlord a friendly reminder. 

They have other things they are doing too, it’s nothing personal that they didn’t get you your money quickly, it happens to everyone.  A gentle call, or even email reminder can get the ball rolling to get you your money back. 

Is My Security Deposit Considered The Last Month’s Rent?

Unless it specifically states in your lease agreement that your security deposit can be considered as the last month’s rent, then it can’t be used for that cost.  The security deposit is there to make sure the apartment can be made whole again after the tenant leaves at the end of the lease. 

I have had this happen more times than I care to count.  A tenant just leaves during the last month, doesn’t pay the rent, and just assumes that I will keep their security deposit as rent for the last month.  

Ok, fine.  But what about the damages and repairs that have to be done to the apartment because of excessive damage?  THAT’S what the security deposit is for, not in lieu of making the last rent payment. 

Unless the apartment is in perfect condition when we go through it after the tenant left, more than likely a small claims court is soon to follow.  Unfortunately, if the tenant is going to skip out on their last month’s rent, more than likely the apartment is going to be in less-than-stellar condition when do the walkthrough.   

Save yourself a ton of time and hassle by making all your monthly payments so this situation doesn’t happen to you. 

How To Dispute My Security Deposit Charges

Many resources online say that security deposit disputes are one of the main reasons why landlords and tenants wind up in court against each other.  I can tell you as a landlord for a long time that this is patently FALSE.  Security deposit disputes can be worked out between the two parties if you have a cool head about it.  

Some sites even talk about going to such lengths as going to mediation.  I can tell you that doing this is not going to be worth the time or money, even IF you have a large security deposit.  These matters can be worked out between two parties fairly quickly, especially if you know what they CAN and CANNOT deduct for, and what condition your apartment is in when you left it. 

I am going to show you how to dispute security deposit charges as a landlord myself, what I look for, and how I respond to the different ways that tenants approach me to dispute these items.  

First and most importantly, TAKE PICTURES OF YOUR APARTMENT WHEN YOU MOVE IN AND WHEN YOU MOVE OUT!  There is nothing more important to settle a dispute with your security deposit than this.  Virtually all disagreements can be settled with photo evidence. 

There isn’t much more to say about this.  It creates an obvious solution to the disagreement, and if you are in the right, you have the photo evidence on your side.  

Next, if you have a disagreement with your landlord when they send you the list of things that are damaged and must be deducted, talk to them about those things specifically.  If you legitimately have a case for something, then don’t hesitate to bring it up to them.  

It can be a bit of an uncomfortable situation because it deals with direct conflict with another party over money, but this is how you need to approach it.  Do not bring your feelings of them personally or the apartment complex as a whole into the situation, that is only going to muddy the situation.  Keep the conversation specifically about the disagreement and nothing more.  

Finally, if your landlord still does not agree with you, then you should file a small claims suit against them.  But this is a last resort.  Again, if you have the photo evidence on your side, you shouldn’t even have to threaten them with small claims because the landlord knows they are not in the right in this instance and they will lose time, money, and court costs.   

If you don’t have photo evidence of your apartment, then a subjective issue such as carpet damage or excessive holes in the walls or a broken slider door can be MUCH harder to win in court.  That is why I cannot stress ENOUGH to take pictures at the beginning of your rental term and the end.   

How I stop security deposit disputes at my complex is by taking these pictures ourselves, even if the tenant decides it’s not worth their time to do.  I have no problem at all showing them the before and after pictures and what we are talking about.  Honestly, every single dispute I have ever had regarding this has been resolved because of this.  

(In another article, I will go through the situation that caused us to implement that policy at our complex, and you will be able to see why it was necessary to implement and how much hassle it has saved both us and our tenants.)

In the end though, it should never get to the court phase.  You should be able to work out the issue with your landlord directly.  Use the resources we have given you above if you need, and make sure you KNOW you are on the right side of the situation before you talk to them.  

Learn more about How To Get Your Security Deposit Back

The easiest way to handle a security deposit dispute is to have photo evidence to present to your landlord.  Be SURE to take pictures of every room in the apartment on the day you move in and again on the day you move out.  This is your biggest tool in working to your favor in any security deposit dispute. 

Talk to your landlord about the issue you think is being unjustly deducted from your security deposit and show them the photos if you have them.  Getting your security deposit back in a timely manner doesn’t have to feel like pulling teeth. 

Be respectful of the apartment, and you will have no problem having your security deposit returned!

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John Boettcher

Co-Founder of Apartment School and a previous renter turned owner of many multi-family properties across the United States, with many years of experience in all aspects of the apartment, real estate, and investing world.

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