Will I Get My Security Deposit Back If I Move Out Early?

When something isn’t going as you’d planned with your living arrangement, for whatever reason, you need to break the lease and move on to somewhere else.  But you have a question… Will I Get My Security Deposit Back If I Move Out Early? 

In most instances, because the lease was broken, the landlord will take the security deposit and credit it towards how many months left you had on the lease for payment. 

Now, there are definitely exceptions to this which we will go over, but for the majority of situations that may arise, the landlord is going to keep the security deposit, and usually for good reason. 

Can I Keep My Security Deposit If I Break The Lease?

If you are the one breaking the lease, chances are that you are not going to get your security deposit back. 

When you go into sign a lease with an apartment complex, that is a debt that you have for the FULL AMOUNT of the term of the lease.   

So, if rent is $1,000 a month, and the term of the lease is 12 months, that means that the moment you sign the lease, you owe a debt to the landlord for $12,000, they are simply accepting the repayment of that debt over a 12-month time frame.  

The time frame doesn’t take away the fact that you still owe the full amount agreed upon at the beginning of the contract.  

There are some exceptions to this…

I have had people from time to time come to stay at my complex, and their work suddenly transferred them to another city or state.  They had at least 6 months left on their lease and they come to me and ask if there is any way they can get out of their lease.  

In a case like this, as long as their apartment is in great condition, I am more than happy to tear up the lease and give them their deposit back, and wish them well in life.   If it is a situation like that, your landlord can make a judgment call on what they think is fair.  

But remember, even IF you are in a situation like that, where you are transferred to another city or state, you STILL are on the hook for the rest of the balance on your lease.  As draconian as that sounds, that’s how a contract works.   

An idea that may help you in this situation is to find someone else to take over your lease, or just sublet your apartment out altogether.  Now, you are going to have to ask your landlord or the manager whether or not they allow subletting.   

If they know you are actively looking for someone to simply assume your lease, they will more than likely allow this in most any situations as long as the person passes the hoops in the application process just like any other tenant.   

I wrote an article solely on Subletting that can help you navigate the waters of subletting, what you can and can’t do, what you are still responsible for, and how subletting can work for and against you. 

The manager or landlord may just let you out of your lease at this point, seeing that you are actively trying to find a replacement due to your situation.  Again, you have to have been a Great Tenant while you were staying there and have kept the apartment as clean as you got it the day you moved in.  

If you are in a completely different situation where you broke the lease for another reason, as in, you broke one of the terms of the lease, you are probably NOT going to be getting the security deposit back.   There are a couple of reasons for that. 

First, if you are breaking the lease, you are probably moving out before the term of the lease has rolled over to a month-to-month, so you will have a balance on that account.   Your landlord is going to use the money of the security deposit first to help settle the balance of what you still owe. 

If you have 4 months left on a lease that is $1,000 a month, that means you still owe $4,000 to the landlord, whether you are staying there or not.  Let’s say your security deposit was $1,500.  If you break the lease, you still owe the full $4,000, but your landlord will use that first $1,500 against your balance, so the amount in cash you would have to come up with is $2,500.  

This is ONLY if you are leaving your apartment in perfect condition, however.  Normally, the security deposit is used to cover any damages that have been done to the property while the tenant was living in it.  If they did no damage, then there is no need for it and the deposit is returned.  

If you are breaking the lease because you literally broke something on the lease, or just decided to up and leave, you are still going to owe the entire amount to the landlord AND you will lose your deposit.

If the apartment is damaged past what even what the security deposit would cover, your landlord does have the right to come after you for damages.  

Can A Landlord Charge Me For Painting After I’ve Moved Out?

If the walls of the apartment were damaged, either physically or chemically by smoke or other substances, your landlord has the right to use the money from your security deposit to repaint the apartment.  

Now, different states have different rules about this for the “normal” situation of someone staying in an apartment for a period of time and then getting angry, when after being there for a few years, your landlord keeps their deposit at the end of it claiming they have to paint to make it whole again.   

Is this right?  

Again, different states have different laws about this. If we are talking about a normal tenant who has stayed in the unit for more than a year or so, I PERSONALLY would consider me repainting the apartment MY cost, not the tenant.  But this is only if the tenant had kept really good condition of the apartment and has stayed AT LEAST a year, but probably more than 2. 

If someone comes in and leaves before the year is up, USUALLY, the apartment is not in very good condition when we come to do the walkthrough.  So, it’s normally a given for these situations that I am going to use some of that money to make the apartment whole again.  

Additionally, any marks on the walls, scuffs, or holes will be a good reason for the landlord to use that money for painting the apartment.  Many times, just painting one area isn’t going to look the same as the rest of the paint, and so the entire unit needs to be repainted.  This is why I can’t stress enough to people that taking care of your apartment is HUGE for your pocketbook.  

Now, if a person has been living in the unit for 5 years or more straight and I walk in there and the walls are all scuffed up and marked on, but there is no major holes or anything, I don’t even think twice, I just pay for the painting out of my own pocket.  At this point, it is considered “normal wear and tear”, and I as a landlord have no problem with that at all.  

How Can I Break My Lease Without Losing My Security Deposit?

If you want to break your lease and get your security deposit back, you MUST give your landlord a good reason why they should. 

Remember back to the beginning of the article when I said that when you signed the lease, you are signing to pay a debt back over the period of a year.  The landlord is going to lose money on having you as a tenant and is now going to have to spend more money to get someone new in.  So, you are going to have a big hurdle at first just breaking the lease, and secondly, getting your security deposit back. 

The easiest way to do this is with a good, valid reason, like “my work just transferred me and I have no choice in the matter”.   I would like to think of myself as a pretty reasonable landlord.  If a tenant comes to me and tells me this, I am going to do everything in my power to help them with their transition, even though I know I’m not going to make as much as I originally thought.  I realize that life happens and that sometimes things aren’t the other person’s fault. 

However, if the tenants were problem tenants who didn’t take good care of the place, and just left, and then askes if they are going to get their deposit back… uh, no.   Not a chance.  It will literally cost 3-4 TIMES the security deposit to end up making that apartment whole again.  And more than likely, I am not going to see any of the rest of the money in the lease contract that I am owed.  

In the end, if you have a really good reason you should get your deposit back, a rational landlord will give it back to you, but you have to have been a good tenant and taken good care of the apartment as a whole for that to happen. 

The best way to get your security deposit back if you have to move out of your apartment early is to have a legitimately good reason why your landlord should return that money to you.

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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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