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Get back your security deposit: When your landlord does (and doesn't) have to pay up

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The thought of handing a landlord hundreds or thousands of dollars as a security deposit can inspire stomach aches in even the most battle-scarred of renters--not only does it tie up your funds, it also sets the stage for the almost inevitable fight to get it back when you're ready to move out. 

Don't stress out. Instead, read up on the essentials of security deposits, and make note of these tips to get your money back:

  • Take photos of your apartment when you move in, especially any parts that look damaged already. That's photographic proof that you found your place a certain way, making it more difficult for your landlord to claim that you caused any problems. 
  • Know that your landlord can only deduct legal fees out of your security deposit if he waged a successful case against you and was awarded the money in court. So if your landlord's ever filed a bogus or unsuccessful suit against you, you're off the hook.
  • If you have a month-to-month lease, or give your landlord proper notice that you're moving out before the end of your lease (check what's required in your lease), he has no right to keep your deposit (unless, of course, there's damage to the apartment).
  • Similarly, your landlord can't keep your cash if you broke your lease but found a qualified tenant as a replacement, as long as the landlord didn't spend any additional money in the process.

All that said, there are some cases in which your landlord is well within her rights to keep some or all of your cash--such as when you don't pay the rent or damage the apartment beyond normal wear and tear, like nails in walls or lightly scratched floors--or even leaving the walls a different color than you found them.

And if you've ripped up your apartment so much that the deposit doesn't cover all the repairs, you better believe your landlord can go after you for the extra money.

Related:

Security deposit self-defense: what you need to know now

How to break a lease in NYC

Rent Coach: Can my landlord charge me more than my security deposit for repairs?

Rent Coach: fair and foul play with security deposits

A landlord deducts $500 out of a security deposit for legal fees. Is this allowed?

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