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Handling security deposits can be tricky.

Landlords are legally allowed to withhold money from a security deposit for actual damages, whether those damages are financial or material. 

This could include deducting money if the tenant owes you past due rent or fees, or if they caused damage beyond normal wear and tear. 

Landlords also have the option of keeping all or part of a security deposit in cases where the tenant has breached the lease agreement, as a way of recovering any losses resulting from that breach. 

However, you should be aware of you and your tenant's legal rights when it comes to security deposits and withhold only what is necessary for damages as these may vary from state to state.

Below, we'll talk about what you can withhold from a security deposit as well as questions such as:

  • What is normal wear and tear (and what isn't)
  • How to prove it with proper documentation to protect yourself as the landlord
  • And more

Let's get started.

What is a security deposit?

A security deposit is a sum of money paid by the tenant to the landlord at the beginning of a tenancy, usually equivalent to one month's rent.

This deposit exists to financially protect landlords in case tenants cause any damage or don't pay rent before leaving.

This way, both landlord and tenant can have peace of mind knowing that there is money set aside to cover these potential expenses.

Unfortunately, on move-out day, some landlords find their units damaged with broken windows, stains in the carpeting, or holes in the walls. In these instances, the security deposit comes into use.

What can a landlord withhold from a security deposit

Part 1: What can a landlord withhold from a security deposit?

You can only withhold money for actual damages from a tenant's security deposit, whether those damages are material or financial.

But 'damages' doesn't just refer to physical property damage.

This also includes the ability to deduct money if the tenant owes past due rent or other fees, in addition to damage beyond the normal wear and tear expected during a lease term.

Can a security deposit be used to remedy unpaid rent?

If a tenant moves out or stops paying rent during the lease and abandons it, then a landlord will likely have a claim to withhold the missing rent from the security deposit.

Since the previous tenant would be responsible for paying rent during the time the property is no longer receiving rent.

If the vacancy is filled before a full month has passed landlords may need to return any overlapping funds.

Each state can have varying security deposit laws here, so make sure to check your state laws before proceeding.

Part 2: What is considered normal wear-and-tear? (and what isn't)

At this point, you might be wondering exactly what is considered normal wear-and-tear, given that's such a big part of whether you can or can't withhold part of a security deposit.

Many times when a tenant moves out there are additional items to be addressed before having a rental ready for marketing. These typically fall within the category of normal "wear-and-tear".

Examples of normal wear & tear

They can include:

  • Sun-faded walls
  • General wear on carpet
  • De-silvered mirrors
  • And many more items

These and all other wear-and-tear items are the responsibility of the landlord and can't be taken out of the security deposit.

Some additional examples of normal wear and tear items are:

  • Loose grout in bathroom tiles
  • Warped windows due to age or temperature
  • Worn out appliances
  • Shower or tub discoloration from lack of proper ventilation
  • Worn or scratched enamel in sinks or tubs

Cleaning can cause some confusion here. In most cases, regular cleaning should not be charged to a security deposit.

Picking up, sweeping, and disposing of small items generally are not grounds to withhold any fees from the security deposit.

However, in some cases, when a tenant leaves garbage, rotting food, or personal items charges can occur.

What damages are considered beyond normal wear and tear and can be charged against a security deposit?

If a tenant causes damage in a property beyond normal wear and tear then a landlord can use the security deposit to repair those damages.

Some damage is obvious, such as:

  • Holes in walls
  • Broken cabinets, or
  • Stains on carpets

But landlords should be aware that some damages are not immediately visible, such as:

  • Plumbing issues
  • Missing smoke detectors
  • Or even broken or damaged blinds

Landlords should always document any damage before and after a tenant moves out to ensure accurate records for any deductions from the security deposit.

Do tenants always get charged to repaint units?

Many landlords paint each unit between each tenant.

This means that the full cost of painting the unit can't always be deducted from the security deposit.

Paint is a normal wear-and-tear item. It has a lifespan that often outlives the time a tenant lives in a property.

However, if a tenant repaints or causes significant damage– beyond normal wear and tear– landlords are able to deduct the cost of repainting to return it to its original state. 

Landlords should always look at the severity of the damage and factor that into any deduction from the security deposit.

Part 3: How do landlords prove how much to take out of the security deposit?

The best practice for landlords is to perform a thorough move-in inspection with the tenant and document any and all damage before the tenant moves into the property.

Photographing each and every room and taking note of all damage or imperfection. The more photos the better.

This move-in report will set a baseline for the tenant to uphold. Once the tenant moves out a similar move-out condition report should be completed.

This should include photo documentation of each room and all damage found after the tenant has vacated.

These two reports should be contrasted against one another to help in determining what damages are tenant caused and which damage is normal wear and tear. 

After determining who is responsible for all damages, it's important that the landlord provides receipts to prove the amounts deducted from the deposit.

Subtracting money from the security deposit without records of damage to the property or repairs made could send you to small claims court.

To get you started in the right direction, download our free rental inspection checklist:

Rental inspection checklist

Part 4: How Long Does A Landlord Have To Return A Security Deposit?

After making all the necessary deductions, the landlord has to return any leftover security deposit within a certain amount of time.

In some states, this is two weeks after the tenancy ends; in others, it's up to 60 days. Check your state's law to be sure. 

Landlords must usually provide supporting documentation along with the deposit, such as itemized receipts for repairs and cleaning. 

If a landlord fails to return the security deposit within the state-mandated timeframe, tenants can often seek damages in small claims court.

It is important for landlords to understand their rights when it comes to deducting from a tenant’s security deposit. 

Landlords should always ensure that deductions are within legal boundaries and make sure to document any damage or repairs made with photos and/or receipts. 

By thoroughly documenting damages and taking proper steps, landlords can protect themselves in the event that a tenant decides to dispute security deposit charges after they’ve moved out of the property.

What are my state's security deposit laws?

While these general guidelines are useful, the reality is that every state has different laws regarding security deposits.

To find out more about what your state's deposit laws are, check out our resource page which includes a comprehensive list of landlord-tenant laws for every state, including:

  • Security deposits
  • Evictions
  • And more

See your state's specific security deposit laws here.

David Bitton

David is the co-founder & CMO of DoorLoop, a best-selling author, legal CLE speaker, and real estate investor. When he's not hanging with his three children, he's writing articles here!