End of the Lease: Protect Your Security Deposit

Here in Madison, we're getting close to the August 15 madness, where a bajillion (it feels like) apartments turn over from one set of tenants to another. For those of you who haven't experienced this, it's mayhem. So we're trying to get all those tenants out there ready to go. 

As a tenant, there are steps you can take to protect your security deposit as your lease is ending. This post is about the ways you can make sure your security deposit is as refundable as possible.

Here's the Plan:

1. Take Photos! 

If the landlord says that something was damaged, and you know that it wasn't, you'll need to be able to prove that it wasn't damaged. This works best if you have move-in photos as well, but it's still a really good idea to take photos as you're moving out. 

2. Check-Out & Walk-Thru Isn't Required! So do it anyway and get a witness.

The landlord/manager/leasing agent is NOT required to walk through an apartment with a tenant who is moving out. If they do, great! But if no one is available to walk through with you, here's what you do:
-  Fill out the check-out form! (Don't have one? We do!)
-  Get a witness! it's a great idea to get a witness, preferably someone you don't know all that well (a neighbor, perhaps, but not a family member, good friend, or roommate). Get them to sign your check-out form, saying that it's accurate. Make sure to get a reliable way to contact them, so if there's a problem, you can ask them to help.

3. Get things in writing!

I can't tell you how many people come into our office in September (August 15 + 21 days to return a security deposit = September 5) who say that they walked through with their apartment manager, and the manager said that the unit looked great, and then the tenant ends up with their entire security deposit being deducted. So, if you are lucky enough to get a walk through, here's what you do:
-  Bring a blank piece of paper with you to the walk through.
-  Write down what the manager says. "Looks great!" "I can't believe you got it this clean!" Ask them to sign it. If it's their words, they should go for it. If they won't sign, gosh golly that tells you something. Try to find what they will sign and write that down. (If they won't sign anything, then do it this way: www.tenantresourcecenter.org/write_that_conversation_down).
-  Take a photo (yay smartphones!) and email it to both of you. This will make it more legit - you'll have that emailed date stamp, it's clear that both you and the manager are aware of what was said. If this method isn't easy for you, then make a photocopy and send it right away to the manager.
-  Keep that page until after your security deposit is resolved. Sometimes, it takes a while. Make sure that you keep that sheet of paper until the security deposit, and any charges for damages are totally resolved.

4. Be knowledgeable! Know what can and can't be deducted from your security deposit.

Here's what CAN be deducted from a security deposit:
-  Damage: If you damaged your apartment, in a way that wasn't due to normal wear and tear, then you can be charged for that. You can be charged for cleaning of paint and carpet if you did indeed leave it damaged or abnormally dirty. More about carpets here, but also look at the "routine maintenance" line, below.
-  Unpaid rent: If there is some rent that hasn't been paid, and should have been paid, then that can be deducted from a security deposit.
-  Unpaid utilities: If there are utilities (gas, electricity, etc) which hasn't been paid, and should have been paid, then that can be deducted from a security deposit.
-  Late fees: Late fees can only be charged from a security deposit if your lease allowed late fees in the first place, if your lease had a section called "Non-Standard Rental Provisions," and if that "Non-Standard Rental Provisions" section allowed the late fees to be deducted from your security deposit. More about Non-Standard Rental Provisions here: www.tenantresourcecenter.org/non_standard_rental_provisions.
-  Pet damage: Pet damage can be deducted from a security deposit, even if it was a service or companion animal. If you paid pet rent then tenants may argue that the pet rent should be used to cover those costs. (They might not win! But it's an argument, and it makes sense.)
Unpaid monthly municipal permit fees: These charges are not specifically defined in the law, but they may include mobile home parking fees. ATCP 134.06(3)(a)5

Here's what CANNOT be deducted from a security deposit:
- Normal Wear and Tear: Tenants are not supposed to be charged for normal wear and tear, but the law doesn't really say what, exactly, it is. More information on normal wear and tear is here: www.tenantresourcecenter.com/normal_wear_and_tear.
- Fees that are not in a Non-Standard Rental Provision in your lease. In order to deduct fees from a security deposit, the landlord must allow those fees in the lease, and must say in a Non-Standard Rental Provision that the fees can be deducted from a security deposit. If these two things are not on the lease, then fees cannot be deducted from a security deposit. More here.
- Routine Maintenance: If the landlord cleans every single carpet, regardless of its level of cleanliness, then this could show that the cleaning is routine. Things that are routine, regardless of the state of the apartment, cannot be charged to a security deposit. In the case of carpet cleaning, a new note in ATCP 134.06(3)(c) makes it clear that a landlord can still charge for routine carpet cleaning, but these charges must not be part of a security deposit deduction. Essentially, a landlord would have to sue a tenant as a separate matter from the security deposit for unpaid carpet cleaning charges. Carpet cleaning info here.

5. Feeling suspicious? You can ask for the previous tenant's security deposit deductions.

Tenants can ask for a copy of the previous tenant's security deposit deductions. It's a good idea to do this in writing (it's so hard to prove things that happen verbally), and the list you get back should just be the things they deducted for, not necessarily how much they charged for those things. If you take this step, make sure your letter is clear, but super polite and as non-threatening as possible.

6. Be Really Nice! 

If you are polite, a lot of times, landlords will let tenants fix problems that come up instead of charging them to have it fixed by someone else. One of our staff members had a cordial relationship with her manager, so when he told her that they were planning to bring someone in to do some cleaning (some cabinets were accidentally left dirty when she moved out), she asked if she could come back and do it instead. That was a fine arrangement for the manager, and our staff member didn't have to see that taken off her security deposit.

Upshot: always be as polite as the situation permits, even if you're really frustrated. The results might be really positive.


Want to know more? There's so much more security deposit information on our website:

The main law that governs security deposits for tenants is here: ATCP 134.06.


Hi! Did you know that we are not attorneys here at the TRC?  And this isn't legal advice, either.  If what we've written here doesn't sound right to you, talk about it with someone you trust. For help finding an attorney, check out our attorney referral list.