The Return of the Security Deposit: How to Get Your Deposit Back Quickly and Completely


By Michael D. Stewart, OPRHC Director of Technical Assistance and Marketing

Many tenants expect to get their security deposit returned on the day that they move out of their apartment. However, the purpose of the security deposit is so the building owner can pay for any necessary cleaning or repairs after the tenant leaves. Therefore, getting your security deposit returned promptly will take a little more time and a little planning.

Moving out and returning the keys to the owner is just the start of the process. The owner actually has 30 days to assess the apartment and make sure that it is in good condition and that there are no outstanding rent payments or utilities due. If the owner does find some items that need to be fixed or paid for, he has up to 45 days to return the balance of the deposit to you.

My job here at the Oak Park Regional Housing Center is to give technical assistance and advice to our area building owners and managers. In my years working with them, I have heard from many owners who have been frustrated with the poor condition in which apartments were left. They then have to hire repair and cleaning professionals to get the apartment back to a decent condition, and these extra costs are then deducted from the exiting tenant’s security deposit. Most owners would rather the apartment was left in great shape so they could just return the whole deposit.

Over the years, I have compiled some tips that can help you, the tenant, get your full security deposit back in a short period of time.

  • Start planning for your deposit return when you first move into the apartment. Review the details of your lease to learn the required process for notifying the owner that you will be leaving. Take photos and make a written inventory of the current move-in condition. Walk through the apartment room by room (preferably with the owner or manager), noting the current condition of each room. Assess the current condition of the carpeting or hardwood floors, the walls, the ceiling, fixtures, and other details. If the owner or manager is with you, have them review your assessment and sign and date the bottom of the form.
  • Schedule a meeting with the owner to do a final walk through of the apartment when you know the date that you will be completely moved out. You should have your photos and signed checklist from when you moved in. If the owner points out any damage, you can review the notes and photos.
  • Make sure the owner has your new address. I get calls from owners and managers that I work with saying that they have the security deposit to return, but no address to send it to. Make it as easy as possible for the owners to send you the deposit: I recommend that exiting tenants give the owner a self-addressed stamped envelope. This extra step might just translate into getting the money faster.
  • Follow up. If you want to follow-up again, you can also email or call the owner about 2-3 weeks after the move-out date, requesting the security deposit back. Be polite, not demanding, and include your new mailing address.
  • Leave the apartment back in the same or better condition than when you first moved in. You do not have to get your apartment back to market condition; however, spend some time cleaning the kitchen and bath area. Some owners will send you a detailed sheet of cleaning standards they expect when you move out. Some owners even itemize each area to be cleaned and what they will deduct if it is not clean enough. Pay particular attention to the stove top, oven, broiler, refrigerator, freezer, cabinets, drawers, sinks, toilets, medicine cabinet and window treatments.
  • Remove all belongings when you move out. This tip sounds simple but it is often overlooked. Some tenants consider leaving some items for the next tenant such as hangers and cleaning supplies, but I know some owners that deduct for each hanger left behind! Getting rid of everything includes making arrangements and paying extra for the refuse company to take your extra furniture and items that will not fit into the dumpster. Owners will deduct from your security deposit if they have to pay extra fees or fines to get rid of items you left in the alley or in your storage locker.

Waiting for the return of your security deposit can be stressful, but some planning and insight in the security deposit return process will hopefully make this process a little easier.