Landlord playing Ebeneezer Scrooge with your security deposit? A well placed demand letter from an attorney can scare a landlord into forking over what’s yours. It might not come to that if you follow these steps:

Your Security Deposit: What Your Landlord Can Keep

The landlord can deduct the reasonable cost of repair beyond normal wear and tear. There is a fine line between damage and normal wear and tear so you need to take steps to make sure you get a full refund.

Normal Wear & Tear Damage
Faded paint or rug from sunlight Murals on the wall or ripped rug
Water stains from a leaky roof Water stains from a window left open
Worn tile or lightly scratched tile Broken tile
Dust Abundant mildew or grime
Small nail holes and tacks Big holes in the wall from TVs or art
Worn laminate countertop Burns on laminate countertop


  • Useful life: You can only be charged for the remaining useful life of an item. For example, if you put a chip in a bathtub meant to last twenty years but it’s at least 7 years old, you can only be charged for the remaining useful life.
  • Modifications or leave behinds: Gather any written communication or voicemails that indicate any agreements to modify the apartment or leave behind furniture. Modifications or leave-behinds might include paint, tile installation, caulk, safety features, air conditioners, a kitchen island or any other upgrades.

When you leave

  • Clean the apartment and remove garbage and junk (especially things that will require difficult trashing or recycling like electronics, air conditioners, or large items). Avoid any improper recycling or trashing that will result in a fine to your landlord.
  • Take pictures of your apartment when you are leaving to dispute any part of the withheld deposit.


Under NYS law, deposits should be returned in a reasonable amount of time after you vacate. After 30 days you should consider taking action to ensure your security deposit comes back to you. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania it is required that the deposit and interest is returned within 30 days of vacating.

Demand Letter to Get Back Your Security Deposit

  • After receiving a partial refund which should include some interest, you should cash the check and draft a letter disputing the deductions with any evidence. If the check comes with language that you waive rights to a full refund, you can still cash it but must immediately dispute the difference in writing and while a court could find
  • If not already received, ask for itemized list of damages and receipts from repairs
  • Ask an attorney to cite applicable laws. This will really scare ‘em!
  • A phone call to follow up and see if you can come to an agreement about the refund is the last step before small claims court. If you feel the landlord has unjustly kept the deposit, sue!

Sue to Get Your Security Deposit Back

You can file a claims in small claims court for up to $5,000.

  • Damages should be the security deposit or differential refund plus court costs and any reasonable attorney’s fees.