As a tenant, it can often feel like your landlord can get a way with anything, leaving you to pick up the pieces, especially when you are leasing a space in a competitive market. While it is true that a landlord often has greater leverage for negotiating than a tenant, landlords are still bound by law to operate within certain guidelines. One of the most common frustrations of tenants are landlords who seem to find creative and potentially illegal ways to deplete security deposits. It is helpful for tenants and landlords alike to have a reasonable understanding of what a security deposit can and cannot be used to cover.
It is vitally important for every tenant to consult their lease to identify the terms laid out within it that apply to their deposit. It is not uncommon for a landlord to create a lease that grants them greater flexibility with regard to using a deposit than the law indicates that they should have. Deposits are generally allowed to used for fixing up any elements of the property that have been damaged beyond normal wear and tear during the term of the lease, or to pay for cleaning services to prepare a property for a new tenant. A deposit may also be used to cover unpaid rent in the event that a tenant vacates without settling what is owed.
However, normal wear and tear are not supposed to be dealt with through a tenant's deposit. This can be a grey area where landlords squeeze out a few extra dollars, so it is wise to take steps to prevent it on the front end of signing a lease agreement. This is most easily accomplished by requesting in writing that landlord clarify elements that are considered normal wear and tear. You can further protect yourself by using a move in checklist to identify the state of various elements of the property upon move in and have the landlord sign it to establish the state of the property when you moved in. It is also wise to take pictures to document the state of the property upon move in.
Even when proper precautions are taken, it is very likely that a landlord may act unethically and attempt to reduce your deposit return. with the assistance of an experienced attorney, you can fight this kind of unethical behavior and protect yourself from unscrupulous real estate practices.
Source: FindLaw, "Terminating a Lease or Rental Agreement: FAQs," accessed Dec. 23, 2016