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How to Get Your Security Deposit Back

Perhaps the most stressful part of renting is getting your security deposit back and with good reason: One in four renters don’t get their money back.

Getting your security deposit back should be straightforward, but you must know your rights as a renter in NYC.

Reasons to withhold your security deposit

As a NYC renter, finding an apartment, signing the lease and making all the down payments for an apartment is painful. You’re paying first and last month’s rent, a security deposit and possibly a broker’s fee. It’s a lot of money to shell out all at once. But, if everything goes well — meaning you didn’t damage your apartment or skip out early — you are likely to get your security deposit back once you decide to leave.

The only grounds a landlord can withhold all or part of your security deposit is:

As we’ve previously written, if you need to break your lease, it’s unlikely you will get your security deposit back. That’s because there is likely to be a lapse in payment between tenants – you and the new tenant. But, if you can sublease your apartment, you can pass the security deposit cost on to the subtenant.

In a similar scenario, if you break the lease and do not find a subletter, but your landlord is able to find another tenant immediately, you still are owed the return of your security deposit.  The only catch would be if it’s noted in the lease that breaking the lease results in loss of deposit.

Your security deposit is yours, with interest!

As you sign the lease on your apartment and hand over your security deposit, you should operate with the full intention of getting your security deposit back, which means abiding by the lease and returning the apartment in good condition.

Also, your rights as a renter mean your security deposit should be accruing interest. That’s right. If you are renting in a building with six or more units, your security deposit must be placed into an interest-bearing account and earn a rate that is equal to the prevailing rate. Your landlord should give you the name and address of the bank where your money is being held. The only caveat is the owner may keep 1 percent of the deposit amount each year as an administrative fee.

How to ensure you’ll get your deposit back

Don’t go into the rental game blindly. Protect yourself and your security deposit by doing the following:

  • Read your lease closely. Know what your freedoms are as a renter, especially when it comes to updates such as painting or putting nails in the walls. It you want to hang some of your artwork, make sure the lease allows it. If you want to paint the walls, make sure you have that freedom. Check your lease closely. Any violations of the lease are grounds to hold all or part of your security deposit to correct any changes you may have made to the apartment.
  • Do a walk-through. On your move-in day, do a walk-through of the apartment with your landlord. Make note of the condition of it together. Take photos and record notes of any dings, holes, scratches or imperfections and sign the document together. Visual evidence is key in court disputes!
  • Leave the apartment in excellent shape. If you damage the property beyond what would be considered reasonable wear and tear, your landlord can withhold all or part of the security deposit, whether you find a subletter or not.

How soon will you get your security deposit back?

You should get your security deposit returned to you anywhere from a month to two months. According to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board:

“The landlord must return the security deposit, less any lawful deduction, to the tenant at the end of the lease or within a reasonable time thereafter. A landlord may use the security deposit: (a) as reimbursement for the reasonable cost of repairs beyond normal wear and tear, if the tenant damages the apartment; or (b) as reimbursement for any unpaid rent.”

What is a “reasonable” amount of time to return your deposit? About 30-60 days. If you feel your landlord is not honoring what is owed to you, you might want to try to mediate the situation. There could be extenuating circumstances that are preventing the landlord from returning your deposit to you. If mediation doesn’t work, you might want to take it to small-claims court. This document gives you a high-level view of what to expect and the contact information for NYC Small Claims Courts in your borough.

You can also contact the New York State Attorney General’s Office at (212) 416-8000.

What if conditions force you to move?

If your apartment becomes uninhabitable and you can no longer live there, you are, in essence, the victim of constructive eviction, which is a violation of your warranty of habitability.  The word “eviction” is a misnomer since you are not being evicted. Rather, you are choosing to leave due to conditions that are not acceptable, such as flood, fire, infestation and severely deteriorated or dilapidated living conditions – such as your ceiling falling in. In these scenarios, you are within your rights to break the lease and can expect to retain your security deposit.

But before you pack up, stop paying rent and declare “constructive eviction,” you must document the course of events, serve the landlord with a constructive eviction notice and then allow him reasonable time to rectify the situation.

As always, consult a lawyer if you are unsure of your rights.

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