Your Security Deposit: What It Is and How To Get It Back

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What is a Security Deposit?

A security deposit is money you give your landlord when you move into a home you rent that must be given back at the end of the lease, unless your landlord has a good reason to keep it. Good reasons to keep it are:

  • You haven’t paid all your rent;
  • You haven’t paid all your utilities and your landlord has to pay them so the next tenant can have utilities, too; or
  • You’re leaving the home damaged beyond normal wear and tear.

Any money you give your landlord that should be given back to you is a part of the security deposit, no matter what your landlord calls it. If it’s not supposed to be given back to you, it’s a fee. To figure out whether it’s a fee or part of the security deposit, you can read your lease to see if money you’re paying to move in will be given back when your lease ends. Fees are not included in the total amount of the security deposit.

For example, if you pay money to have a dog that will be given back to you if your dog doesn't damage anything, it’s part of the deposit. If you pay money to have a dog that your landlord gets to keep no matter if the dog does any damage or not, it’s a fee.

Your deposit can only be up to one and a half times your monthly rent. For example, if your rent is $1,000 a month, your security deposit can't be more than $1,500. 

Michigan’s Security Deposit Law applies to agreements for rental units. A rental unit is something used as a home by a single person or family. It includes apartments, boarding houses, rooming houses, mobile home spaces, and single and two-family dwellings. If you’re renting your home, the security deposit law applies.

A lease, also called a rental agreement, is an agreement that creates or changes the terms, conditions, or any other provisions about the use and occupancy of a rental unit.

Before you sign your lease, it is a good idea to ask how much the security deposit will be. If you’re going to pay a security deposit, your landlord must notify you in writing no more than 14 days after your lease starts or you move in. The notice must give you the landlord’s name and address where you should send any letters to your landlord -- like when you need to send your landlord your forwarding address when you move out. The notice must also tell you the name and address of the bank or credit union where your deposit will be held. The notice is usually part of the lease.

This notice must be in 12 point bold font or at least four font sizes bigger than the rest of the lease. For example, if the document is in 12 point font size, the notice should be in 16 point font. It must say:

You must notify your landlord in writing within four (4) days after you move of a forwarding address where you can be reached and where you will receive mail; otherwise your landlord shall be relieved of sending you an itemized list of damages and the penalties adherent to that failure.

If you pay a security deposit, you can ask your landlord for a receipt to avoid a disagreement about how much was paid.

Your Move-In Checklist

The move-in checklist is an important part of the security deposit process. Your landlord should give you two copies of an inventory or move-in checklist. The first page should say in boldface 12 point type:

You should complete this checklist, noting the condition of the rental property, and return it to the landlord within 7 days after obtaining possession of the rental unit. You are also entitled to request and receive a copy of the last termination inventory checklist which shows what claims were chargeable to the last prior tenants.

If your landlord doesn’t give you a checklist, you can ask for one. If the landlord refuses to give you one, you can do your own inspection of your home, noting any problems.

With the checklist, you can go through your home, room by room, and make a note of anything that is damaged. This includes little things, like chips in the paint or cracks in a window. It’s important to report all problems to your landlord at the beginning of your lease so that it’s clear that you didn’t cause them. After you're done walking through the home, you can sign and date the checklist. Make a copy of the checklist. Give one copy to your landlord. Keep one copy for yourself. It is a good idea to take pictures or video of any damage you find. If your landlord fixes any problems you report on the checklist, you can note the repairs on your copy of the checklist.

If you don’t return the completed move-in checklist, you’re agreeing that everything about the home is in good condition when you move in.  

Your Move-Out Checklist

When you move out of your home, use the checklist again to record the condition of it. You may not have to give a copy of this to your landlord, but keep a copy for your records.

Check out with the landlord if you can. If your landlord does not make a report, you can make your own report and ask your landlord to sign and date it. If your landlord does not sign it, you can have another person sign and date your report after looking over the home.

If you think you may disagree with the landlord about how you left the property, you can ask another person to inspect the property. You can also take pictures of the conditions at the time you move out. 

Getting Your Security Deposit Back

Unless your landlord has a reason to keep it, you should get your security deposit back after you move out. Your landlord can keep part or all of your security deposit if:

  • You haven’t paid all your rent; 
  • You haven’t paid all your utilities and your landlord has to pay them so the next tenant can have utilities, too; or
  • You’re leaving the home damaged beyond normal wear and tear.

When you move out, be sure to return your keys and remove all personal items.

Provide Your Forwarding Address in Writing

Within four days of moving out of your old home, you must give your landlord your new address in writing. You can give your landlord your new address before you move out.

If you don’t provide your new address, your landlord does not have to give you a list of damages for any money they are keeping from the security deposit. Your landlord can keep your security deposit until you do something to get it back.

If you don’t want to give your landlord your new address, you can provide a different forwarding address like a P.O. Box. If you do this, make sure you regularly pick up any mail sent to that address so you can respond to the list of damages within seven days.

The List of Damages

After your give your landlord your forwarding address, your landlord then has 30 days to either return your deposit or send you a list of damages. The list of damages should go over each issue and include the estimated cost of repairs or copies of receipts for the actual cost of repairs for each damaged item. Damages on this list may include unpaid rent.

Along with the list of damages, the landlord has to send you whatever is left over from your security deposit after they took out the cost of repairs. For example, if your security deposit was for $1,500 and your landlord sent you a list of damages that cost $500 to fix, they have you send you the remaining $1,000.

Objecting to the List of Damages

If you get a list of damages and you don’t agree with it, you have seven days to mail a response to your landlord. You must respond in detail. Address every point of disagreement. If you don’t specifically object to an item, then you’ve agreed to it. Keep a copy of your response for your records.

For example, you get a list of damages from your landlord that says you left a broken tile in the bathroom and it will cost $45 to repair it. You know that tile was broken when you moved in. If you filled out your move-in checklist, you have a record of that damage. Within seven days of getting the list of damages, you can send a letter to your landlord reminding them that the tile was broken when you moved in and you aren't responsible for that damage. You can include a copy of your move-in checklist (and any pictures you took) to show that the tile was damaged when you moved in. Make sure you don’t give away your only copy of your move-in checklist. Always keep a copy for your records.

If you do not respond to your landlord’s notice of damages within seven days of getting it, you have agreed to the list of damages and how much they cost.

If you and your landlord can’t agree about the damages or cost of those damages, your landlord has 45 days after you move out to file a lawsuit and a judge will decide the amount that is owed.

Normal Wear and Tear

Damage is harm to the home beyond normal, everyday wear and tear. Things like furniture, appliances, carpets, and flooring can wear out from just being used. Walls need to be painted from time to time. Those are reasonable since you’ve been living in the home.

Some dirtiness is normal everyday wear and tear. If you leave the home really dirty, it might be considered damage. This could include if you leave trash everywhere, or if there are pet feces in the home.

Some examples of damage can be a broken window, a burn mark where you set a hot pan on the counter, or a broken drawer in the kitchen.

What Happens If I Don't Get My Security Deposit Back?

If you give your landlord your new address but don’t get your deposit back or a list of damages within 30 days of your move out date, your landlord can't use your security deposit to pay for any damage. You might still be responsible for the cost of damages or unpaid rent, but your landlord can’t use your security deposit for those costs.

Your landlord has 45 days from when you move out to start a court case for damages. If all of the following happen, you can sue your former landlord to try to get double your security deposit (for example, if your security deposit was $1,500, you can sue for $3,000):

  • Your landlord doesn’t start a court case in 45 days or return your deposit to you, and
  • You provided your forwarding address within four days of moving out, and
  • You responded to the notice of damages seven days or less after getting it (or didn’t get it at all)

If more than 30 days go by and your landlord has not returned your security deposit or given you a list of damages, you can use the Do-It-Yourself Letter to Landlord (Security Deposit) tool. This tool makes a letter that you can send to your landlord. The letter tells your landlord what they have to do under the law. It also says that you might file a lawsuit to get your money if they do not follow the law.

Going to Court to Get Your Deposit Back

If your landlord does not return your security deposit, you can file a lawsuit to try to get it back.

If your landlord owes you $7,000 or less, you can sue in small claims court. This is a special division of the district court where people cannot have lawyers or a trial by jury. If your landlord owes you more than $7,000, you can still sue in small claims court but you won’t be able to receive anything more than $7,000. To learn more about small claims court, read An Overview of Small Claims Court. You can also use our Do-It-Yourself Small Claims Suit tool to prepare your forms. If your landlord objects to having the case heard in small claims court, the case will be transferred to the general district court.

If your landlord owes you more than $7,000, you can file a general civil case in district court. Suing in the trial court division may be more complicated than suing in small claims court. You may want to talk to a lawyer before you do this. If you need a lawyer and have low income, you may qualify for free legal help. Whether you have low income or not, you can use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers and a legal services office in your area.

What to Expect in Court

If the case goes to court, each side has a chance to tell his or her side of the story.

If either party wants a jury trial, it must make a written request within 28 days after the filing of the answer or a timely reply. If either side wants a jury trial in small claims court, the case must also be removed to general court because jury trials aren’t allowed in small claims court.

Whoever started the suit is the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff gets to speak first, and will be asked to show the court any evidence to prove the case and to call witnesses to testify about it.

After the Plaintiff is done, the person being sued, the Defendant, will be asked to show the court evidence and call witnesses.

After each side has its turn, the judge or the jury will decide the amount that is owed.

The person who wins the case can ask the court to order the other person to pay some of the costs for the case. The amount of costs is set by the law. To learn more watch our Going to Court video.

Owing More Than Your Security Deposit

You could be responsible for the cost of repairing damages over the amount of your security deposit.

For example, your security deposit was $750 and you owe damages that total $1,000. Your landlord sends you an itemized list of the damages you owe. Not only can your landlord keep the $750 deposit, your landlord could also demand the additional $250. If your landlord files a court case to get that money, you may also be responsible for the costs of filing the court case.