Security deposit basics

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
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A security deposit is a sum of money that you pay to a landlord when you first sign your lease or move in. Landlords can charge you a security deposit to pay for any damage you might cause.  

Landlords keep the security deposit until you move out. While your landlord has your security deposit, your landlord must:

  • Keep your security deposit in a bank account, separate from their own money.
  • Give you a receipt within 30 days of receiving your security deposit. The receipt must tell you what bank your security deposit is in.
  • Pay you interest on your security deposit and last month’s rent once a year. If they do not, you can subtract that amount from your next month’s rent. 
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How much can a landlord charge for a security deposit?

A security deposit cannot be more than your first month’s rent.  

The law says that a landlord can only charge you for these things when you first move in:

  • the first and last month’s rent,  
  • a new lock and key, and  
  • a security deposit.

A landlord is not allowed to charge other fees like pet, cleaning, or application fees. See Illegal Fees for more information on what a landlord may or may not charge you for.

What should I do to protect my security deposit?

The most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to get a receipt for the security deposit and for any money you pay the landlord when you move in. If they do not give you a receipt, use Rent Receipt (Form 2).

Other ways to protect your security deposit:

  • Only pay in cash if the landlord can give you a receipt right away.
  • Keep receipts and other documents related to your new apartment in a folder in a safe place.
  • If your landlord takes your security deposit, they must also give you a Statement of Condition within 10 days of moving in. This statement describes the condition of the unit. If they do not send a Statement of Condition, you can create your own. Use the Statement of Condition Form (Form 3) and send it to your landlord with the list of anything broken or damaged. Keep a copy for your records.
Can a landlord ask me to pay a security deposit if I live in public or subsidized housing?

Yes. A landlord may charge for a security deposit if you live in public or subsidized housing. The amount a landlord can charge depends on the subsidy you have.

  • If you live in federal public housing, the housing authority is allowed to charge a security deposit. The security deposit cannot be more than 1 month’s rent.
  • If you live in state public housing, you do not pay a security deposit unless you ask to have a pet. This does not apply to service animals.
  • If you have a Section 8 voucher under the Housing Choice Voucher Program or the Project-Based Voucher program, you can be required to pay up to 1 total month’s rent. That is, your share of the rent plus the housing agency’s share. If 1 total month’s rent is $1,000/month, a landlord could charge you $1,000 for a security deposit.
  • If you have "project-based" Section 8 assistance in privately-owned multifamily housing, the best thing to do is to look at the lease. Project-based Section 8 assistance is not a voucher.
  • If you have a voucher funded by the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program or the Alternative Housing Voucher Program, a landlord may charge you a security deposit up to 1 total month’s rent.

There are programs that can help low-income families pay for security deposits and first and last month's rent. See Help with Deposits.

What can the landlord use my security deposit for when I move out?

After you move out, a landlord can only use your security deposit to repair damages you or your guests caused. The damage must be more than “reasonable wear and tear.” Landlords are not allowed to use the security deposit for routine painting, cleaning, or small repairs. When you move out, a landlord may also use the security deposit to pay unpaid rent, unless you withheld rent because of bad conditions. 

How can I protect myself when I move out?

When you move out:

  • Clean the apartment and move all your belongings out. 
  • Inspect the apartment with the landlord and make a list of anything your landlord says needs repairs. If the problem existed when you moved in or if the damages are “reasonable wear and tear,” tell the landlord that. 
  • See if you can reach an agreement before you move out about what repairs you will be charged for. 
  • Take photos of all rooms in case you need to prove the condition of the apartment after you move out. 

To learn more, see Getting Your Security Deposit Back.

How can I get my security deposit back?

If you left your apartment in the same condition as you found it, the landlord must return your security deposit balance, with interest, within 30 days after you move out. See How do I protect my security deposit before I move out?

If the building you were living in is foreclosed, see Getting your security deposit back after foreclosure.

If the landlord does not return your security deposit, send them a letter formally asking them to return 100% of your deposit. You can use Security Deposit Demand Letter for Tenants Moving Out (Form 6). Or try the MassAccess interactive interview that lets you complete, review, sign, and send your letter to your landlord from your smartphone or computer.

If the landlord still refuses to return your security deposit, you can sue in Small Claims Court. They may have to pay you 3 times the deposit. See the Massachusetts Trial Court's website to learn more.

What if there is a new owner and my landlord changes?

You should not lose your security deposit or last month's rent payment if the property is sold, foreclosed, or taken over by a new management company.

Your landlord should send your security deposit and last month’s rent to the new owner. If your landlord loses the property to foreclosure, the bank may be the new owner.

The new landlord has 45 days to send you a notice about your security deposit, last month’s rent, and interest owed. If the new landlord does not send you this notice by the deadline, the old landlord must return your deposit, plus interest.

This article is an overview. To learn more, see Legal Tactics, Chapter 3: Security Deposits and Last Month's Rent.

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