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Frequently Asked Questions About Security Deposits for Residential Rentals

Authored By: D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center



IMPORTANT NOTE: Some of the information in this Frequently Asked Questions may not apply to rental units that are owned or subsidized by the D.C. or federal government.

What amount may my landlord charge for a security deposit?

The landlord may not charge more than the amount of one month's rent, and it may be charged only once.

Is my landlord required to hold the money in a special account?

Your landlord must hold the deposit in an interest bearing account in a financial institution in the District of Columbia. The account must be for the sole purpose of holding security deposits. Your landlord can use the same account for more than one building. If you rent the unit for at least twelve months, the landlord is required to pay you the interest accruing on the security deposit, subject to any lawful deductions. The interest rate is adjusted every six months (on January 1st and July 1st).

After I move out of my unit, how much time does my landlord have to return the deposit?

Your landlord has 45 days to either return the deposit with interest, or notify you in writing, that he or she plans to withhold the deposit and apply it toward the cost of expenses you are responsible for, such as repairing damage you caused to the property. The writing must be delivered to you in person or by certified mail to your last known address.

Note: Your landlord must only pay you the interest on your security deposit if you lived in the unit for one year or more.

What happens if the landlord keeps some or all of the security deposit?

Within the 30 days after the landlord notifies you that he/she will withhold your security deposit, your landlord must return the rest of the deposit, if any, to you. The landlord must provide you with a detailed statement of the repairs and other uses to which the deposit was applied. The landlord must also list the cost of each item.

What can my landlord use my deposit for?

In general, a landlord can use a security deposit to make sure you have met your obligations as a tenant. The landlord is required to state in writing what your deposit can be used for, either in a written lease or in a written receipt for the security deposit. A landlord can, for example, state that your deposit can be used to pay for damage to the rental unit or if you move out while owing the landlord money for rent.

Can my landlord charge me for repairs if I did not cause the damage?

Your landlord is responsible for paying for repairs to your rental unit, as long as the problems weren’t caused by you or your guests. If you or your guests damaged the rental unit, even accidentally or by neglect, then your landlord can charge you for the repairs.

Can my landlord be penalized for failing to send me proper notice about why the landlord is keeping my security deposit?

If your landlord did not give you the proper notices and you sue him or her to get your deposit back, the court will presume that you are entitled to your whole deposit and any interest. The landlord will have to prove that you are not entitled to full return of the deposit and interest. This gives you an advantage in your case because in most lawsuits, the person who files the case must prove that he or she should win.

How can I get my security deposit back if my landlord improperly withholds it?

There are several steps you can take:

  • First, you may want to talk to your landlord or send a demand letter, asking the landlord to follow the law. Sometimes, this is enough to convince the landlord to return your deposit, and you can avoid the time and expense of a lawsuit.
  • You may want to get an advocate involved. The Office of the Tenant Advocate (OTA) may be able to help you contact your landlord to help you get your deposit back. You can contact OTA at (202) 719-6560.
  • You may file a lawsuit, usually in Small Claims Court, to try and force the landlord to return the proper amount. The form used to start a Small Claims case is called a Statement of Claim. If you decide to sue your landlord, the Small Claims filing fee will be between $5 and $45, depending on the amount you are seeking. If these fees will be a hardship to you, you can ask the court to waive the fees by filing an Application to Proceed Without Prepayment of Costs, Fees, or Security. The maximum amount of money you can seek in a Small Claims case is $10,000.

Can I sue for additional money if my landlord does not return my security deposit?

You may be entitled to what is called “treble damages”, or triple the actual money owed, if the court finds that the landlord acted in bad faith. The term “bad faith” means any unfounded or dishonest reason for not returning the deposit. Forgetting to return the deposit, bad judgment, or an honest belief that the landlord acted correctly is not bad faith.

What can my landlord do if the damage to my rental unit or other charges were more than the amount of my security deposit?

The landlord can sue you, usually in small claims court, to try to get a judgment for any damage or other charges that are greater than the amount of your security deposit. If this happens, you can counterclaim against the landlord if you believe that you are entitled to get some or all of your deposit back. If you sue the landlord for return of your deposit, your landlord may be able to counterclaim for damage to the rental unit or other money the landlord claims you owe, such as unpaid rent.

Can my landlord keep my deposit if I move out before my lease is over, if I move out without giving 30-days notice, or if I owe rent for some other reason?

Your lease or security deposit receipt should state the reasons the landlord can keep your deposit. A tenant who moves out before a written lease expires may owe the landlord rent through the end of the lease term. Most tenants who are renting on a month-to-month basis or after a lease has expired are required to give at least 30-days notice before they move out. A tenant who does not do this may owe the landlord an additional month’s rent. Your landlord can agree to let you move out early without owing additional rent or, if the landlord is able to re-rent the unit, you may not owe the entire amount.

A tenant usually cannot decide to apply a security deposit to the last month’s rent or other charges without the landlord’s permission. However, the landlord may have the right to keep your deposit under the terms of your lease or the security deposit receipt if you move out while owing money for rent or other charges.

Even if the landlord does not have the right to keep your deposit under the terms of your lease or your security deposit receipt, if you sue the landlord to get your deposit back, the landlord may counterclaim for the rent or other charges you owe.

Last Review and Update: Jan 17, 2017
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