Renter's Guide to Security Deposits

Renter's Guide to Security Deposits

Last updated: April 2006

This will give you general information about security deposits in Illinois. Your area may have its own local landlord-tenant laws.  Also, federally funded housing and public housing may have different rules.

If you have questions after reading this information, you may wish to talk to a lawyer for advice. Search the "Helpful Organizations" section below to find free legal help.

What is a security or damage deposit?

A security deposit is money that you give to the landlord at the beginning of a lease, usually before you move in. A deposit may also be used to hold a unit for you while the landlord does a credit check or calls your old landlords to decide if she should rent to you. A deposit may also protect the landlord if he holds a unit for you, but you decide not to move in. In that case, the landlord can keep your deposit.

What is the purpose of a security deposit?

A lease will usually explain the purpose of the security or damage deposit. For example, your lease may state that the deposit can only be used to:

  • Clean the property after you move out, if you did not leave the property in a clean condition
  • Pay utility bills, if you did not pay the bills, or
  • Pay rent, if you did not pay the rent 

If there is no lease or your lease does not explain what your deposit can be used for, your deposit will usually be used for cleaning and repairing damages that are more serious then normal wear and tear. You should not have to pay for any repairs for damages that are normal wear and tear.

How much can a landlord charge for a security deposit?

There is no limit on the amount that a landlord may charge as a security deposit. Usually, landlords charge the same amount as one or two months' rent. Some landlords charge two deposits: one in case of damages and the other as an advance payment on the last month's rent. Landlords also may charge a deposit for keys or if you have pets.

If you live in subsidized housing (for example, if you have a Section 8 certificate or voucher), your landlord may charge you a deposit similar to deposits being charged by private landlords in your area. For example, if the common deposit in your area is one month's rent, your landlord may charge a deposit equal to one month's rent (which would include the amount paid by the housing authority). The old law, which limited deposits in subsidized housing to the amount of your share of the rent, is no longer in effect.

If you cannot pay the full deposit when you move in and your landlord agrees to let you make payments over time, make sure you get the payment agreement in writing. The written agreement should say how long you will have to pay and how much each payment will be. Getting the agreement in writing will be important to avoid problems later. When you make the payments, make sure your checks or receipts say whether the payment counts as rent or as a payment on the security deposit.

If I put down a deposit to hold an apartment but decide not to take it, can the landlord keep my money?

Maybe. Most landlords will say that a deposit to hold an apartment is non-refundable and they do not have to return it.

The first question in figuring out whether your deposit is refundable is this: did you sign any agreement when you paid the deposit? If you did, the agreement may list the terms of the deposit and whether it is refundable. Even if there is no written agreement, if the landlord told you that the deposit was non-refundable when you paid it, he has a good argument that he can keep it.

If the landlord did not tell you that the deposit was non-refundable, then whether you can get it back will depend on things like how long the landlord held the apartment for you, whether he turned away other possible tenants, and whether he tried, and was able, to rent the apartment again quickly after you changed your mind. If the landlord lost money while holding the apartment for you, it will be hard for you to argue that you should get your money back.

If the reason that you did not move in is that the landlord did not take care of his duties--for example, that he did not make important repairs--your argument that you should get your deposit back will be stronger.

Should I get a receipt from my landlord when I pay my security deposit?

Yes, you should get a written receipt. This will show that you paid the landlord in case there is an argument. You should keep the receipt in a safe place, just in case you ever have to use it.

I plan to move out at the end of the month. Do I need to pay the last month's rent even though I paid a deposit?

Yes. A security deposit does not take the place of rent, even though your landlord will keep your security deposit if you leave your apartment owing rent. If you do not pay the last month's rent, you are taking a risk and you may be evicted. If you do not pay your rent, your landlord may serve you with a five-day notice for the non-payment of your rent. This notice would be valid unless you have another good reason for why you did not owe rent. If you do not pay your rent in these five days, you may be sued for eviction. Depending on how quickly your local courts handle eviction cases, you may have to move out before the end of the month. In court, you may also get a judgment against you ordering you to pay the unpaid rent, court costs and sometimes your landlord's attorney's fees.

When does my landlord have to give the security deposit back to me?

The law allows the landlord to keep your deposit until after you move out, so that he can see how you leave the unit.

If you live in a building or complex which has 5 or more units: Illinois law says that in order to keep your deposit the landlord must send you a list of the damages and an estimate of repair costs within 30 days of your moving out. If the landlord does not send you this list within the 30 days, he must return the entire deposit. He has 45 days from when you move out to get your deposit back to you.

If you live in a building with 4 units or less, in a house, or if you rent a condominium from a landlord who owns that unit but does not own the building: the law does not say how long the landlord has to return the deposit, and does not force the landlord to give you a list of the damages. The landlord should still return the deposit within a reasonable time.

What can I do when I move in to try to make sure I will get my security deposit back?

Within 3 days of when you first move in, make a written list of all the damages you find in the property, even the small ones. This list should have the general condition of the property and how clean the property was before you moved in. You and your landlord should sign and date this list. If your landlord does not sign the list, have someone you trust sign the list after he or she looks over the property. Make a copy of the list for your landlord. Make another copy to leave with a trusted friend or family member. Be sure to keep the original. You may want to take pictures of any problems you find when you move in as well.

What can I do when I move out to try to make sure I will get my security deposit back?

Leave the property in the same condition as it was when you moved in, except for normal wear and tear. Check your lease to see what things you are required to do before you move out. For example, the lease may say you should shampoo the carpets or wash all the floors.

When you move out, check out with the landlord if you can. If your landlord makes any report about how the property looks, have her make a copy with her signature and the date. If she does not make a report, make your own report and have your landlord sign and date it. If your landlord does not sign it, have another person sign and date your report after they look over the property. If you think you may disagree with the landlord about how you left the property, be sure to have another person inspect the property. Take pictures of the conditions at the time you move out. Leave your new address with the landlord so that she can send you a check for your deposit.

Can the landlord keep my security deposit?

The landlord can keep portions of your security deposit for any rent due or for the costs of damages that were caused by you, your family, or a guest. Damages that were caused by normal wear and tear cannot be taken out of the deposit.

You are expected to clean the residence before you leave and should leave it in the same condition or better than when you moved in.

What if my landlord refuses to return my security deposit?

If your landlord will not return your deposit and you think the money is owed to you, you can file a suit in small claims court. This process may not be very fast, so you should think carefully before putting down a deposit to hold an apartment. Click on the title below for more information about how to get your security deposit back:

How to Get Your Security Deposit Back in Illinois

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