The Rent Security Deposit Act states what a landlord must do with your security deposit when you move out, even if you move out before your lease is over. Within 30 days after you move out, the landlord must return your security deposit and interest, less any rent you owe or any charges for repairing damage that you have done to the property. If the landlord deducts any amounts for damages or rent, he or she must give you a complete list of the damages he or she claims you did to the property and the cost of repairs. The landlord must send you the list of damages by registered or certified mail, and the landlord must return to you any money left over from your security deposit. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1.
The landlord can only charge you for property damage that is more than ordinary wear and tear. Ordinary wear and tear means damage that takes place from the normal, careful use of the property. Examples of normal wear and tear are faded paint on the walls, loose tile in the bathroom, window cracks caused by winter weather, or leaky faucets or radiators. Examples of damages that might not be ordinary wear and tear are large holes in the walls caused by nailing up decorations, cigarette burns on floors, or a broken mirror on the bathroom cabinet.
Landlords cannot charge cleaning fees to tenants who leave their apartments broom clean. Landlords often try to deduct such fees, as well as fees for painting.
There are steps you can take to prevent a landlord from charging you for ordinary wear and tear, cleaning, or painting. Before you move out, ask the landlord or superintendent to personally inspect the apartment. Then ask that person to sign a note stating that you left the apartment clean and undamaged. If you cannot get the landlord or superintendent to inspect the unit, have a friend do so. Ask your friend to take photographs, and sign and date them. If you have a friend do this, make sure the friend can go to court with you if necessary. If you end up in court, the judge will not accept a letter from your friend as evidence.
Going to court to get back your security deposit
If, after 30 days, the landlord has not returned your security deposit, you can file a complaint against the landlord in Small Claims Court. The Rent Security Deposit Act states that if the court finds that a landlord wrongfully refused to return all or part of a tenant’s security deposit, the court must order the landlord to pay the tenant double the amount of the security deposit if it is not returned at all, or double the amount that the landlord wrongfully deducted from the deposit.
When you file your Small Claims Court complaint, make sure you ask for double the amount of the deposit. (Note: Even if you forget to ask for double the amount of money when you fill out your complaint, the court still must give you double because the law requires it.) Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1; Gibson v. 1013 North Broad Assoc., 172 N.J. Super. 191 (App. Div. 1980); Hale v. Farrakhan, 390 N.J. Super. 335 (App. Div. 2007). If some of the deposit was returned, be sure to ask for double the amount that you feel the landlord should not have deducted from your deposit. Cite: Cottle v. Butler, 257 N.J. Super. 401 (Law Div. 1992). If you go to Small Claims Court, also write on the complaint the words “together with interest and costs of the suit.” This means that you will get the interest and the money that it costs you to file the complaint ($20 plus mileage). The court should also award you reasonable attorney’s fees if you hired an attorney.
Note: You can sue for up to $5,000 in Small Claims Court and you can sue in the Special Civil Part where different rules apply. If your landlord owes you more than $5,000, you can still sue in Small Claims Court if you are willing to give up anything over $5,000. Cite: P.L. 2003, c.188 (section 6).
Also note: If your security deposit was provided by the Board of Social Services or some other government agency, and the landlord is wrongfully trying to keep it, the law says that the landlord not only has to give the deposit back to you, but he or she may also have to pay the agency a penalty of between $500 and $2,000. The law says the Attorney General, the Department of Community Affairs, or some other state agency can sue to help you get your deposit back and to collect the penalty. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1; P.L. 2007, c. 9.
When your building is sold
If your apartment building or rented house is sold, the law makes it clear that the new owner must get the tenants’ security deposits, plus interest, from the old owner. The law plainly states that the new owner is responsible to each tenant for the full amount of the tenant’s deposit, plus interest, whether or not the new owner actually got the deposits from the old owner. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-20 and 21.
What if you are displaced?
If you are forced to move because of fire, flood, condemnation, or evacuation, the landlord must return your security deposit plus your portion of the interest earned on it within five days. Before returning your money, the landlord may deduct any charges you owe under the lease agreement. This includes any rent you owed when you were displaced. The security deposit must be made available to you during normal business hours for 30 days, in the city in which the property is located. With the money, the landlord must give you a detailed statement of interest earned by the deposit and a list of any deductions. If the municipal clerk agrees, the landlord can turn your money over to the clerk. The city clerk must then make it available to you.
Within three business days after the owner is notified of the displacement, the owner must give you written notice by personal delivery or by mail to your last known address, stating where and when your security deposit will be available. The owner must send a duplicate notice to the relocation officer, if the city has one, or to the city clerk. When your last known address is that from which you were displaced, and the mailbox at that address is no longer usable, the owner must also post such notice at each outside entrance of that property. If you do not ask for the money within 30 days, the owner must redeposit it in an interest-bearing account in the same bank from which it was withdrawn.
If you move back into the same property later, you must immediately return to the landlord one-third of the security deposit. You must return another third within 30 days and the last third within 60 days from the date you moved back in. If you do not repay the security deposit, the owner may bring an eviction action against you for nonpayment of rent. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1.
For information about citations, and how to get more information about a particular law, see Finding the Law in the Landlord Tenant section.
This information last reviewed: Jul 1, 2020