🏘️ This article is part of our guide to tenants’ rights in Philadelphia. Got a question? Ask us using the form at the bottom of this article.
Most renters are used to paying a security deposit before moving into a new house or apartment, and most landlords are used to taking them. The money, after all, is supposed to help cover any damages to the property, or unpaid rent when you move.
But what are the rules and laws surrounding security deposits in Pennsylvania, and what are your rights as a renter when it comes to getting your deposit back?
Well, in Pennsylvania, security deposits are primarily governed by the Landlord Tenant Act of 1951, which details how your security deposit can be handled. Here is what you need to know.
How much can a security deposit be?
Pennsylvania law states that landlords can require up to two months’ rent for a security deposit for the first year of a lease. If a landlord asks for more money, says Mike Carroll, a senior attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s housing unit, they are “running afoul of the law,” regardless of what they are calling the additional funds — such as an “advanced payment” on the last month of rent.
“Whatever you call it, if it smells like a security deposit, it’s a security deposit,” he says. In a 2017 case, E.S. Management v. Yingkai Gao, et al., the Pennsylvania Superior Court found that a property management company violated the law when it required a group of tenants to prepay their last month’s rent on top of two months worth of rent for a security deposit.
If you renew your lease and stay for more than one year, Pennsylvania law says that landlords can only keep one month’s rent for the security deposit. So, if you’ve paid two months’ rent as a security deposit, and you stay longer than a year, the landlord has to give you one month back, which Carroll calls “one of the more ignored aspects of landlord-tenant law in the state.”
“Most people can use that month — poor people especially,” he says. “They can write a letter to the landlord saying, ‘Please apply one of my months’ security to the rent.’”
Does my landlord have to pay me interest?
Yes and no.
If a security deposit is more than $100, the law requires landlords to hold the money in an escrow account — or an account meant to temporarily hold funds — and tell you where the bank is located. Alternately, landlords can issue a bond.
Starting on the third year of a lease, if the security deposit is more than $100, it needs to be put in an interest-bearing bank account, and the landlord has to pay you the annual interest, minus a 1 percent fee.
But that may not mean you get any money back. Carroll says that rule has lost “a lot of meaning” over the years because interest rates for bank accounts are so low. The average interest rate on savings accounts, for example, is 0.06% APY, according to the FDIC.
“No one is paying interest. It really doesn’t have a lot of meaning these days because the 1 percent is eaten up,” Carroll says. And don’t expect a court to make landlords find accounts that will pay high interest. As Carroll says, “no court will make” them shop around for you.
How long until you get your security deposit back?
When your lease term ends and you move out, you must give your landlord, in writing, an address where they can send your deposit (if they are not keeping it, but more on that later). Then your landlord has 30 days to return your security deposit, keep a portion of it, or keep the whole thing, and they have to tell you in writing.
If you don’t get your security deposit — or a written response from your landlord — within 30 days, there are a couple of things that can happen:
You can sue your landlord in municipal court for double the amount of the security deposit.
Your landlord can’t sue you. If 30 days comes and goes without a response, the landlord forfeits their right to sue you for any damage to the property (if there is any). Carroll says this is one of the more significant penalties a landlord could face if they don’t get back to you quickly.
“Say it’s a frat house, and they wreck the place,” he says. “If the landlord doesn’t respond [after 30 days], the state statute says that the landlord has waived the right to sue for damage done to the property.”
When can a landlord keep your security deposit?
Landlords in Pennsylvania can only deduct money from your security deposit for damages to the property, unpaid rent, or the breach of a lease. If they do keep any of your security deposit, they have to give you a list of the deductions, as well as the cost of the repairs.
What counts as damages? Any problems that you caused either purposefully or through neglect, such as putting a hole in the wall or breaking a mirror. But the landlord isn’t allowed to charge you for “normal wear and tear” — things like small dings or scratches in a wood floor, or a discolored, old carpet — which aren’t caused by neglect or misuse.
But there’s one caveat: What’s considered normal wear and tear can be subjective, Carroll says, so you may disagree with your landlord, and what’s acceptable may vary from judge to judge.
“The 20-year-old carpet, or the 20-year-old paint job, that would be pretty clearly on the tenant’s side,” Carroll says. “When you start getting into holes in the wall that the tenant poked, you are probably more in favor of the landlord.”
What if you don’t agree about damages?
What should you do if you don’t agree about the reason your landlord wants to keep some (or all) of your deposit?
The first thing to do: Try to speak with the landlord and write a letter disputing the charges. You may be able to come to a compromise. If you have photographs of the space from when you first move in, that can help.
“Sometimes it’s: ‘Look, we disagree on the responsibility and cost — let’s split the difference and call it a day,’ ” Carroll says. “Nobody goes away happy, but everyone goes away.”
If you are adamant about getting your deposit back, and the landlord won’t budge, Carroll says the next best option is to go to small-claims court. You can argue your case and present evidence including photographs, or quotes from repair workers if you think you are being overcharged.
You can also try filing a complaint with the state Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. That, Carroll says, could have a “dramatic effect on freeing up money” if the landlord is contacted by the office. But always try to work with the landlord first.
“Try to work it out, try to negotiate,” Carroll says.
Mike Carroll, J.D., senior attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s housing unit.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.