Real Estate

Moving Out of a Rental: Important Steps to Keep Your Landlord Happy and Get Your Security Deposit Back

By Beth Dillman, Attorney
Avoid move-out hassles and get your security deposit back by giving your landlord proper notice and leaving your rental unit in good condition.

Is it time to move out of your rental? Maybe you’re graduating college and moving out of the area or buying a house. Or perhaps you just need more space or want a nicer apartment. Regardless of why you’re moving, you’ll want the move-out to go smoothly. Ideally, you can time your move so you aren’t paying rent on two places at the same time. And, of course, you’ll want to get your security deposit back ASAP (you may need the money for your next place). Finally, you’ll probably want to end the tenancy on good terms with your landlord (you may want a reference down the line).

What you don’t want is for your landlord to say you can’t leave just yet because your lease is not up or threaten to keep your security deposit to cover damage in your rental.

To protect your security deposit and avoid a possible small claims court lawsuit for unpaid rent, give your landlord the required amount of notice and leave the rental unit in good condition.

Giving Your Landlord the Required Amount of Notice

Rules on how much notice is required to end a tenancy vary depending on whether you have a month-to-month rental agreement or a fixed-term lease.

How to End a Month-to-Month Rental Agreement

If, instead of a fixed-term lease, you have an agreement that lasts one month but automatically renews, your move-out steps are fairly straightforward. Most states require tenants to provide 30 days’ notice to end a month-to-month tenancy. Florida is an exception, requiring only 15 days’ notice (see Fla. Stat. Ann. § 83.57). Once your notice period ends and you have moved out of the rental unit, you are no longer responsible for paying rent, even if your landlord has not re-rented the unit yet.

Check your state's rules on how much notice you are required to give before you move out. In addition, be sure to check your rental agreement, which may require that you give notice on a specific date, such as the first of the month.

How to End a Fixed-Term Lease

A lease lasts for a set amount of time, usually one year, and you are legally bound to pay rent for the whole lease term, regardless of how much notice you give. Your lease should specify the date it will end, and it might require you to give your landlord advance notice of your plans to move. Regardless of whether advance notice is required, it’s a good idea to give your landlord notice (in writing), so the landlord can arrange a final inspection to determine any security deposit deductions and prepare for the next tenant.

If you want to leave before the lease expires, first try to negotiate with your landlord, especially if illness, a roommate moving out unexpectedly, a new job out of the area, or some other uncontrollable event forces your move. Your landlord might let you leave early without paying rent for the whole lease term. If so, be sure to get the landlord’s agreement cancelling the lease in writing.

Another option is to ask your landlord to allow you to rent the space to someone else, which is called “subletting” or “subleasing.” In a typical sublet, the new tenant would pay you rent, and then you’d pay the landlord. Most leases don’t allow subleasing without the landlord’s consent, so be sure to check your lease and try to work details out (again, in writing) with your landlord and the new tenant. This will be easier to do if you find a suitable tenant, someone with good credit and references, to take over your rental. If you’re clearly not coming back, you’re usually better off getting the landlord to cancel your lease and sign a lease with the new tenant.

If neither of these options work, you may need to break the lease. Even if you give the landlord notice, you are still responsible for paying rent for the full lease term. But keep in mind that (in most states) a landlord has the responsibility to mitigate damages, which means the landlord must try to find another renter to take your place as soon as possible after you move out—rather than just sit back and collect rent from you.

If, despite the landlord’s best efforts, a suitable replacement tenant is not found, expect the landlord to come after you for rent owed for the remaining lease term. Your landlord will probably start by using your security deposit; if the deposit is insufficient, the landlord may sue you in small claims court for the unpaid rent amount.

Exceptions to State Notice Requirements

Most states have limited circumstances for when you can move out of a rental unit before your lease or rental agreement ends. For example, if your landlord has seriously violated your rental agreement or lease or the law—say, by failing to provide habitable premises—you may have the legal right to move out with little or no notice.

In some states, such as California, you may legally move out before a lease ends if you or a family member are a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or elder abuse (see Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.7). Tenants who are in the military also have special federal rules that may allow ending a tenancy early under certain circumstances.

Take Steps to Get Your Security Deposit Back

Assuming you’ve given proper notice and are paid up in rent, you’ll want to make sure you get your security deposit back when you leave. That means doing a good job cleaning the rental unit and repairing any damage that you (or a pet or guest) have caused.

Most leases allow the landlord to charge for any cleaning or repairs necessary to restore the rental unit to its condition when you moved in—for example, by replacing a pet-stained carpet or fixing a damaged lighting fixture. The landlord may not, however, charge for “normal wear and tear,” such as faded paint on a living room wall or for damage or filth that were present at the start of the tenancy.

Your lease (or a landlord’s move-out letter) may provide details as to how you must leave your rental unit (in terms of cleaning kitchen appliances or floors or repairing holes in walls) and spell out what the landlord may deduct from your security deposit. Or your lease may simply say you should leave the rental unit clean and in good condition, identical to that when you moved in. If you’re unclear on what’s expected, check with your landlord. Do your best to thoroughly clean the rental unit and fix any damage you caused (such as a broken window) or make necessary repairs.

When everything is clean and repaired, take photos to document the condition of the rental unit (ideally, you will have “before” photos for comparison purposes). You’ll want this type of visual proof if you end up in a dispute about your landlord’s security deposit deductions.

Before you officially move out and return the key, ask your landlord to inspect your rental unit (with you in attendance) to let you know whether any security deposit deductions are justified. A few states, including Arizona, give tenants the legal right to be present for the landlord’s final inspection (see Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 33-1321). Other states require landlords to give tenants advance notice of their intended deposit deductions.

Depending on your state's law, your landlord will likely have two to three weeks after you move out to either return your security deposit or provide a written itemized statement of deductions, such as for cleaning and repairing damaged items and for any unpaid utility bills.

If you believe your landlord has unreasonably withheld all or some of your security deposit, you can take him or her to small claims court to try to get your money back. Sometimes a letter from an attorney will bring immediate action.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My lease doesn’t say I can’t sublease, but my landlord won’t let me, and I need to move out early. What can I do?
  • My ex-landlord won’t let me back into my old apartment to get some things I left behind. He says he’s keeping my stuff because my security deposit didn’t cover all of the damages I allegedly caused to the apartment. What should I do?
  • My landlord deducted $500 from my deposit to replace the living room rug that was in bad shape when I moved in. How can I fight this?
  • My tenant signed a one-year lease, from January 1st to December 31st. In August he disappeared and didn’t pay rent for that month. I rented it out in September. In that same month, the old tenant returned and demanded I let him back on the premises. What can I do?
  • My tenant left early and I was able to re-rent the premises, but at a much lower rate because of the drastic change in the housing market. What can I recover from the old tenant?

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