Prairie State Legal Services

Renter's Handbook

Damage and Security Deposits

Refund Your Deposit


When you rent, you will probably be required to pay a security or damage deposit with the first month's rent. THE DEPOSIT IS NOT RENT. If you have a written lease, it will generally state what your deposit will cover. Some leases state that the deposit is only for damages done to the unit if it is not left in a clean condition. Other leases may state that the deposit will be used for payments of rent or late payments of your utility bills.

If you do not have a written lease and there is no specific agreement regarding the damage deposit, it is likely that the deposit will be used for cleaning and repairs that exceed normal wear and tear. Any portion of the deposit not used for this should be returned to you.


Most problems arise in the area of damages to the apartment or house and in the area of cleanliness of the unit. Generally, when the tenant is moving out of the apartment, he or she should leave it in the same condition as it was when he or she moved in, with normal wear and tear excepted. Check your lease to see just what things you should do when you move out. For example, your lease may say you have to shampoo the rug, dry clean the drapes, clean the stove and refrigerator, or wash all floors.

If a problem does arise, there is often very little a lawyer can do for you if you do not have proof of the condition of your apartment or house when you moved out. To insure the return of your deposit, follow these tips:

  • Within 72 hours of when you first move in, make a written list of the damages in your house or apartment and note the general condition and cleanliness of the unit. Have both you and your landlord sign and date the list. If your landlord will not sign or cannot inspect the premises with you, have a reliable friend (third party) join you in the inspection and sign in place of the landlord. (The third party can be any adult other than someone you are living with and should not be a member of your immediate family.)
  • Use the prepared "Move-In/Move-Out Checklist" included in this handbook. Check the condition of everything in your apartment or house -- walls, floors, ceilings, appliances, furniture, plumbing, electrical fixtures, and the basic structure, etc. Also, look for scratches, burns, nail holes, number of items per room, number of shelves in the refrigerator, broiler pan, etc. Once this is done, give one copy to your landlord and keep the other copy yourself. If your landlord does not sign the checklist, you may want to get your signature notarized to indicate the date the list was filled out. Make certain that you keep a copy for yourself.
  • If there are any damages to any part of your apartment or house, take a snapshot of it and put the date on the back along with your signature. Also, have your landlord sign the picture. If you cannot take a picture, make sure that you follow the steps in numbers one and two above very carefully.
  • When you move, leave your apartment or house on time, in a clean condition and in good repair. Try to check out with your landlord so you can make a final inspection together. If your landlord makes any final written notes about the condition of your apartment or house, have her/him make a copy of the notes, with her/his signature and date, for you. If this is not a standard procedure with your landlord, make your own inspection report using the checklist and any photographs you may need. Again, have you and your landlord sign and date the copies or, if your landlord refuses, have a third party accompany you and have her/him sign and date the report.
  • Be sure to leave a forwarding address so that your deposit may be refunded.

Refund of Your Deposit

The first step in getting your deposit back is to ask for it, or better yet, send your landlord a letter. Keep a copy of the letter for yourself. If the check is written for the wrong amount, do not cash the check. Doing this may be taken by the landlord as accepting that amount. If you must cash the check, sign the back with "in partial payment" and beware that this may not insure you getting any more money back.

Illinois has a law which requires that if you live in a building which has 5 or more units, the landlord must send you your deposit or a list of possible damages and an estimate of repair costs within 30 days of your moving out. If your landlord does not send your deposit or a list of repairs within 45 days, he must return the entire deposit and may have to pay you double the deposit.

If you are unable to get your deposit back or if you received an amount less than you feel you are entitled to, and you have been unsuccessful getting the rest -- SUE. You can file a suit in Small Claims Court without an attorney. See the "Small Claims" section of this handbook or, if you are eligible, seek help from Prairie State Legal Services, Inc.

There are filing fees required to bring a small claims suit. If you have limited income and cannot afford to pay the filing fee, ask the Clerk of the Court to give you a Petition to Proceed As A Poor Person. You need to supply financial information on the petition. A Judge will then review it and enter an order which either allows or rejects your petition to file the case without paying filing fees.

The State of Illinois also has a law that states that if you rented in a building or complex which has 25 or more units for six months or more, and if you moved in after October, 1977, your landlord must pay 5% interest on your security/damage deposit per year. Make sure that your landlord knows of the law, if it applies to you, before you leave your apartment. Note: THIS DOES NOT APPLY TO PUBLIC HOUSING.

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