A few months ago, you scored your dream apartment. The move to your new place went smoothly (except for some last minute packing problems, plus a few broken plates, but hey) and your new hood slowly starts to feel like home. Everything is perfect, except your former landlord is refusing to return your security deposit.
So, what can you do to get your money back? A sit-in strike? A doorbell prank at your landlord’s mansion? Or maybe just a simple heart-felt one-on-one with the guy?
We’ve got a few (better) ideas that could help get you out of this tricky situation (with your money in hand.)
Let’s get started.
What’s a security deposit, and what is it used for in Germany?
A security deposit, also called a rent deposit (‘Mietkaution’), is a sum of money that you have to provide to your landlord before you move into a new apartment. It serves as a protective measure in case tenants cause damage to the apartment or don’t pay their rent. So, if you spill wine on your landlord’s carpet, or don’t pay all your bills on time, they can make use of the money.
BTW, the maximum amount your landlord can ask you to pay is equivalent to three months of rent (aka ‘Kaltmiete’, rent excluding utility costs). Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? If you’re short on cash, you’ve got the option to split your rental deposit payment into three separate installments. Contrary to popular belief, the first payment is only due at the beginning of your tenancy, and not immediately after you sign on the dotted line.
FYI: Your landlord needs to ensure your deposit money —usually in the form of bank transfer or cash—is moved to a bank account that is separate from his account. In addition, the account needs to be ‘insolvency-proof’. That way, you can rest assured that your money is still there should your landlord’s financial situation go down the drain.
As an additional precaution, The German Tenants’ Association (‘Deutscher Mieterbund’) advises you to ask for a receipt from your landlord proving that they have actually received your rent deposit.
When can you expect to get your deposit back?
First things first: You can only expect to see your deposit again if you’ve always paid your rent on time, don’t owe any additional money to your landlord, and have left the rental apartment in good condition when moving out.
If one of these conditions isn’t met, your chances of getting your full deposit back are pretty slim. But let’s assume that you’ve met all the criteria.
So, when do you actually get your money back?
You may think your deposit will accompany you to your new place, along with your packed boxes. Unfortunately, we’ll have to disappoint you here. Only very rarely will you get your deposit back once you return the keys to your old rental. In reality, you’ll need to give your landlord some time to decide if you should, in fact, get it back. .
Your ex-landlord will walk through the apartment to check if you’ve left everything in the state agreed upon in your lease. Also, they’ll want to make sure all your money is paid.
You’ll probably have to be patient— but not for too long. As a rule of thumb, you can usually expect your rent deposit back within three to six months after the rental contract ends.
FYI, After three years, your claim to your security deposit expires.
Ok, now that we’ve defined what a deposit is and when your landlord should pay it back to you, let’s take a closer look at some reasons your landlord might decide to keep your deposit.
When your landlord won’t return your deposit
1. You still owe rent.
The first day of the month has long passed, and you still haven’t transferred your rent payment. A quick glance at your current balance tells you why: you’re kinda broke. It doesn’t come as a complete surprise, but your landlord isn’t thrilled.
Being late on your rent can happen to anyone, but it does come with some unpleasant consequences. If at the end of your lease there’s an outstanding debt, your landlord can use parts of your deposit to cover what you owe, until you pay up. BTW, if you fail to pay your rent for two months consecutively, your lease can be terminated without notice. This only applies if what you owe amounts to more than one month’s rent, according to news site ‘Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland’.
2. The last utility bill hasn’t come in yet.
If the public utility company (‘Stadtwerke’) hasn’t sent out the latest bill yet, your landlord knows that you’ll likely still have to pay to cover some utilities. If this is the case, they can withhold a portion of your deposit until they see that you won’t need to pay or that you’re caught up with your bills. However, your landlord might only receive the last bill at the end of the year. In this case, they likely won’t give back your deposit within the expected time frame of 3-6 months.
3. You’ve caused some damage to the rental, which you haven’t fixed.
Imagine this: You’re moving your vintage shelves out of your bedroom and into the living room, but you underestimate its size. Crap! You’ve banged it right into the door frame, causing some noticeable damage.
Luckily, if you have personal liability insurance, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Whether you’ve accidentally broken the landlord’s fancy bath tub or spilled your favorite Malbec on their carpet, damages to your rental property (‘Mietsachschäden’) are usually covered by your liability insurer (assuming you didn’t cause the damage on purpose).
If you accidentally cause damage to your landlord’s property while moving out, you or your insurer will have to pay for it. This also applies if your key is lost or stolen during your move. One again, your liability insurer should have your back. They will cover the costs to replace the key and the respective locks. Once you’re even, your landlord should immediately return your security deposit in full. If you don’t have personal liability insurance, or don’t pay up, they can keep a portion of your security deposit to pay for the damages themselves.
BTW, normal wear and tear, such as stains on the walls where you hung your framed prints, or signs of use in your kitchen sink fall under your landlord’s responsibility, not yours or your insurer’s. Be aware that some landlords will try to make you pay nonetheless—don’t let them rip you off.
4. You’ve skipped the necessary cosmetic repairs or basic cleaning before moving out.
It’s very likely that your rental agreement includes a paragraph about the exact state the rental needs to be in when you move out. In this paragraph, you’ll likely be asked to paint the apartment before you leave. What happens if you move out without painting? In that case, your ex-landlord can hire someone to paint the apartment —and use your rent deposit to pay the bill! Definitely something to keep in mind. However, your landlord cannot expect more than a standard paint job, which requires some white paint, a patch-up of holes you’ve drilled, and the removal of any nails. Anyway, make sure your landlord doesn’t trick you into beautifying the apartment at your own expense.
The same rules apply if you decide to forego a proper cleaning before you move out of the apartment. In that case, your landlord is free to employ a cleaning service at your expense.
As you’ve probably realized by now, transparency is everything. It’s crucial for you and your landlord to agree on the state the apartment should be in when you move out—even before you sign the lease.
Once your move out date has arrived, take a last walk through the apartment with your landlord. Create a list of things that might need to get fixed. This is called a handover protocol (‘Übergabeprotokoll’). Just be aware that you’ll only record potential damages, and won’t sign anything that commits you to do the corresponding repairs.
BTW, for your next apartment, you should do the same before your lease starts. If you record any prior damages, you can’t be held responsible for stuff that has fallen to pieces before your time living in the flat.
Pro-tip: We recommend taking a good friend who’ll accompany you during the last walk through the apartment. They can oversee the process and if worse comes to worst, if you’re to be made responsible for damages that weren’t your fault, your friend can testify for you. Our apologies for our mistrust in landlords, some are probably real nice guys!
Ok, you’ve done everything in your power to get your security deposit back. What happens, if your landlord still refuses to pay up?
Tips to get your deposit back
An honest conversation can definitely clear the air. Call your landlord or send a WhatsApp (depending on how you’ve communicated with them so far) to let them know that you’d like to talk. Maybe there has simply been a misunderstanding between the two of you, and the issue can be resolved quicker than you think. Not up to meeting up in person? Sometimes a quick phone will do the job.
Okay. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a misunderstanding between the two of you, and your issue isn’t that easy to resolve. If you still think you’re in the right, you can send your landlord a letter of demand, asking them to return your rent deposit. You can find a German template here. Make sure you send a registered letter including a return receipt, so you can see that they’ve received your message.
Make sure the letter mentions that you’ll take legal action if you don’t get the deposit back within a reasonable period of time (usually of 2-4 weeks). You should also ask for a clarification as to why your landlord is holding onto your money in the first place.
If you’ve reached your wit’s end, it might make sense to contact the German Tenants Association (‘Mieterbund’). They can give you valuable advice, and you can decide together whether you should involve a lawyer who’s specializes in tenancy law.
If you’re lucky, you might already have legal protection insurance (including a specific legal protection for tenants), and check in with your insurer. As you can imagine, initiating legal proceedings can get pretty expensive, especially if you’re not insured.
We hope you’ve found this article helpful in your quest to get your security deposit back. If you have any additional questions regarding renters’ rights, take a look at this article.