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Q&A: Is it legal to demand a security deposit?

For rent sign. iStockphoto.com

For rent sign. iStockphoto.com Credit: iStockphoto.com

Q: I just rented an apartment and I was told I have to lay out security or the landlord won’t rent me the apartment. What exactly is security and is it legal to demand it?

A: Yes, it is legal to demand it, says Greg Lisi, a real estate lawyer in Rockville Centre. "It’s important to understand that a landlord will often require the first month’s rent and security -- equal to one or two months rent -- upfront. This way if you suddenly decide to move before your lease is up or damage the apartment, the landlord has the security to offset his losses that he doesn’t owe you back." However, Lisi explains that the law doesn’t allow the tenant to use a separate security deposit as the last, or any, month’s rent. The tenant must pay the rent to the end of the lease.

Sometimes the last month’s rent is even required before the landlord will sign the lease. “If you paid the first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit, make sure the lease distinguishes what is the security deposit and what is the last month’s rent,” warns Lisi. "If the last month’s rent and the security deposit are lumped together and referred to as 'security,' it can be a problem. You may have a hard time convincing a judge that it was supposed to be the last month’s rent and not extra security." Be sure everything is spelled out. Some leases also include a security deposit escalation clause. That means that every year the rent goes up, the security deposit is raised too. Consult a lawyer before signing on the dotted line.
 

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