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How to Ensure You Get Back a Security Deposit Before Moving

Apartment Rentals and Damage Deposits

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A friend recently moved out of her apartment into a newly-purchased condo and was shocked to find out that even though she cleaned her place thoroughly, the landlord still found issues with the way she left the apartment. While she fought to get her damage deposit back, the landlord presented her with a list of problems, most of which my friend argued, resulted from having lived in the same apartment for five years, things like finger-smudged walls, some scratches on the wood floor in the bedroom and worn carpet in the hallway.

My friend did manage to collect half the damage deposit, but as she duly noted, had she planned on renting another apartment, she would have not fought for the deposit money, since she’d need the landlord’s reference.

It seems that some landlords might just take advantage of a renter’s need for a reference and insist that damage to the apartment from simply living in it is the responsibility of the renter. To help ensure your damage deposit is returned to you, I offer this advice (which comes from my own personal experience as well as from interviews with friends and family):

  1. Before you sign a lease, read the fine print: While this is common sense, I’ve often found myself in the position of quickly reading through a lease before signing, rather than taking my time with the details. In areas where rentals are hard to find and competition is steep, it’s not always possible to read through every item, so I usually recommend reading the pieces that pertain to deposits, term agreements and rental increases. Make sure you know what the terms are for receiving a deposit back and when the deposit might be held. This is also applicable for pet deposits, too. Know the terms before you sign.

  2. The lease should have a list of damages due to everyday use: Some of the things that should be listed in damage that occurs because of everyday use, and what the tenant isn’t responsible for are things such as worn carpet, smudged walls, worn steps, broken pipes and appliances. The list should contain items that are common things that need replacement after years of use or wear. Make sure the landlord provides a list and defines what “everyday use” means. For instance, if you rent the apartment less than six months, you might be responsible for dirty walls or spots on carpets. On the other hand, if you rent a home for four years, these problems might be considered due to everyday use and wear.
  3. Before you move in, conduct an inspection with the landlord: The last time I rented an apartment, I remember the landlord was really causal about the pre-move-in inspection. She brushed off a lot of the problems, while I took copious notes and asked beforehand if I could take pictures. She seemed a little impatient with me, but in the end, when I moved out or even when I needed her to fix pre-existing problems, I had a complete list along with photos that showed the problem was around before I moved in. In the end, I did get both the damage deposit and pet deposit back thanks to the list I’d made (that both myself and the landlord had signed) before I moved in. So, take the time to do the inspection. It’s a good way to identify problems that need fixing before you move in and a way of noting the places where walls are scuffed or carpets worn so you’re not held responsible when it’s time for you to move out.
  4. If things break, call the landlord right away: Once you’re living in your new place, make sure you notify the landlord as soon as something goes wrong, whether it’s a broken step or the stove stops working. The sooner you notify the landlord the less likely it’ll be that you end up paying for something that goes wrong. Also, keep a record of things that the landlord has fixed and things that haven’t been fixed. Note the date you called and reported the problem and the day it was fixed. This is a great way to provide a record of maintenance and to note the problems that weren’t resolved so when you move out, you aren’t held responsible for those unresolved problems.
  5. Keep a record of things you do to improve the rental space: If you painted the walls or fixed the porch railing or replaced the stove’s broken element, make sure you keep a list of when you fixed the problems and how much you spent on each. It’s pretty normal to replace burnt bulbs or even stove elements, but it’s still a good idea to note these small improvements. It definitely adds to your argument should you have a dispute about the damage deposit.
  6. Get everything in writing: If you make an agreement with your landlord, make sure you get it in writing. I often agree with the landlord that I’ll keep my home nicely painted if he or she supplies the paint. I also only agree to do maintenance if some portion of the rent is subsidized or I’m guaranteed of getting my deposits back. I did this once for an elderly landlord who asked if I’d keep the front lawn mowed in return for a partial reduction in rent. We both signed a second agreement, noting my responsibilities and the final rental agreed upon.
  7. Clean thoroughly: One of the best ways you can ensure that you receive the damage deposit back is to clean the apartment thoroughly. I often plan to move a day before I’m supposed to move out to ensure I have one full day to clean the now-empty apartment. It’s hard to clean when you’re surrounded by moving boxes and when the movers often track in mud and dust and dirt. If you have time and are moving within the same city or town, plan ahead to take one day to clean. On the other hand, if you’re moving to another city or town and don’t have time to clean, hire professionals to do it for you. Often the landlord can provide a name of a company or a friend can help out by letting the cleaners into the apartment then locking up afterward.
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