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10 Tips on How to Get a Security Deposit Back

Anyone who's ever moved out of a rental home knows how nerve-wracking it can be to wait on a security deposit refund. For many renters, the period of 'double rent' when you've paid the deposit and first month's rent on your new home can be stressful and difficult, made even worse by the uncertainty of not knowing when and how much of your previous lease's security deposit is on its way.

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signing a lease security deposit rentingPormezz/Shutterstock

Review Your Lease

The best way you can ensure you get your full security deposit back is to thoroughly review your lease. Understand what you’re getting into when you move into a home, and you’ll know what to expect when you move out.

But what if you’re already living in your rental—is it too late to track your agreement? Absolutely not. Any time you want to do work to your home and aren’t sure if it will count against your security deposit, whether it’s painting a room or changing a light fixture, contact your landlord and ask.

The best way to do this is not by phone or text, but by email, as it creates an easily verified written record. That way, if one person in your rental office says you’re fine to paint your walls bright blue but you’re dinged on the security deposit when you move out, you’ll be able to prove your case.

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vacuum dirty carpet stainsambrozinio/Shutterstock

Carpet Stains

Carpet stains and discoloration can quickly eat away at the amount of your security deposit you get back. While casual wear and tear shouldn’t count against your security deposit, excessive staining will.

The most common sources of carpet stains are pets and spilled food. The best time to treat a stain is immediately after the incident occurs. Of course, unless you schedule your spills and pet accidents in advance, this means you’ll need to keep the carpet cleaning solution on hand. You’d be amazed at how this small investment can save big dollars when it’s time to move out.

There are plenty of other types of carpet stains. After food and pets, the most common source of stains is probably wax.

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fill small drywall holes with drywall compoundFamily Handyman

Drywall Damage

Dings, torn paper facing and excessive holes in drywall are common causes for losing a chunk of your security deposit. Luckily, patching drywall is an easy enough job. Some landlords will take drywall patching as a sign of good faith, and won’t require you to repaint walls, especially if you’ve been in the home for a full year or more. It’s always worth asking and getting the response in writing.

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painting supplies wallAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Paint Issues

Stains, spills and drywall repairs all require paint touch up. Slight touch-ups from simple wear and tear shouldn’t be deducted from your security deposit. On the other hand, you should contact your landlord about their paint policy before you decide to paint the home a different color or if want to do extensive drywall patching.

Some property managers allow tenants to paint walls to meet their preferences. If you got the okay from your landlord, be sure you have it in writing. If your landlord is firm about not allowing you to alter the wall color, don’t think that they won’t notice. Just check out these ways to personalize your apartment that don’t require painting the walls.

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torn window screenZmaj88/Shutterstock

Screens & Window Treatments

Window screens and treatments are constant headaches for renters. They’re easy to damage, especially if you have children or pets. Luckily they’re also extremely easy to repair. If you patch or replace a damaged screen or blind, you’ll avoid having both the repair and the handyman trip to the hardware store taken out of your deposit.

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water damaged ceiling inspector rentingAndrey_Popov/Shutterstock

Document Pre-Existing Damage

No home is perfect, and there will almost certainly be one or more issues with your rental when you move in. Many landlords provide new tenants with a move-in form to record any preexisting damage. If yours didn’t, simply write up a list and send it to them. It doesn’t have to cover everything. Something like “door sticks in warm weather” probably doesn’t need to be on there, but “door has a chunk missing” does.

And don’t sweat it if you don’t notice something right away. If you’ve lived in the house for a week before you discover the back bedroom is missing a window screen, it shouldn’t be a big deal. Just tell your landlord as soon as possible (and document it when you do).

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bathroom sink drain clogged plungerAndrey_Popov/Shutterstock

Bathroom Drains

The main issue when bathrooms impact security deposits is excessively clogged or damaged drains, especially toilet drains. If your sink or toilet clogs due to normal use, you shouldn’t be dinged on your security deposit. But if your drains are damaged by foreign objects, you might be charged. This is one more reason to read and understand your lease!

The most common foreign objects that trigger this kind of deposit charge are children’s toys. For whatever reason, the lure of flushing action figures down the toilet is just irresistible to some kids. If your landlord is repeatedly sending out a plumber to pull little plastic superheroes out of your sewer line, chances are that you’ll see a charge, either immediately or on move-out. To avoid this charge, learn to unclog your own drain or work with your kids to find a permanent solution.

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clean up moving in moving out of apartment getting security deposit backLordn/Shutterstock

Clean-up and Trash-out

You know when you were a kid and people told you that first impressions matter? Well, the same is true for landlords walking through a house after a tenant moves out. If your landlord walks in the door and it looks like you know some secret cleaning tricks, he or she will immediately be put in the right mindset to understand that you deserve to get 100% of getting the security deposit back.

Most leases require rentals to be left in “broom-swept” condition. This means that the place doesn’t need to be spotless, just clean enough that you aren’t leaving a mess when you depart. And don’t forget to dispose of your trash properly. You’d be shocked by the number of tenants who leave garbage, clothes or even furniture behind when they move out. If you make this mistake, your deposit will be used to pay for its removal after you’re gone.

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realtor walk through pre move in inspection Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Ask for a Pre-Move Walk-through

If you’re concerned about getting the security deposit back, then one of the best ways to put your mind at ease is to ask your landlord for a walk-through after you’ve cleaned your rental, but before you move out. This is a great signal to your landlord that you’re acting in good faith. And that can go a long way when it’s time for them to make judgment calls on items that are in a gray area.

Keep in mind that very few landlords will guarantee that you’ll get all of your security deposit back no matter how great your home looks; after all, you’ll still need to pay your final utility bills and they may miss a cabinet that needs repair or something similar. But walking through the rental will let you know if there are any issues you weren’t aware of when you’ve still got time to take care of them.

After the walk-through, ask if your landlord can provide a written list of items to be addressed or confirmation that there weren’t any issues. If your landlord doesn’t have a form for this, don’t demand one—the walk-through is usually done as a courtesy, so they aren’t required to provide a written list. Instead, offer to write it up and send it to them, just to make sure you got everything right. Once again, the importance of getting all this in writing can’t be stressed enough!

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landlord tenant law renting Designer 491/Shutterstock

Know Your Rights

If all else fails, and you feel that you’re being charged an unfair amount against your security deposit, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself! While landlords can deduct from a security deposit for a variety of reasons, that doesn’t mean they have free rein to do whatever they like or to charge you for things outside your control, such as a leaky roof.

The laws governing renters’ rights and security deposit vary depending on location, so your best bet is to reach out to a pro near you. In addition, many areas have local organizations that provide free legal resources for renters.

Chances are that you’ll never have to go that far. Simply remember to gather all your written communications with your landlord, and follow the tips on this list to keep your security deposit worries to a minimum.

Dan Stout
Ohio-based freelance writer and author Dan Stout is a former residential remodeler, commercial site supervisor and maintenance manager. He’s worked on nearly all aspects of building and DIY including project planning and permitting, plumbing, basic electric, drywall, carpentry, tiling, painting and more. He also publishes noir fantasy thrillers, including The Carter Series, from Penguin imprint DAW Books.