10 Tips for Getting Your 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.
Review Your Lease
The first and best defense for getting the security deposit back is to thoroughly review your lease. Understand what you’re getting into when you move into the 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 checked 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.
A very common problem at move out, carpet stains and discoloration can quickly eat away at getting security deposit 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. (And sometimes one follows the other.) 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 is probably wax. If that’s the problem you have, see this Family Handyman article on cleaning wax out of carpet, and you should be all set.
Dings, torn paper facing and excessive holes in drywall are often causes for losing at least part of a renters’ 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.
Stains, spills and drywall repairs all require paint touch up. However, the slight touch ups from simple wear and tear shouldn’t be deducted from getting security deposit back. On the other hand, if you’ve decided to paint the home a different color, or if you’ve had to do extensive drywall patching, then you should contact your landlord about their paint policy.
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 12 Ways to Personalize Your Apartment that don’t require painting the walls.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.