Where Did Your Security Deposit Go?

One of the biggest concerns that apartment renters have these days is how much of their security deposit they will receive back when they vacate the property. The rules and laws in different cities and states can vary, but they all follow the same general principle — if you leave the property in the same condition that it was in when you first moved in, disregarding any normal wear and tear, you should get your full security deposit back.

This principle, of course, can have a lot of variances as the landlord’s opinion of the condition of the property at move-out time may be different from your opinion. However, there are many actions you can take to increase the chances of receiving most of your deposit back.

Remember, the process of getting your security deposit back starts the day you move into the property and continues until the day you vacate the premises.

Move-in Day

Before you move in your couch, clothes, and computer, you should take the time to inspect the unit for existing wear and tear issues that might come up when you vacate. If you get the opportunity to have a walkthrough of the property with your landlord prior to moving in, go ahead and inspect the unit then. Things to look for include carpet tears or stains, other flooring scratches or defects, holes in walls, anything broken, dirty appliances, a generally unclean apartment, etc. If there are issues, this is the easiest and best time to take pictures and document them for the future.

If the landlord is there, you should point out those issues and agree on what needs to be resolved or recorded as existing issues due to the prior tenants. Most leases give tenants 3-10 days from the move-in date to alert them of items that need to be repaired. Take pictures for major items, compile a list, and email it to the landlord so everyone has a record. Do this even if your lease doesn’t address a timeframe for noting issues.

In addition, avoid being overly picky so as to stay on those good terms with your landlord during your tenancy, but definitely point out major concerns. The landlord may not fix every issue, but at least you will have a record of them to bring up when you move out if there is a dispute. Also, don’t forget to keep that record – email all of it to yourself and keep it where you will remember it, as it may be a few years before you review the list and pictures again.

During Your Stay

While you occupy the premises, you should always try to take care of it as if you owned it. Not only will this keep the landlord happy, increasing your chances of getting your deposit back, but taking care of other people’s property is simply a good way to conduct yourself in life. Most landlords also want to know if items break so that they can fix them in timely manner. Therefore, if you see any items that should cause an owner concern, like water spots on the ceiling or appliances making strange noises, let the landlord know quickly. Small issues can turn to larger problems if not addressed early on. As an added bonus, that also protects you from being blamed for those issues at the end of the lease, which could result in a deduction from your security balance refund.

Again, keeping good relations with the landlord overall should help throughout the lease. Smart landlords know that repairing items and keeping good relations with their tenants is the best way to manage property, have reasonable tenants, and avoid big problems.

Upcoming End of Lease

Once you have given notice per your agreement on terminating the lease, you should request a day very close to the end of your tenancy for a pre-move-out inspection with the owner. Give them several weeks notice in writing and confirm it. You also need to note that you will need a list of any items they believe need to be repaired, fixed, or cleaned within 24 hours after their inspection. This will allow you time to satisfy and clear the items on their list.

Have the property in good shape by inspection time so the owner can review everything and document what needs to be done related to any property damage above normal wear and tear. Also, have your list and any pictures you originally took during your move-in day so that you have documentation on hand if there is a question on whether or not some item of damage was done before or during your tenancy. Walk the unit with the owners and note any issues, discuss items as needed, and confirm they will email you their list the next day.

Once you have their list, do your best to clear items on that list. Even if you do not think they are your responsibility, if they are easy repairs, just do them. If there are items you dispute with the landlord, let them know in writing, explaining the details in a professional and diplomatic way. If you have some documentation to support your opinion, include that.

Many times it is also easier and more effective to have a professional maid service come in and clean the property after all of your items are out. This will make the place look great and for $80-$100, it is probably well worth the money. You may also have to have the carpets cleaned, as some leases require that to be done – check your agreement for details.

Move-out Day

The landlord should do a final walkthrough after you are out, and you should be there with them. This is your last face-to-face opportunity to discuss any issues.

In most jurisdictions, the landlord must give you an account of what charges are taken out of your security deposit, and then deliver the remaining balance back to you within a certain number of days. For example, in California, your deposit must be returned within 21 days, according to TenantsLegalCenter.com. If the owner does not do the accounting and return the monies within that timeframe, the law says they owe the full security deposit back to you, even if there was damage done to the unit. Check your local laws on this issue.

In Case of Disagreement on Security Deposit Deductions

If you disagree on the security deposit deductions made by the landlord, you have a few options. First, you can call or email and discuss it with them. Be professional and tactful. If they will not budge, there are a couple of steps you can try, but first make sure that it is worth the time, energy, and effort to argue over the amount. If the amount is small, it probably makes sense to drop it and just go on with life. If it is a large amount, and the landlord is not the owner, you can request to speak with the owner and present your side and documentation to support your claims.

If that does not work, you could try requesting mediation of the dispute with them or you can file a small claims lawsuit. As long as you have good support on your side for your case, and you mention small claims court, they will probably just write you a check to avoid the hassle of having to go to court.

However, some landlords will not give in, in which case you can decide what is the best course of action for you. It is time consuming to go to court, so make sure it is worth it. Small claims courts usually do not allow attorneys, so it’ll be you and the owner presenting your cases. Check the Internet for information and fees in your area. The good news is that, as long as you have a good case, there is a high probability the court will rule in your favor.

Remember that getting your deposit back starts the day you move in and ends the day you get the final account from the landlord. Typically, dealing with a landlord on a professional and respectful basis and leaving the property in good shape will help you to get most of your security deposit back. For those times it does not, follow the above guidelines and talk to a local real estate professional and tenants’ rights advocate or an attorney as needed.