Most landlords require security deposits from prospective tenants to cover damage, theft, and nonpayment of rent before allowing them to move in.
From holes in drywall and broken bathroom tiles to missing televisions and excessive filth, security deposits cover various issues.
But for most renters, not getting one back can turn an otherwise good experience into a bad one.
Security deposits can be equal to the first and last month’s rent, and in many cases, exceed $1,000.
It’s not an insignificant amount of money. Especially if you’re getting ready to move long distance. That’s money you can use towards paying for a professional moving company or decorating your new home.
But, for those with minimal cash-on-hand, it can lead to other financial problems like not having enough for a deposit on a new apartment or rental unit.
Thankfully, ensuring you get all or most of your hard-earned money back isn’t difficult.
Let’s see how.
What Your Landlord Can Use It to Pay for
Though it can vary from state to state and one rental agreement to the next, landlords are generally entitled to keep some or all of a security deposit if –
- The tenant breaks their lease before the end of the agreement (early termination)
- There’s unpaid rent
- They’ve caused property damage to furniture, appliances, electronics, walls, flooring, etc.
- Items are missing
- If the apartment is excessively dirty and requires professional cleaning
- Paying unpaid utilities
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How to Get Your Security Deposit Back After Moving
1. Be an Informed Renter
And yes, informed renters actually read their rental (lease) agreements before signing on the dotted line and moving in.
Though they’re full of obscure terms and mind-numbing legalese, rental agreements should lay out the terms by which the landlord can keep some or all of a security deposit.
They also contain other important information like –
- The agreement’s beginning and end dates
- How to make rental payments when they’re due each month
- How much notice they require before moving out
- Conditions and time frame for the security deposit refund
- Move-out inspection requirements
2. Note Pre-Existing Conditions (Wear and Tear) and Contents at Move-In
Before moving anything into your new apartment, do a thorough walk-through with the landlord or their representative.
If it’s a furnished unit, make a complete list of the following items –
- Furniture and bedding
- Kitchenware like dishes, silverware, microwave, etc.
This is imperative because if you don’t account for everything at move-out, the cost to replace it may come out of your security deposit.
In addition, note –
- Existing damages to floors, walls, ceilings, countertops, furniture, etc.
- The mechanical condition of appliances and electronics
- Plumbing leaks and water stains
- Evidence of mouse or bug infestation (yuck)
Remember, the landlord will assume that you caused any damage not noted at move-in, so don’t rush through this step.
A picture is worth 1,000 words – take photos or video of your new apartment before moving in to highlight pre-existing damage and normal wear and tear.
3. Repair or Report Damage When It Happens
Sometimes causing damage in an apartment is unavoidable.
We’ve all dropped an iron on a hardwood floor or gouged a kitchen counter with a sharp knife.
That said, when it happens, it’s best to repair the damage as soon as possible or report it to your landlord, so they can arrange to have it fixed professionally.
Sometimes minor damage may not warrant repair, but when your lease is up, landlords and property management companies are much more likely to let small things slide if you’ve been forthright.
If you do try to fix something yourself, know your limitations.
Sometimes well-intentioned ‘fixes’ can turn small issues into big ones.
Generally, stick to patching nail holes in walls, touching up worn areas with fresh paint, and cleaning.
Leave plumbing, carpentry, and electrical issues to trained professionals. Just keep in mind that your landlord may pass the cost of repairs on to you.
Waiting until your move-out date can make lots of little issues seem impossible, so address each as soon as it happens.
4. Keep It Clean
Cleaning your apartment regularly is the best way to keep it in tip-top shape.
If that’s not an option, thorough cleaning before move-out is imperative – ideally after your furniture is already gone.
Sweeping and vacuuming are important, but don’t forget to –
- Empty, clean, and defrost refrigerators
- Scrub sinks, toilets, and tubs
- Wipe down counters, tables, bookshelves, etc.
- Dust closets, curtains, and hard to reach areas
- Mop the floors
Remember, clean apartments make great impressions.
As a renter, you’d definitely choose a clean, fresh-smelling apartment over a dusty and musty one, and the same goes for landlords.
If during the final walk-through they see a spotless apartment, they’re much more likely to overlook small issues and return your deposit.
5. Give Your Landlord Proper Written Notice When You Move Out
Laws regarding the termination of leases often differ from state to state, but as a rule of thumb, these laws require renters to give 30 days’ notice before moving out.
But don’t assume that’s the case where you live.
By reading your rental agreement carefully on the front end, you’ll be aware of notice requirements when it’s time to move out.
In other words – no 9th-hour surprises.
On the other hand, failure to give proper notice may result in –
- Forfeiting some or all of your security deposit
- Having to wait longer to get it back
- Reduced cash flow when you need it most
- Unnecessary stress
6. Do a Final Inspection
Before moving out, ask your landlord to accompany you on a walk-through of your apartment or rental property.
They should be happy to oblige, but if they can’t or won’t, documenting the condition of the residence and its contents in writing and with photos or video is even more critical.
If the landlord is with you, make sure that you’ve both signed off on everything, so there aren’t any surprises later on.
Again, waiting until the last minute to point out damage that happened months ago has a way of making landlords see red, and it may make getting the full amount of the security deposit back less likely.
7. Return All of Your Keys
Landlords expect to get all their keys back when a tenant moves out.
If you’ve lost one, tell them as soon as possible.
They may ask you to have a copy made on your own or work with a locksmith to replace the locks.
Sometimes rental agreements include fees for these services.
8. Ask for Your Security Deposit
You’ve done everything right.
You’ve kept your apartment clean, paid your rent on time, and reported minor damage.
And the diligent soul that you are, you left it cleaner than it was when you moved in.
Now, don’t be shy about asking for your security deposit back.
If you’re dealing with a mom-and-pop landlord, you might get it the same day you move out, but most companies that own or manage multiple apartment buildings will mail your security deposit back to you in a few weeks or a month.
Again, you should detail this in the rental agreement, so if you’ve read it beforehand, you’ll know what to expect.
If the landlord informs you that they’ll be taking part in your security deposit due to damage, ask for an itemized statement of all deductions for your records.
9. Know Your Rights
Whether you live in New York, California, or Kansas, knowing your rights is vital when it comes to being a renter.
For example, in some states, security deposits are often capped based on monthly rent and other factors.
Suppose your landlord demanded a security deposit greater than was legally allowed. In that case, you might have recourse in small claims court if he or she refuses to return it after you’ve fulfilled the term of your rental agreement.
In addition, state security deposit law may mandate –
- How quickly landlords must return deposits
- Whether they’re required to pay you interest for the time your security deposit was in their possession
- Landlords give tenants itemized lists of deductions when moving out
- That a landlord send a demand letter before taking legal action against a tenant
Security Deposit Quick Tips
- If possible, get a letter of reference from a former landlord
- Give your current landlord notice before moving out
- Leave your apartment or rental unit in good condition (clean and damage-free)
- Keep in mind that security deposits aren’t always 100% refundable
- You can avoid trips to small claims court for real estate and tenancy issues by reporting all damage and paying rent on time
- Excessive damage may result in eviction and the loss of your security deposit
- Whether communicating by mail or email, a return receipt will act as proof that the landlord has received your message (or keys if you’re returning them by mail)
- Make sure the landlord has a forwarding address (new address), so they can return your security deposit