How To: Get Back Your Security Deposit

It's almost an inevitability that, at some point in people's renting history, the landlord will keep some or all of the security deposit. In my own history, it hasn't always been for a fair or just reason. What can you do to ensure that your money is returned to you in full? Here are some basics to lead you down the path of 100% deposit refund.I feel like there should be a class in high school that prepares people for real life. The nitty gritty, boring but important details about real life. Renting an apartment would be part of this syllabus. I don't remember anyone teaching me how to read and sign a lease, how to protect yourself from a landlord that wants to keep your deposit--even if you didn't mess the place up but actually fixed it up!

For me, experience was the best teacher. A strict, sort of mean teacher! I learned many things about renting before owning my own home, and by the time I was no longer a renter, I had become pretty good at it! Here are some of the things I learned about getting your security deposit back:

  1. Read the lease before you sign it! It seems like they all say the same things, but often times landlords use leases that are not standardized. Double check to see what the lease has to say about the deposit. Is there an automatic cleaning fee? Does the lease include a walk-through condition form? In almost all cases, lease clauses can be edited or changed if it is agreed upon by both the renter and the tenant. Make sure the lease is clear and fair before entering into a contract. They do teach you to read what you sign, but this is a reminder to actually do it!
  2. Know your renters rights and the housing laws of your state. Every adult that rents should be familiar with their rights in their state. Nowadays, it's as easy as a bit of internet research. Go find renters guidelines online and bookmark the site in your browser. Knowing your rights can make the difference between having a legal leg to stand on, and blindly arguing to get your money back.
  3. Complete a walk-through condition form! This form often comes with the lease, but not always. If not, create your own! Usually, renters require or appreciate that you complete it within 48 hours of moving in. The best time to complete this is when you first get the keys. Take 15 minutes to walk from room to room, inspecting the home and noting anything, anything that is not in perfect condition.You'll want to turn this into your landlord, and have them sign a copy to keep for yourself. If you cannot get your landlord to do this, send a copy via registered mail, to ensure that they receive it, and have proof of delivery in the future.
  4. Take photographs! While you are doing your walk-through, photograph everything that you write down, as well as wide-angle shots of the entire place. If you have the option of dating the photos digitally, do it! You can include these images with the walk-through, but at least notate that you took them for the landlord and keep them for your own reference
  5. If anything breaks, "goes bad" or happens to the home while you're living there, fully document it for your own records. To get something repaired, most landlords require a written request for service, but this also doubles as a record of things that happen to your home while you're there---especially if they're not your fault!
  6. Really clean your home before you move out. This is a hard one sometimes, because you're usually exhausted and ready to get the heck out of your old place and into your new place, when it comes time to move. Often, too, you'll think to yourself, "but it was dirty when I moved in! I had to clean it before I settled in, so I should return it in the same condition." This is one area where you ought to leave the place in better condition than you received it, without complaining. Just clean the place...well! It will behoove you to leave the home in as perfect condition as you can, if for no other reason than to start the landlord off on the right foot when they come to assess for damages and charges. It's worth it to clean your home well before moving.
  7. Schedule a walk-through with your landlord before turning the keys in. This isn't always possible for all landlords, but if you can, take the opportunity to do a move-out walk through. Have them look around and point out anything that they might charge you for, so that you can take care of it before you leave. Write down what they say, and then do it! In all of my pessimism, though, I have to say that you cannot always rely on this walk-through. I've had a couple of instances where the landlord says everything is fine, but then charges me for something anyway. That's why you should still follow tips 1-6!
  8. Provide accurate forwarding address information. This seems pretty basic, but making sure that your landlord has your new mailing address is pretty key in them sending you a check! It also prevents any blurring of the lines when it comes to the typical 30 days that landlords legally have to remit your deposit, or a full list of charges.
  9. If your landlord has charged you for something that you think is unfair, request more information. Many states require documentation of those charges, along with a receipt, bill, or quote from an outside company for the record of what they are charging you. This is where hint #2 comes in handy: know the rules and laws in your state. If the landlord is not following them, you'll have more leverage.
  10. If you have been charged unfairly, and haven't made any progress talking to your landlord yourself, seek the help of a renter's rights group. Many cities and states have organizations devoted to protecting the rights of tenants (and renters!) and will assist you in getting your money back.
  11. My second to last rule takes a bit of soul searching. If you have gotten to the point where you've been charged, you think it is unfair, and you haven't made any progress with the above steps, take one moment to really look at the situation as pragmatically and objectively as possible. Do you really deserve the money back? Is the landlord really being unfair? Do you have proper documentation to show that what they've charged you for is not legitimate? Hopefully you've thought about these things all along the way, but take pause before you make a bigger issue of it. Not all landlords are out to get you. They are conducting business and trying to cover their own hides as well. But if you feel that you've really been cheated, then move on.
  12. If you haven't been able to resolve your matter, and it is worth your time and effort, small claims court is a place to go to turn the issue over to the judge. I've done it. I've been in a situation where I've been taken advantage of to the extent where I felt truly wronged, and it was a substantial enough amount of money to warrant legal action. Small claims court gives you an opportunity to plead your case with a judge. If a judge still doesn't side with you, it might be time to call it quits! And if they do, I've heard that it isn't always easy to enforce repayment by the landlord. However, you have a good chance of resolving the situation, and it is often very affordable to do so. Hopefully you won't have to if your followed the above steps.

It may seem like overkill, and if your deposit is only $100, it might not be worth it. But knowing what rights you have is a powerful thing. Protecting yourself financially as a tenant is important. And if you're living in a place where your security deposit is very high (hello, San Francisco and New York!) then this is very important information!

Any other tips out there from readers who have become "professional renters?"

Image: Flickr member cambodia4kidsorg licensed for use by Creative Commons

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