How to Get Your Rental Deposit Back

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Nothing is worse than finding out you're not getting your deposit back at the end of a lease. It's not always easy to predict - all landlords are not created equal - but there are steps you can take to guard yourself. Here are tips on how to get your deposit back - know them before you move in.
Why? Because as a tenant you aren't responsible for normal wear and tear, such as replacing a rug worn thin by other use and other ordinary usage, and you want to itemize and photograph the condition of your apartment on the day you move in so that you can't be blamed when you move out for excessive damage such as broken bathroom tiles that were broken before you arrived.

Most states have strict guidelines for rental deposits, or security deposits, to keep landlords from charging excessively.

Normal wear and tear, such as replacing a dishwasher that has simply worn out, is the landlord's responsibility. But damage or excessive filth that you've caused, such as water damage from hanging plants, or rips in a carpet, can be your responsibility and the landlord can withhold money from the rental deposit to make those repairs.

If your fish tank leaked and ruined the carpet, the cost of replacing the carpet will come out of your security deposit. The agreement is that you'll leave the rental at least as clean as it was when you moved in.

Documenting the unit's condition when you move in can help avoid disputes when you move out over what is normal wear and tear. Make a checklist of existing damage, and ideally, have your landlord sign off on it with you. Take photos that day, have them developed immediately into double sets, and give your landlord a copy.

Rental Deposit Deadlines

Landlords typically must return security deposits within 14 to 30 days after you move out. The deadlines differ by state. You can also look up some of the key landlord-tenant statutes in your state for more information.

The landlord must send to your last known address, either:
  1. Your entire deposit (plus interest, in some states and in some cities), or
  2. A written, itemized statement describing how the deposit was applied to back rent, cleaning, or repairs, plus the remainder of the deposit.
Small claims court
As a last step, if your deposit isn't returned as required, you can sue the landlord in small claims court. If the landlord has intentionally and flagrantly violated the law, some states allow you to recover two or three times the amount of the deposit, plus attorneys' fees and other damages.

Aaron Crowe has lived in at least five rental units in the San Francisco Bay Area and has almost always gotten his deposit back. Visit his blog at AaronCrowe.net
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