Your Rental Deposit Returned in Three Steps

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Renting an apartment or any type of residence is relatively simple. You discover a vacant unit, call to arrange a showing, fill out a rental application, sign and write a check for the deposit -- and you're in!

But the moving out process can be more stressful or difficult. Personal experience leads me to propose a simple three-step strategy that nearly always guarantees your deposit is returned – even if you have to take your case to court.

This three-step strategy is an important part of the lease arrangement and requires only a modicum of planning. You will need the following items:
  • Pen
  • Paper
  • Digital Camera


Before you move into your new residence, walk through the unit and photograph the unit in its move-in condition. Be on the lookout for pre-existing irregularities or damage -- basically anything that you might later be held responsible for repairing. If damage exists, take multiple photos from various angles. Take notes on the condition of each room. If there is significant damage be sure to send a letter to the landlord or management company letting them know, and include copies of the photos. And be sure to save these files!

When you are ready to move out simply repeat the process of photographing all parts of the unit. It's important to be honest and fair if you've caused damage, and be certain to photograph the damage if you are unwilling or unable to do repairs. Then be prepared to lose a portion of your deposit.

Photographic evidence is always a good idea. Be certain your images are high-quality and lighting is sufficient to capture the conditions. This documentation may prove invaluable if the landlord or rental agent withholds all or a portion of your deposit claiming damages committed. If that happens make sure to file your disagreement in writing and ask the landlord to present proof of condition at the time you took possession. Usually the landlord has no proof or supporting documentation of the previous condition and you can support your claim with your own photos.

The third and final step is to invite the landlord or rental agent to a final walk-through of the unit once you have removed your possessions and performed the necessary cleaning. Often the landlord declines the invitation and suggests you drop off the keys or leave the keys behind on your way out. If the walk-through is accepted, simply have your "before" pictures printed out at any local Wal-Mart or other photo-processing center (the cost per print is very reasonable). Be sure to make double copies so you can provide one to either the landlord or the court if necessary.

Regarding court: Depending on the state you live, there are certain rules governing landlord-tenant relations and often there is a state agency that deals with exactly these types of situations. Since states differ on this, you may need to file a claim in small-claims court to recover a deposit.

If you do have to go to court, those photos are going to be the supporting evidence when stating your side of the story and why you believe your deposit is being wrongly withheld. Don't forget to take both sets of photos with you on your court date. The judge will use the photos as the primary evidence in making a decision in your case.

The main point is: documentation can prove your side of the story and those photographs are your primary supporting evidence. Without evidence a court is more likely to decide with the landlord because that party has the most at stake in the property. Moreover, the photographic evidence is much like an unbiased third party witness to your claim and will carry much weight in the judge's decision.
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