Want Your Security Deposit Back? Ask These 6 Questions

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When you've just landed a new apartment in Boston, MA, a security deposit is kind of like the pile of work on your desk at 5 p.m. on a Friday. You could push it aside for now, but you'll still have to deal with it on Monday (or when it's time to move out). But until that time comes, it's easy to be distracted with decorating, meeting the neighbors, and celebrating your new place.

However, it's important to be proactive so you can help ensure you'll get back every penny you deserve — and you can't just assume the security deposit will let you "live out the last month," either. That concept exists only in tenants' minds and isn't really a thing (ever) ... unless your landlord has agreed to it.

Here are six important questions to ask before you sign the lease that can help save you some dough.

1. Does your landlord want the place returned spotless?

Your landlord might be the white-glove type that meticulously checks for cleanliness, and not just by putting on a white glove and inspecting for dust. They might expect a sparkling-clean oven, microwave, and fridge (and freshly spackled and touched-up walls). Find out by asking your landlord what they expect at move-out time. If you're a bit of a slob, you might want to pay a cleaning service to scour your place before you move out. That way, you control how much you spend instead of leaving a mess for the landlord to clean ... and to charge you for. Don't leave dilapidated furniture behind. If the landlord has to discard it, expect to pay for any charges incurred.

2. What is normal wear and tear?

If you've lived in a place for several years, it won't look as good as the day you moved in. The carpet will show wear, the paint will fade or show smudges, and there might be small nicks here and there on the walls. These things are just normal wear and tear — stuff that happens over time in any home or apartment. The landlord shouldn't charge you for that. In other words, the landlord can't remodel the place on your dime. But if the wear and tear is excessive and outright damage has occurred (wine or vomit stains on the carpet, the unmistakable odor of cat pee, a child's "artwork" painted directly on the walls, broken doors or holes in walls from who knows what), that's on you and will come out of your security deposit.

3. What's the charge for repainting?

Were the walls in your rental just painted, but you already know that you simply cannot live with those "builder beige" tones without losing your mind? You might not have to cover the walls in floor-to-ceiling artwork. If you wish to paint the walls a soothing aqua chiffon or maybe a lovely hyacinth, you first need permission from the landlord. If you get the A-OK, you'll either need to paint the walls back to beige before you move out or let the landlord take a repainting fee from your security deposit. Unless you know how to prep walls for painting like a pro and can be certain you won't get paint on trim, baseboards, or anywhere else it shouldn't be, let your landlord do it. Once you know upfront how much they'll charge you for the privilege of painting, those beige walls might start to look kind of nice.

4. Who is responsible for lawn maintenance?

Lawn maintenance is a tricky area for renters and a subject that should be spelled out explicitly in the lease. If it isn't, generally speaking, when you rent a multifamily unit, the landlord is responsible for lawn care. If you rent a single-family home, you are probably responsible for the upkeep of the grounds. But there's upkeep and then there's upkeep. What you consider kept up might not be what the landlord has in mind. Find out, for example, how often you need to mow the lawn and whether you need to water it, trim bushes and shrubs, and keep weeds under control. If there is any doubt, maintain the property of the house you're renting as you would your own house.

If the landlord needs to spend money to get the grounds in the same shape as when you moved in, that will come out of your security deposit. Keep in mind that maintaining is one thing, but making the yard your own is another. Get permission before you plant a flower or vegetable garden, and know that any bushes or trees you plant should stay with the house when you move.

5. What about pets?

Pets can cause damage. Cats might ruin the carpet by using it as a scratching post, and dogs sometimes dig holes in the yard. Landlords know this, which is why some don't allow pets. The ones who do might charge a pet deposit (if your state allows it). If you paid a pet deposit, the landlord uses it, not the security deposit, to pay for any pet-related damage. If you weren't charged a separate pet deposit, the landlord can use the security deposit to repair any pet damage.

6. What if something breaks?

If you spot a problem, tell your landlord right away, whether you caused it and need to pay for it through your security deposit or whether the repair is one the landlord pays for. Either way, if you neglect to tell the landlord and said problem later turns into a disaster, you could be on the hook for the excessive damage. For example, if you spot water coming in from a leaky roof, the landlord needs to fix it right away, and they will pay for it. But if you don't report the dripping water and a mold problem eventually develops, those mold-removal costs could very well be on you.

Bottom line

The closer you can get to having your place look just the way it did when you moved in (take photos!), the more likely you'll be to get your full security deposit back. But if the landlord does keep some or all of your security deposit, they almost always need to present you with an itemized receipt detailing the reasons. How long landlords have to get this done varies by state, so familiarize yourself with your state's laws. If you don't get your security deposit back or a written explanation as to why not, write to your landlord and ask for your security deposit. If that doesn't work, you may want to take your landlord to small claims court. You'll probably get your deposit back that way. In some states, landlords must also pay you a penalty fee in such cases.

Do you have a tip for getting back a security deposit? Let us know in the comments!
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