7 ways to avoid losing your security deposit

How to Negotiate Your Rent
How to Negotiate Your Rent

You've known your landlord for months, maybe even years, so you've likely formed a relationship. But even if you exchange friendly words and live in harmony while you're renting their space, landlord-tenant relationships can do a 180 at move-out time when a security deposit is involved. Naturally, tenants expect all of their deposit back, especially when they've kept the place tidy.

Unfortunately, not all landlords treat their tenants fairly, and if you've been confused about why you didn't get your full deposit back (or didn't get a refund at all!), it's not hard to see why this is a frequent sticking point for renters. But it's not just unfair for a landlord to withhold a security deposit refund for no reason: In most states, it's not even legal. Take the following steps to help ensure you get your security deposit back.

1. Fill out an apartment rental inspection checklist

Fill out the move-in checklist your landlord provides for you, or download a rental inspection checklist from Trulia. In addition to checking off all boxes — from ensuring everything is working to noting any blemishes and marks — bring a camera and take pictures or videos of your apartment before you unpack your boxes. Pay extra attention to anything that looks less than stellar. This way, your landlord can't claim you caused the damage. Once you've filled out the checklist, make a signed and dated copy of it for you and your landlord.

2. Take pictures the day you move out

Document how pristine you left the place: Take photos of every room and email them to your landlord the same day. If you can't send them via email (or don't think it's necessary), don't sweat it. Most digital images have time-stamp data included in the file if you later need to prove the date and time they were taken. That way, the crazy keg party your landlord throws the day after you move out can't be attributed to you.

3. Read your lease carefully

Your lease will tell you if you need to give notice, and how much time is required. Usually, if your lease has an end date, you can simply move out on or before that day, but some leases automatically extend. If yours does, you'll need to give notice, or else you could be at risk of losing your security deposit for breaking your new lease. If you are on a month-to-month lease, you'll also need to give written notice, usually 30 days before you plan to move out. "Get a receipt from your landlord that your notice was submitted on time," says Nancy Gaines of Colorado, a landlord and founder of Women Gaining Wealth.

4. Understand how landlord-tenant laws apply to you

Landlords should abide by local laws and statutes. Whether you live in an apartment for rent in Chicago, IL, or Baltimore, MD, a little research can make a big difference. Adam Ansari, a Chicago attorney specializing in real estate law, recommends that tenants check their city, county, and state laws for security deposit details and then write a letter to the landlord two to three months before the move-out date, reminding the landlord of the law. This will let the landlord know that you expect your full deposit back (or at least a detailed explanation of why they're keeping it).

5. Start organizing and reassembling your place

Spend some time putting the property back in its original condition:

  • Patch any holes in the walls where you hung posters, pictures, etc.

  • Repaint the walls their original color (unless your new colors have been landlord-approved)

  • Fix any damages you caused

  • Clean the refrigerator and oven

  • Clean the entire apartment once you have all your furniture moved out

6. Request a final apartment walk-through

Ask your landlord to inspect the place with you present (after you have cleaned and fixed it up). Keep in mind that landlords do not have to agree to do a walk-through with you. Many landlords prefer to do the walk-through alone and at their leisure, to ensure you didn't damage the place beyond normal wear and tear, but they should still be able to provide you with a list of any damages and the charges to fix them.

7. Tie up loose ends

Yes, you should drop off the keys, but you should also be sure to leave a forwarding address. And if you'd like the security deposit returned somewhere aside from your forwarding address, make sure to leave that with your landlord too. Let your landlord know where to send the security deposit.

Keep in mind: If you've followed these tips, didn't leave behind major damage, and still don't get your security deposit back, Wayne Gathright of Tenants.com says to "contact the local tenant's council or go to small claims court." He notes that many times, just "the threat of legal action is enough to get things resolved."

Have you ever had a security deposit refund withheld? Share your experiences and tips in the comments!

Related: 10 cities with the tiniest homes

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