No article on residential leases would be anywhere near complete without mention of the oft-contested security deposit. If you're a potential tenant trying to scrape together the required first and last month's rent for your initial payment, the security deposit can seem like a cruel obstacle planted in your path, like one of Hercules's 12 Labors.
No, the gods of Greek mythology don't have an axe to grind against you. But the landlord does want to make it very painful, financially, for you to damage his or her investment. The "security" deposit is all about the landlord's security, not yours. It's a small insurance policy against you or your guests trashing the apartment beyond "normal wear and tear." That's why you want to get really clear on what's considered "normal" before you sign.
Punching holes in the plaster is an obvious no-go. Common sense should dictate too that painting the walls Day-Glo Orange won't pass, flying colors or otherwise. But what about tiny holes from thumbtacks or small nails? Small wall scuffs from moving furniture around?
The point we're getting at here -- see to it that the lease defines somewhere the specific conditions upon move-out that will forfeit part or all of the security deposit.
Also find out when and how, after the lease is up, you'll receive your security deposit back (and make sure it's being held in a trust or escrow account, not under the landlord's mattress). Because after all, you will have been the model tenant and will be entitled to receive most or all of it back, right?
Another thing to watch out for: "non-refundable" deposits. It's quite common for landlords to charge an application fee to cover their costs of reviewing the application and paying for background and credit checks. This is not to be confused with a blanket "non-refundable deposit," which many landlords try to slip into the lease terms, but is illegal in many states. One exception where landlords get to keep your upfront money: pet deposits. No, not those yucky things pets leave on the sidewalk, but the fee landlords charge tenants for the right to keep a pet on the premises. You probably know what we're going to say next -- check your state and local laws to see what applies where you live!