5 Tips for Getting Your Security Deposit Back

When you rent a place to live, you provide the landlord with a security deposit. And if you didn't damage anything, you should get that money back.
When you rent a place to live, you provide the landlord with a security deposit. And if you didn't damage anything, you should get that money back.
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Moving stinks. There's the hassle of packing, blackmailing friends to help you and trying to dig months of gunk out of the caulk in the shower. That doesn't even take into account the literal stink of moving: That particular aroma that you and your helpers will start emitting after a few hours of box moving and truck loading.

Then there's the less physical hassles of moving. Not only do you have to find a new place, but you have to wrap things up at your old one. That means getting together with your landlord and getting your security deposit back.

Your security deposit is that giant wad of cash (or nice-sized check) your landlord took from you when you moved in. Your landlord, or whoever manages the property, is supposed to hold the money until you move out. If you damaged something beyond normal what could be expected beyond normal use, the security deposit is there to cover its repair or replacement.

But here's the thing: If you didn't damage anything, you get that money back. Of course, like most things related to moving (Put stuff in boxes! Transport to a new location! Repay friends who helped with beer!) it's not always that simple.

5
Don't Rent From Jerks
Unfortunately, some landlords and even some professional management companies will try to unfairly hold on to your security deposit.
Unfortunately, some landlords and even some professional management companies will try to unfairly hold on to your security deposit.
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The best way to get your security deposit back is to entrust it to a good landlord in the first place. In most states, landlords are required to keep that money separate from other accounts so they can return the deposit to their tenants when they move out. That's why it's called a "security deposit" and not "fuel for your landlord's gambling spree."

Unfortunately, some landlords and even some professional management companies will try to unfairly hold on to security deposits -- because who wouldn't want to keep extra money? The key is not renting from these people in the first place. When you're considering renting a place, research the landlord as thoroughly as you research the neighborhood. Hit up the Better Business Bureau to see if there are complaints against the property management company. Check out Yelp.com, ApartmentRatings.com or local real estate sites to read reviews of the building. Heck, just run the landlord or property management company's name through a search engine to see if there's a pattern of complaints. It's a lot easier to get your security deposit back if you don't rent from someone who never intended to return it in the first place.

4
Document

Once you've determined that you're not renting from Mr. Security Deposit McStealy, you need to start making the case for getting your security deposit back before you even move in. Ideally, your landlord will give you a property condition checklist and the two of you will go around the property filling it out together and then each keep a copy. If your landlord doesn't do this, make sure you do it yourself. You can create your own checklist or most real estate or renters' sites have ones you can download.

In addition to the checklist, take pictures of the entire property -- even up close, detailed photos of fixtures like faucets -- to document what they looked like when you moved in. Do this before you move in a single box of your stuff. Do it in daylight so you can more easily spot issues. As you go around the property, try every light switch, turn on every system (like the air conditioner or heater), flush every toilet and turn on every appliance. If something is broken, document it before you move in so it's clear that you didn't break it. Then follow up with the landlord on a repair plan.

You should also ask the landlord to document the age of certain parts of the property, like the carpet or the paint. Odds are you won't need that information, but if you end up having to fight for your security deposit, the age of things like that could play a key role in how much you're able to get back.

3
Stay on Top of Things
Keeping on top of cleaning and minor repairs while you're living in a place will make it easier to get your security deposit back when you move out.
Keeping on top of cleaning and minor repairs while you're living in a place will make it easier to get your security deposit back when you move out.
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Once you've documented the condition of the property before you moved in, you need to maintain it. That means not letting your cat use the dining room as the world's biggest litter box or your kids turn the hallway into a retrospective of their greasy handprints. Also, the carpet in the living room is not an ash tray. Don't put your cigarettes out on it.

Keeping on top of cleaning and minor repairs while you're living in a place will make it easier to get your security deposit back when you move out. Most leases allow for you to get your security deposit back even when things like paint and carpet show "normal wear and tear." Normal wear and tear covers the fading paint or carpet matting. It does not cover the hole your dog chewed in the back door or your adventures with the countertop-staining hair dye in the bathroom.

Keep on top of small repairs as well. If you notice a leak under the sink, for example, get the landlord to fix it ASAP -- otherwise you could be liable for the mold and rotten wood damage that resulted when you didn't make sure the repair got made.

While you may be able to get rid of months or even years of accumulated nastiness when it's time to move out, it's a lot easier to keep the property clean and maintained from the get go, and it makes it more likely that you'll your security deposit back. Plus, staying on top of small repairs and cleaning means you won't be living in your own filth -- and anyone can appreciate that.

2
Document (Again)

When it's time to move out, do another walkthrough with the landlord or property manager using your original checklist and photos to review any damage that may have occurred under your watch. Be reasonable. A few nail holes counts as wear and tear. The holes you punched in the walls do not.

Do this walk through after all your stuff has been moved out so you can clearly see any issues, and so your landlord can't come back later and say your Justin Bieber posters were covering a massive mold problem. If there are repairs that will need to come out of your deposit, get them in writing and hang on to a copy.

Once the walkthrough is complete, make sure you leave a good forwarding address with your landlord. They can't return your deposit if they don't know where to send it (and it's a lot harder for them to claim they didn't know where to send it if you can document that you gave them a good address). Also make sure you hang on to your copy of the lease, which should specify how long the landlord has to return your security deposit. Odds are you won't get the deposit back the day you move out. Typically, the landlord has a few weeks to get it to you.

1
Lawyer Up

In most cases, you won't have any trouble getting your security deposit back. In a few cases, however, you may need to bring in some really scary people: lawyers.

Before it gets to that point, continue documenting everything and know your rights. Remember how we told you to get the age of things like paint and carpet? If the landlord is going to charge you for carpet replacement, in many places, he or she can only charge you for part of the amount depending on the age of the carpet. That is, you can't be charged for the full cost of brand-new carpet if the carpet was left over from the Nixon administration and needed to be replaced anyway. If your landlord is withholding all or part of your security deposit, they will have to not only document the damages, but also provide an itemized list of repairs and costs. You may have grounds to dispute these costs, especially if you were otherwise a good tenant, stayed on top of repairs and cleaning and documented everything (do you see a theme emerging here?)

If your landlord is still stalling, keep lines of communication open, but get everything in writing. This is the kind of situation e-mail was made for. Keep it civil, state your case, back it up with photos, your lease agreement and the rental laws in your area. If your landlord is clearly violating the law or your lease, you can take them to small claims court to get your security deposit back.

When you do get your deposit back, I suggest using it to start saving for buying a place of your own, so you never have to deal with crazy landlords again.

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Author's Note: 5 Tips for Getting Your Security Deposit Back

As someone who has been both a renter and a landlord (being a landlord exposes you to a whole lot more crazy than being a renter, trust me), you'd think the tips in this article would be second nature. You'd be wrong. I've lost a ton of money on security deposits. Some I lost because I went ahead and let my cat destroy the blinds in my rented bedroom, others because I simply didn't know my rights and let an unscrupulous landlord walk all over me. As a landlord, I've lost money by not documenting the property condition well before people moved in and letting tenants walk all over me. (There's another theme). After researching and writing this, however, I realized that it doesn't have to be that way. Tenants and landlords can work together, document issues, return security deposits and sit around a campfire singing "Kumbaya." It's not necessarily world peace, but it's a step in the right direction.

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Sources

  • Apartment Ratings. "Get Your Security Deposit Back When Moving Out." Apartmentratings.com. Feb. 8, 2006. (June 20, 2012) http://ohmyapt.apartmentratings.com/security_deposit_back.html
  • Fulmer, Melinda. "Renters: Get Back Your Security Deposit." MSN Real Estate. (June 20, 2012) http://realestate.msn.com/article.aspx?cp-documentid=13108376
  • Karim, Andrea. "20 Tips for Getting Your Security Deposit Back." WiseBread.com. April 15, 2007. (June 20, 2012) http://www.wisebread.com/20-tips-for-getting-your-security-deposit-back
  • Schultz, Jennifer Saranow. "How to Get a Security Deposit Back from a Landlord." The New York Times Bucks Blog. Dec. 29, 2009. (June 20, 2012) http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/22/how-to-get-your-security-deposit-back/
  • Tata, Jessica. "How To: Get Back Your Security Deposit." Apartment Therapy. Aug. 19, 2011. (June 20, 2012) http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/getting-back-your-security-dep-154171