When it's time to get your security deposit back, even the most conscientious renters can run into snags. Fortunately, as a tenant, there are steps you can take now to make the process go smoother once you're ready to move on.
Well, buckle your seat belt, responsible former tenant: You are entitled to that money, not the man who avoided your calls about a clogged toilet for a year. Unless you invited stampeding deer to your last soirée, the majority of landlords and management companies don’t make a fuss about returning your deposit. Most state laws require tenants to return apartments to their previous condition, along with normal wear and tear—a delightfully vague term that more often than not works to tenants’ advantage.
Small issues—chipped paint, matted carpet, or the occasional nail hole—all fall under normal wear and tear. Meanwhile, such things as stains and burns, broken windows, and pet odors are definitely considered your responsibility. And if these are not addressed before you move out, you can expect repair costs to be deducted from your deposit.
With that in mind, here are a few actions you can take over the course of your tenancy to help ensure a smoother return of your security deposit as you make your way out the door:
1. Photograph Preexisting Flaws
Before you even move in, snap pictures of anything that looks awry. These photographs are likely to be your only proof that certain flaws were preexisting.
2. Be a Responsible Steward
Little problems are bound to arise when you’re occupying a rental. Don’t sweep these under the rug, literally or figuratively. Little problems get bigger. If you don’t deal with a problem now, by the time you’re ready to move, it may have become big enough to dominate any discussion about the security deposit.
3. Clarify What “Clean” Means
Cleaning fees are commonly subtracted from security deposits, but if you’re willing to put in some effort, there’s no reason you can’t get back the full amount. A month or two before the lease expires, talk with your landlord about the condition in which he expects you to leave the place. He might simply hand you a prepared checklist, and yes, that’s somewhat of a drag. But at least you’ll know where to focus your energy so that you won’t under- or—the horror!—overclean.
4. Actually Clean
Ugh. You knew this one was coming. All the dirt you brought into the apartment? Well, it’s your dirt, technically, and you’re responsible for getting it out of there. Mop the floors, wipe the cabinets, clean the oven, scrub the bathroom, and so on. Shoot for a hotel level of clean. Even if you fall short—and let’s be honest, that’s a distinct possibility—the apartment will be clean enough to satisfy the powers that be.
5. Make Sure the Check Can Find You
Be sure to give your new address to your former landlord. We can’t stress this enough. It’s important because in many states, if a landlord cannot contact you, he’s legally allowed to keep the deposit.
6. Check In
In some states, landlords must return security deposits within three weeks of your move-out date. But—how do we put this?— even the most responsible management company isn’t going to rush on your behalf, especially if you never asked for the money in the first place. So make the call, and be polite.
Yawn. What’s on Netflix? It’s reasonable to expect a check within two months. For now, it’s a waiting game.
In most cases, a little preparation and a lot of Windex are all you need. If you are still waiting after two months—yikes—we recommend sending a formal demand letter (talk to your lawyer about that one). But we really hope it doesn’t come to that. In the meantime, good luck!