20 Tips for Getting Your Security Deposit Back

By Andrea Karim on 15 April 2007 (Updated 19 April 2011) 26 comments

Most of my landlords have been really great, but I did experience one rather unethical property manager who tried to bilk her tenants out of every dime they had.

Before moving out of my North Seattle apartment, I cleaned from top to bottom, bleaching the mold that formed in the closets (it was there when I moved in, and I battled it monthly), relining the cupboards with that stick-on liner so they were clean and fresh-looking. My boyfriend helped me to repair a shelf that had completely collapsed in the closet. I never wear shoes in the house, so the carpet was spotless.

When I left, I somehow managed to forget a bicycle tire on my balcony, a spare tire that I had been meaning to patch. The balcony was so moldy and terrifying that I rarely stepped out on to it, and simply forgot that the tire was there.

I was charged $75 for its disposal. And that's ON TOP OF the non-refundable cleaning service.

This wasn't exactly a swanky neighborhood in which tire disposal services run at a premium. We're talking about a musty apartment only one block from the area of town known as Crack Whore Row. And it was a BICYCLE tire, not a car tire complete with wheel and hubcap. I was pissed off that I forgot it, because I could have used it, but I didn't have the energy to fight the landlord over the charge. I wish I had, because it was completely bogus. But I didn't fight the charge, even though I now know I should have raised a stink over it.

Here are the tips I've gathered for how to be a good renter and how to get your deposit back when you move out.

Before You Move In

1. Google the leasing company, landlord's name, property name, whatever. See if you are dealing with people who are on the up and up. Check the Better Business Bureau''s online business listings for the leasing company's name (ask the landlord if they have a relationship with the BBB). The landlord that charged me $75 to throw away a bicycle tire had an awful web reputation — had I known that, I might never have rented the place to begin with.

When You Move In

2. Read your lease carefully. Understand everything that is contained therein. Note that leases are not set in stone. You can actually make alterations to them — nothing ridiculous — but if you find something in the lease that you find unreasonable (like being required to give two month's notice when you plan to leave), you can alter it, cross it out, or make additions to it.

3. Your landlord SHOULD give you a checklist of rooms and ask you to detail the condition of each one. If they don't, make one up yourself. Notice any damage that exists already (dings in wood, cupboards that don't close properly). This can be extremely tedious, so make an evening of it. Invite some friends over for a few bottles of wine (or beer) and walk around the apartment, critiquing the hell out of it.

4. If you have a digital camera, take pictures of every room, every blemish.

5. When you have gathered all of this info, written and photographic, do a walk-through with the landlord and make sure that they sign off on the list. Mail them print-outs of the photos and the room-by-room description (make sure to send the letter certified mail) and let them know that if they don't do the walk-through with you within two weeks of receiving the info, you will assume that they have signed off on your assessment.

While You Live There

6. For goodness sake, try to be clean. Get to stains before they set. If you have pets, clean the place constantly, get an air filter, open the windows, and clean up any mess as soon as you find it. Nothing is more terrifying for a landlord than walking into an apartment and seeing that your 13 cats have made the place damn near unlivable.

7. If you have a problem with any part of the apartment, if something breaks from normal wear and tear, the landlord is obliged to pay for it. If they don't, and you opt to fix it yourself (I had to replace a broken toilet seat and the bathtub caulking), take a picture of the before and after, and add it to your notes, including the cost of replacing the item. Bill the landlord for the item ASAP. If the landlord tries to bilk you later, you have more evidence of what a responsible tenant you were.

When You Leave

8. Whether or not you clean the place really depends on if you already paid a non-refundable cleaning deposit. I have never lived anywhere that didn't require me to pay a cleaning deposit. So I'll clean up anything egregious, like the aforementioned caulking (I so hate caulking), but the rest of the place, I leave broom-clean. If you haven't already paid a non-refundable cleaning deposit, clean the heck out of the place.

9. Do the whole picture thing again. Make sure that the landlord does a walk-through with you, and have them sign an agreement that you have left the apartment in fair condition. Don't feel like a jerk for doing this. You have the right to protect your money and yourself.

10. Don't assume that a super-nice landlord equals a returned security deposit. Be wary of everyone, and don't let something slip just because you think the landlord really likes you.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

If a Landlord Tries to Bilk You

11. If a landlord tries to hold on to your money, demand an itemized list of the withheld money. Scrutinize it for redundancy. For instance, a landlord can't charge you to clean a carpet and then replace a carpet.

12. Also, when it comes to replacing things, you probably aren't responsible for the entire cost of replacement, unless whatever needs replacing is brand-new and you completely destroyed it. The useful life of carpeting is generally considered to be seven years. So, if the carpet was brand spanking new when you moved in, and you ruined it, you're liable for new carpet. On the other hand, if the carpet was five years old when you moved in and six years old when you moved out, you should only be liable for the amortized value of the carpet. Assuming you are responsible for damaging the carpet and it only had one year of useful life left, you should only be on the hook for about 15% of the replacement cost.

Same goes with paint: was the the paint brand new when you moved in? If not, you shouldn't be paying the full cost of a new paint job.

13. Let's say you get a bill from the landlord, and they are withholding most of your deposit for made-up charges. What do you do? Know your rights. Every state has different laws regarding just how much leeway both renters and landlords are given. Do check your state Attorney General web site to see what kind of protections are afforded to you.

14. If you think that the charges are bogus, raise a (polite) fuss. A crooked landlord is going to hope that you simply roll over and let them take your money because so many people do just that. Let them know that you believe the charges to be bogus.

15. Write your complaints down in the form of letters and send copies to an attorney, even if you don't plan to hire an attorney. Send them to your uncle the tax attorney, if you have to. I have a friend who works as an office manager in a law firm that I can send CC's to, if I need to. I address them to her, and she tears them up. Seeing a law firm's name is often enough to get people to back down, because no one wants to deal with a lawyer.

16. Don't let the landlord make you feel petty. If they try say something like, "It's only $100!", ask them why it's so important for them to take such a small sum away from you.

17. Keep as much of the communication in writing as possible. Verbal agreements (and disagreements) simply don't offer enough proof.

18. Be respectful in all of your communication. You might want to say "You cheap, cheap bastard! I lived in this ratty hellhole for two years and never complained about the skanky-ass conditions!" but you always come off better if you are polite and well-mannered. If you do have to go to small claims court, judges will look askance at written proof of your rudeness.

19. If you do decide to take a landlord to small claims court, if only to fight what you see as injustice (and keep in mind that if you win, you might be able to get your court fees paid for), do let them know ahead of time. This might avoid the hassle of actually going to court. However, don't make empty threats. Be prepared to litigate if you threaten to do so.

20. If you don't get your money back, do make sure to publicize your experience. Be reasonable, but if you truly believe that you were screwed over, let other people know. Use a site like CitySearch or Yelp to enter information about the property to warn other potential renters. Make sure that you don't exaggerate or do anything that could be construed as libel.

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Guest's picture
Jill

The Tenants Union of Washington State lists tenant rights and remedies. Having a copy of the landlord-tenant law on your coffee table during the landlord walk-through is a not-so-subtle way of showing that you're not to be messed with!

Will Chen's picture

That's either the greatest sign of all time or the greatest photoshop moment of all time.  =)

Guest's picture
Guest

I had a landlord who deducted from the cleaning deposit because he decided that we hadn't washed the OUTSIDE of the windows in Feb. in MI. Oh, and one windowsill was dusty. It was crazy.

Guest's picture
Guest

I moved out of an apartment, and was given a list of things to clean after their first walk-through (totally ridiculous things, but I complied). I was then sent a bill for about $200 for cleaning the fridge (which I did), and leaving crumbs under the stove (in an area I didn't even realize existed), and I'm a bit foggy now, but there may have been one or two other items.

I sent a written response stating that I had cleaned the areas originally pointed out, and that the oven was not brought up in the origial discussion. I also referred to my move in sheet where I noted that the apt was somewhat unclean (around the edges and such) when I moved in. I told them they needed to refund my deposit fully, because I had complied, and politely noted that I would seek further action if they did not refund my money.

I got my full refund and a statement of apology.

(My backup plan was going to involve calling them on their not providing me with the itemized statement of charges within 30 days of my move-out date -- which is what the oregon law states they must do -- and it took them an extra week).

Just be polite but stern.

Guest's picture
Tim

know your renter rights first. I agree, definitely read through the boring, long lease in small fine print. normally, landlords use standard lease forms which details moveout things. if there is vague or little move-out items for security deposit, have the landlord stipulate in writing what normal wear means, etc. definitely do a check-in inspection sheet as posted. give a copy to the landlord even if the landlord did not provide you with a list. ask what is acceptable for cleaning and carpet cleaning. most landlords are honest and won't bilk you if you go through the company that they recommend. some will though.

Guest's picture
Brenda

My mother was an apt mgr for 25 yrs. The mgmt firms she worked for expected her to try and keep as much of the security deposit as possible. They have flat fees for the different items so that's why they may charge $40 for cleaning the window sills.

One area they always looked at and charged people for was if the floor under the refrigerator wasn't cleaned. Now who would think to pull out the refrigerator and mop the floor? My mom agreed but said they were told they would check that and charge if it wasn't clean. Other areas are tops of closets, window sills and the storage shed.

So to protect yourself, get a copy of the move-out check list so you can make sure you've covered everything.

Unfortunately, more than likely they will figure out something wrong so they can keep all or part of the money. It's the manager's job.

Guest's picture
Jeff

Thanks for the excellent tips. I wish I had thought to have friends scruntinize my apartment when I first moved in, but that was 4 years ago, so it's WAAY too late now. These are definitely tips I'll keep in mind for next time though. -click- There we go. Bookmarked.

In terms of sharing past experiences for the benefit of all, the leasing company who owned the last building I lived in was Hekemian. I don't know how large they are or how many buildings they own. But, if you're going to live in NJ in one of their buildings, you shouldn't worry. My roommate and I threw parties in that apartment almost every weekend. When we left, it was pretty filthy. I fully expected them to keep my entire deposit. They only kept $300, which, trust me, was entirely fair. So, yeah. Hekemian. Decent people.

Guest's picture

Well, I always seem to get screwed for security deposit. I will be 35 in June and it really is about time I get my act toghether. I'm the guy that treats people well, not because I want or need friends, but I treat others how I would treat myself, or my family. So, I moved out of a house on April 1, where I was paying half the rent, or so I though, of $600 per month and my share of utilities, which should have been less than half, because I only had basic cable in my room, where my roommate had the DVR, digital cable, other amenities. I should only have been paying half of basic cable, internet, and phone. So, when I moved in, I told one of my customers about it and since I got beat for $1,200 from the apartment before, he said I better promise to write it down and get a receipt. Well, I did write it down and put it into my Quicken online, but I told him since the person was a friend of mien, he would never try to screw me out of it.

At this point, he is trying to screw me. He says I didn't pay March utilities, but I did. He also tried to hold me stuff because his parents told him he should until I pay him. Well, I moved out before April 1st. Although I had some things in my old bedroom for an additional week, but it was out before April 10th. Though I said I'd go clean the rug and now the kid is saying that if I don't clean it by May 1st, he is going to charge me another month's rent and that he will also charge me for 18 months of storage. My stuff is still in the storage spot, apparently I have to get the police to go there to help me get it back.

It really is sad that so many people are just out for their insecure, selfish selves. This kid (guy at 36 yrs old) had rich parents, whom he treats like crap. Calling his mom a bitch in front of his softball team last summer, almost making her break out in tears. He put holes in the walls at the apartment, slammed doors, cranked up his stereo as loud as he wanted; everything you'd expect from a 14 year old punk in a troubled home. He was going on a ski trip and asked me to install his Ipod Mini for him, which, on his old p.o.s. computer, I had to install windows 2000 and spend at least 5 hours fixing, the day before he left, which I did and I think he made me a sloppy joe to repay me. Another time, his camera was not working, so I spent a bunch of time fixing the computer, updating files, cleaning up old applications, etc. I have my own computer business and have had my LLC since 1998. If I was to do all the work I did for a customer, I would probably have charged at least $300.

Anyway, I initially wanted to comment on how this link :

http://www.jud.ct.gov/faq/landlord.html#responsibilites

will show that the landlord (in Conn.) is responsible to pay interest on security deposit, which I found interesting. The sec. dep. I have gotten back in the past, I've never gotten paid the interest, but, apparently it is law. Thinking about it now, though, does anyone have advice for me? This kid says he will take me to court and I told him that it would be in his best interest to realize that I paid him security deposit and stop actually trying to make money off me. He has a teaching certificate, and claims to want to be a teacher, but no place should hire him because he has such a bad temper alone. I would almost feel guilty if he did get a job and ended up hurting one of the children and I had never said anything. Though, other people, uncluding his parents, know he has a real bad temper. He also has some other bad habits, one of which is not a drinking problem, but a similar, party, non-legal issue. I mentioned to him, that if we had to go to court, I'd have to point out that he was overcharging me for utilities. Even for rent, apparently, his parents paid his rent and the money I gave him, was his spending money. I never left my room, the entire house was filled up with his stuff. Not once in 18 months did I sit downstairs on the couch and watch TV. Not that I was too interested in that, but also, he would never have let me. It is all about him, always. I was paying $600 per month, which I was under the impression was half, but I only occupied my bedroom and used the upstairs bathroom as mine, and we both used the shower in my bathroom. Seriously though, when I left, he took stuff out of the bathroom and put it in a box in my old bedroom. I had recently spent about $20 on cleaning supplies, but the ones he put in that box, were empty bottles of stuff. He went as far as to keep the suction cup hooks I used to hang my razor on in the shower and anything else remotely kool, but gave me the empty bottles of crap. Pathetic, really. I mean, he kept the full bottles of cleaner and gave me the empty ones. How lame is that!? Once, I hung a dish towel on the oven handle, and later that night, I found it in the drawer where I kept my towels, crumpled up and still wet. He didn't hang it up to dry or anything, so from that point on, I started eating out again, ordering pizza or grinders. I never once used the oven. Really, I occupied about 20 percent of the place and was paying half (or so I think) of the rent. I'm not sure how much that might hold up in court, but what about utilities. Paying half was overpaying. I didn't have access to digital cable, or the dvr, or HBO, showtime, etc. I only had use of basic cable, internet, and phone, but he charged me for half, from what I know, of all utilities.

Anyway, some advice would be great. We have no written contract; he thinks because his parents are rich and because he has a teaching certificate, that his crap is good to eat and I'm sure he thinks his word is better than mine. He's also called me white trash on a few occasions, as well speaks poorly of me to anyone else he knows. Though, everyone, and I mean everyone that knows him at all, knows that he is a terrible individual. Wish I had known this before I moved in. So, if it boiled down to it, in the community, my word is better than his.

Thanks in advance.. and take it from me, get things in writing no matter how embarassed or odd you might feel. even with friends and family. No matter how much you think it would never happen to you, it can and will.

Yours Truly,
dave W

Guest's picture
Germx

Not sure about your state - you might want to check that first... But from my small knowledge of the law: in most states if there is no contract, you owe him nothing! He can not charge you for a dime.
I hope you paid him the share of utilities and rent in check. If you did, get a copy of your bank statement that shows the payments you made to him.
Also, from now on, keep a record of all contact with him. If email make copies and if phone calls record it if you can.
Next time he tells you he's going to take you to court, tell him to pick a date. Since he is taking you to court he will be paying the fees unless he wins, you might pay if he wins. But the likely hood of him winning the case is slim to none.
Last but not least, stop being nice and accommodating!! It is so not kool!

Guest's picture
Carla

By the time of returning the security deposit, the Real Estate returns much less, and when I inquire them about the unexpected expenses they had in the house- after we left- )requiring the receipts which is our right within 14 days after we receive the expenses report for putting the house in the order "they believe" is right)- they say that State Law does not obligate them at all to show the receipts as a proof of the further expenses that was never reported,

30 days before our deadline to leave they did NOT schedule any appointment, as their obligation, for a preview of the house and things to supposedly should be fixed up- this was their obligation.

They even delayed the wrong check they yes sent for a partial security deposit, sending to a wrong address, betting I have no forward, in order to take over the 14 days I have, after they send the unfair security deposit to contest the charges in the statement- by requesting the receipt. They say they did that not on purpose, but only a stupid one would not understand why a check in Folsom CA would take instead of one day to get to the given address, 6 days.....They bet on my ignorance. The more days they gain, the less time I have to contest their charges and make exigencies upon the receipts of the services, said done by them, after we left.

They ignore my e-mails and make mockery on us.

They put under House Cleaning an absurd charge of 300 dollars, after having I cleaned the house for 3 days. They charged for a couple of bulb lamps 50 dollars and other charges.

BTW, the manager was sweet and a princess by the time I gave her back the keys saying they would charge just teh carpet cleaning, so no problem tobe stressed out and they did not put interest in our sec deposit.

This type of disease to the human race, criminals and terrorist never catch.

I'm afraid to go to court law b/c finantial elefants win by corrupting crooks.

Guest's picture
Angi

I need H E L P!! I moved into my 2 bdrm apt at the end of May. My apt has flooded for the 4th time as of this morning. I called Emergency Maint. at 9:30 it is now 11:15 and no one has responded, My ktchen is steadily flooding now coming into the dining room and living room. I called again and all the answering service could tell me is they still have not got a hold of ANYONE!!! I am very upset, not to mention M I S E R A B L E. I just want out of this place. I have tried to talk to the Manager very diplomatically and he is just not a nice person. I have pictures from when I first moved in and the apt had flooded, it took them almost three weeks to pull the pad and try and locate the problem 3 WEEKS living on wet soaked carpet, Then the mild started to grow..have pictures of that to...Some on please help me on how to break my lease and just get out of here...I am in Texas by the way, I think Laws are different in eavh state

Guest's picture
Germx

I'm sorry you had to go through all of that
Flooding for that long is considered "unlivable conditions". In most states that is a legal reason to break a contract.
Give them a call again and send a letter and/or an email to the apartment manager: show the pictures of before and after. List what happened and all the dates. An assessment of what the damages are and how much it would cost to fix it. And request it be fixed or they pay for fixing it.
If they don't respond promptly call and email them again that you will be taking them to small claims court. And list again all the damages that flood has caused and how much it is going to cost you.

Guest's picture
Guest

Turn them into the health department for the mold. That will get their attention. It doesn't sound like much but exposure to mold is a very serious matter.

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Typngva
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Heather

I rented a 3 bedroom house for 4 1/2 years. My landlord showed up when I was cleaning it and she seemed very pleased and said "I don't see any problems getting your deposit back to you". When I received the check just under the 31 days later, she had cut nearly half of the $1,100 deposit out for damages & cleaning. I, of course-being in a hurry and "in good faith" of her (stupid!) did not take pictures upon move out. Following is a list of what I think are contestable:

1) $15 for "stove pans", petty - come on, don't you replace those anyways. I threw the ones that were there away, and she charged me for replacing them.

2) $200 "cleaning", I swept, vacuumed, cleaned the appliances, bathroom, power washed the deck, swept/mopped & vacuumed out the window sills. She is claiming that I owe her $200 for "cleaning under appliances, dusting window sills & mopping under the stove/fridge". Also for cleaning the curtains, which she said she chose to "just replace because it was easier".

3) She charged me $100 for addition yard work, including trimming & hauling bushes that she told me was fine in the presence of a licensed arborhist that I had there doing the work.

4) She charged me $180 to clean the carpet, though she admitted that she just had it replaced. The new tenant said her daughter was sensitive to cats, swore she smelled cat-pee. The employment of a black light did not show any signs of pee. I own and use a professional grade steam-cleaner. I wouldn't mind being charged of course if she was going to clean it, but don't like to be charged for cleaning that DID not happen.

5) In damages, she listed "hole in carpet" that she charged me $100 for. Again, the carpet was replaced. Can she charge me for repairs not done?

And finally, I would like to know the best way to handle this & the time period I have to address it. I have not cashed the check she sent to to me for 1/2 of my deposit.

I really appreciate any feedback.

Andrea Karim's picture

How you handle it really depends on the state that you live in - renters have more rights in some states than in others. The article above has several links to resouces that can help you assess what your options are. Come to think of it, the post above really outlines what needs to be done: write a letter explaining which charges are bogus and why, as for proof of how much it cost her to do the "repairs", and be sure to CC a lawyer on all communications.

This isn't legal advice, since I certainly don't have the qualifications to offer any, but I personally wouldn't cash the check. I would ask for a new check with the full amount and return the old one to her as part of an agreement.

Guest's picture

There might be more you can get back than just the money they kept. In Chicago and Evanston, Illinois, and in buildings with 5 or more units in Illinois, you can recover the money plus up to two-times the whole deposit plus court costs PLUS your attorney fees against the landlord. We've had cases where the landlord got tagged for $7800 + $2000 in attorney fees because they didn't pay $66 in interest on the security deposit. Don't just "throw up your hands" without checking to see what your local laws may entitle you to. Wisconsin, Maryland, Alaska, D.C., Connecticut, and I'm sure other states have some powerful renters rights laws that are worth enforcing. Good luck!

Guest's picture
Jenny

Hi,
I rented a cottage in July and have not yet received my security deposit back. We got the same response from the owner the three times we inquired- her answer was "this week".
I'm in Michigan and am ready to go to small claims court because it's not just the money, it's the principal.
The people who rented before us had dogs in the cottage that urinated all over the place as it was apparent as soon as we walked in. Her sister lives across the street from the cottage, she's the one who let us in, and she acknowledged the smell and condition.
I told the owner later, after tracking her down, and she said "Sue said to keep the security deposits and get new carpet". I was floored. She then said she knew we weren't responsible as we didn't bring any pets and we'd get our money back. Thing is, her employment has moved and I wonder how many other people don't know how to reach her now as she advertised the cottage from her previous employer's website (which was a family business). I wonder how many other people have lost hundreds of dollars. I'm just furious over this.
Anyone have any ideas?

Guest's picture
Smart boy

The bottom line for everybody, expect to loose your Security, All the landlords will keep it no matter what, and if you take them to court an win the case, still you have to keep fightig to collect your money, so think smart, live the last month without paying rent, if your landlord wanto to start an eviction process is going to take him a little over a month to get you out!! THAT IS HOW YOU COLLECT YOUR SECURITY!!! LANDLORDS LOVE TO RIP THE SECURITY OFF THE TENANTS!!

Guest's picture
Tim

Isn't that a good way to have them take you to a collections agency and ruin your credit?

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Justin Baker

I have been ripped off twice. I lost the first one but I used http://securitydepositrefund.org the second time. These guys do some "alternative" type collections but they get it done fast. They posted a website and put it on top of google with my complaint. Then sent certified mail to the landlord and told him to pay up or face going to court and losing. They also told him that the website wouldn't come down until he paid up. It worked pretty fast. I got paid back. Took about three weeks.

Guest's picture
Guest

is there a state law saying how much an apartment is able to charge you for cheap carpet? the apartments i just moved out of are charging me 2500 to replace the carpet.

Guest's picture

I always consider to search out the best way cleaning my carpets.
I found out that steam cleaning is probably the best cleansing techniques for your most carpets.

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Peter

I have had two landlords attempt to keep part of my security deposit. This article provides some great advice everyone should follow. You can also find the the landlord-tenant law for your state rather easily and this will detail exactly what a landlord can and can't do in regards to returing your security deposit.

Guest's picture
Andy

Here in Chicago we are so fortunate to have a law that strongly protects the vast majority of tenants' rights. If you know the law exists, getting your security deposit back is seldom a problem.

Having worked with tenants both inside and outside Chicago, I truly feel for those who don't have the same protection. It's all too common that I have to tell someone that suing for their security deposit will cost more than the deposit itself. I hope other cities follow Chicago's lead.