Getting your security deposit back after you move out of your apartment can feel like a surprise gift when you're in the process of moving, which can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
But that excitement over receiving your security deposit can be soured when the check is smaller than the amount you originally paid. And it's even worse when you get nothing at all. A 2013 Rent.com survey of 1,000 U.S. renters found 26 percent received no security deposit back.
Landlords can deduct from a security deposit for a number of reasons, including unpaid rent, cleaning costs and damages beyond normal wear and tear. Most states require landlords to provide an itemized list of deductions if a security deposit isn't returned in full, but many renters are surprised to find the cost of paint and carpet cleaning come out of their funds.
That's why it's important to discuss possible deductions before you sign your lease. While some states limit what a security deposit may be used for by law, others leave it up to the terms of the lease agreement.
Here are seven things you can do to avoid deductions in your return deposit check.
Note problems when you move in. To avoid incorrectly charging renters for pre-existing damages, landlords allow them to note dents, cracks and other imperfections on a form upon move-in, and it's required by law in parts of the country. Most tenants have about a week to take a thorough tour of the space and hand in the form, so issues can be documented and needed repairs made.
But that doesn't always happen, says Paul Henderson, owner of Rhino Property Management in Midvale, Utah.
"I would say probably only 60 percent or so of our tenants that we give that sheet to ever even give it back," Henderson says.
To avoid having to pay for pre-existing issues, fill out and hand in the rental condition form before you even begin unpacking.
Avoid the extreme when decorating. A landlord isn't going to prevent you from making your apartment feel like home, but if you want your entire security deposit back, consider what your certain décor might leave behind.
A few nail holes from hanging pictures is considered standard wear and tear, says Lynn Edmonson, regional manager for Wendover Management, a property management company based in Altamonte Springs, Florida. But 100 nail holes in a single wall is something you'll either want to spackle and paint yourself before moving out or simply avoid if you want your entire deposit.
Painting the walls a color other than white or beige is also typically welcomed, though be prepared to repaint before handing over your keys.
"If someone wants to paint a wall bright red and they ask us about it, we tell them they have to make sure the wall is turned back to the color it was at the time they moved in," Edmonson says.
Call maintenance for fixes. Like any other home, a rental needs fixing over time. But rather than letting simple things slide, keep your landlord up on maintenance to avoid its effect on your security deposit once you move out.
For example, if a window gets tricky to open during the course of your lease, put in a maintenance request when you notice the problem. In this case, it's often considered a part of standard maintenance work for tenants (unless you broke the window). But when you move out and the landlord can't open the window during the inspection, repair costs will likely come out of your security deposit.
Ask what you should fix. It seems too easy, but many property managers are more than willing to inspect your apartment before you move out and tell you what needs cleaning, replacement or repairs.
"We … have people that come in and put in their notice and ask us, 'Can you come look at my apartment and tell me what I need to do to receive my security deposit?'" Edmonson says.
An advance request allows you enough time to make necessary repairs prior to your move-out date. Another option is to walk the space with your landlord or property manager the day you move out, so you won't be surprised by any deductions in your security deposit.
Clean it all. You've got enough on your plate with moving into a new home, so you likely don't want to think about cleaning the place you're moving out of. But if you want your whole security deposit back, you must leave the place spotless.
And it's not just a quick wipe down of the counters – drawers need to be cleared out, the freezer needs to look new and the base of the toilet should be free of dust.
"They almost always miss a spot or two, and then we have to send cleaners in to get it back to what it was when they moved in, and we have to offset the cost," Henderson says.
Provide your forwarding address. It's so simple it's easy to overlook, but your landlord won't be able to return your security deposit without a forwarding address.
"If we don't ever get their forwarding address from them, then we will send it to their last known address – which was the rental – in hopes that they had their mail forwarded," Henderson says. "It will either go find them or it will come back to us, and then we'll stick it in their file until they come to claim it."
Go to court. It's certainly the least desirable option, but if you feel adamant your landlord unlawfully kept some or all of your security deposit, you can argue the case in small-claims court. You can reach out to a local tenant rights organization to seek guidance on an issue with your landlord, with the possibility for mediation, if the landlord agrees, to avoid going to court.
"You see a fair amount of litigation over that stuff, even though the dollars are not that large," says David Merbaum, an attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant law in Alpharetta, Georgia.
If you do win your case, you could get more than your security deposit plus money for attorney's fees. But there's no guarantee a judge will side with you. If you lose, any attorney's fees or additional legal costs could leave you thousands of dollars further in the red.
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.