Most security deposits amount to one month’s rent, and the average monthly rent in the United States is currently at a record high, hovering around $1,630. This is why getting that security deposit back is a worthy time investment for many of us who rent.
Although many landlords make their return policies and expectations clear from Day 1, others are less intentional in their communications. So renters vacate a place expecting their full deposit back only to discover that the landlord decided to pocket the money for various reasons.
Messy though it might be (especially if you’ve had an exceptionally good or horrible experience with your landlord), the situation is mostly avoidable.
Reasons for withholding security deposits
Before we get into all of the ways to ensure you can recover your security deposit, it’s good to cover the reasons a landlord might have for keeping your deposit.
“Withholding a security deposit is often valid if the renter somehow breached the contract,” says Brittany Mendez, chief marketing officer at FloridaPanhandle.com. “Landlords will expect you to respect the lease agreement from the moment you read it.”
In addition to breaching your contract, causing significant damage to the property is grounds for a landlord to keep your money.
“That security deposit will likely be used to fund the repair,” adds Mendez.
How to protect your security deposit
If you’ve broken the contract agreement, there’s probably very little you can do to regain your funds. But there’s quite a lot you can do to make sure things don’t get to that point.
Here are our top tips for getting your security deposit back—even if you’re dealing with an unfair landlord.
The best way to protect your security deposit starts the day you occupy an apartment, even before a single item of furniture or box of clothes has been delivered.
“Before you move any items into your new place, take pictures of absolutely everything—especially things that look damaged or worn,” says Mendez.
Since modern cameras and phones time-stamp all of your photos, it will be easy to prove when they were taken.
“And if the landlord later claims you caused damage that was already there when you moved in, you’ll have proof that it wasn’t you,” adds Mendez.
Get it in writing
Signing a lease agreement doesn’t protect just your landlord—it also protects you. Having something in hand will help you understand your landlord’s expectations.
“Ensure the conditions of your deposit are outlined in writing and signed by both you and the landlord,” says Brie Schmidt of Second City Real Estate.
In most cases, lease agreements outline handling security deposits in compliance with local or state laws.
“It should also define the documentation you need to be provided with and how long after you move out that you are to be provided with an itemized breakdown [of damages] and refund,” says Schmidt.
If you don’t find these details in your contract, speak up.
Maintain the property
One of the best things you can do to ensure you’ll get all of your security deposit back is also one of the simplest: Take care of the place.
“Keep the property in good condition, and stay on top of repairs or any requests for repairs,” says Schmidt. “And document any repair requests that the landlord did not complete.”
You’ll also want to remember that “maintaining the property” will mean different things depending on your rental type. For example, in a home with a garden, this might include mowing the lawn and pruning the garden. When in doubt, ask your landlord.
Ask about move-out cleaning requirements
How clean a rental needs to be when you move should be outlined in your contractual agreement, but confirming these details before you leave is not a bad idea.
While “broom clean” is an industry standard, Schmidt advises “you talk to your landlord about what is expected to be cleaned as this is the most common deduction from a security deposit.”
You can also look up a “move-out cleaning checklist” online or, if necessary, hire a local professional cleaner to tidy up after you move.
Stick to the pet policy
Another common breach of rental agreements involves pets.
If your lease says no pets and you’ve been hiding Fluffy from the landlord, be prepared to lose money on your security deposit. The same holds if the pet policy limits you to one cat—and you’re discovered with three dogs.
“It’s important to remember that even the best-trained pet can cause property damage,” says Krista Reuther of TurboTenant. “If the landlord evaluates your unit and gets a bad surprise with unexpected pet-related damage or mess, they’ll likely charge accordingly.”
Do a walk-through with your landlord
Last but certainly not least, request a final inspection with your landlord before moving.
“Walking through the unit with your landlord allows you to see where your security deposit might get dinged,” says Reuther. “You may be able to fix those issues before you leave, saving you money in the long run.”