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How to Get Your Security Deposit Back When Moving Out

By Angela Colley

cash house tieI have many friends who firmly believe that landlords do not give security deposits back at all, or that they will do just about anything to keep however much they can. While I’m sure that slumlords do exist in this world, as a former property manager, I can tell you that most good landlords want to hand over your security deposit.

Believe me, we’d rather give you your money back than deal with making repairs, hiring cleaners, and keeping an itemized list of deductions. It’s much simpler and quicker to just write a check for the full amount and be done with it. But it’s up to you as the renter to make sure you leave the apartment in good shape.

As long as you follow your lease agreement and the steps below, you should have no problem getting your security deposit back from your landlord.

Steps for Getting Your Security Deposit Back

1. Read Your Lease

Go through your lease as soon as you decide to move out. Every lease agreement has a clause on terminating, and you’ll need to follow these requirements exactly if you want your deposit back.

Figure out how much notice you must give your landlord and look for any special requirements the landlord might have written in. For example, my last landlord required a 60-day notice, whereas most only require 30 days. Most leases also require that you drop off the keys, clean the property, and return any changes you’ve made to their original condition.

2. Notify Your Landlord

Write a letter to your landlord stating your plan to move out. Keep it simple. You do not need to justify why you’re moving. However, you may want to consider adding a few details if your move is due to unattended repairs or a serious bug infestation.

Include your new address in the letter and remind the landlord that you expect him to forward your security deposit to your new address. Also include the date and your signature.

It’s essential to make a copy of the letter and keep it in a safe place. Since the beginning of renting, landlords have used the “I never got that letter” excuse in the hope that the tenant never made a copy. Don’t be that tenant. Keep a copy just in case you end up fighting for your security deposit in court.

Most experts say you should send the letter via certified mail as well. But most importantly, make sure your landlord receives it within the notification time frame. If your landlord wanted 30-days notice, make sure he has the letter in-hand at least 30 days prior to your move, or you may run the risk of having your lease auto-renew.

See this sample security deposit refund request letter for more guidance on what you should include.

man get back security deposit

3. Pay Your Last Month’s Rent

Many tenants see their security deposit as their last month’s rent. However, unless it’s explicitly stated in your contract, that frame of mind can hurt you. If your apartment needs cleaning or has been damaged, for example, the landlord can keep your security deposit and sue you for the rent that has gone “unpaid.”

Pay your last month’s rent on time and keep a copy of your check or request a receipt. Store the copy in a safe place with your exit notice.

4. Make Small Repairs

Making repairs before moving out is a balancing act. Odds are that your landlord will charge you more to fix something than it would cost to do it yourself, but don’t overdo it. Only make repairs you can do quickly and cheaply. For example, don’t fix anything that came broken and don’t improve another person’s property for the sake of your security deposit.

Perform small and easy repairs, including the following:

  1. Patch Holes. Use putty and some paint to patch up any holes you made hanging pictures or curtains.
  2. Paint. If you painted any room in the rental, paint it back to its original color.
  3. Replace Light Bulbs and Batteries. Add light bulbs to any burned out fixtures and check the batteries in the smoke detector.
  4. Make the Stove Look New. If you burned anything on the pans below the burners, replace them rather than clean them. These only cost a few dollars at a hardware store.
  5. Make the Bathroom Shine. Use a bleach pen or white paint to touch up any stains or marks you caused in the sink or bathtub.

Accidents happen and you may have caused damage that you can’t easily fix yourself. For example, when my very large dog was a very large puppy, she used the side of my closet door as a chew toy one day while I was out. It really wasn’t something sanding, painting, or even prayer could fix.

I took several date stamped photos and emailed my landlord to let her know about the damage. I kept the photos in my “just in case the security deposit return goes bad” box and let her make the repairs. It turned out okay, but I had the photos ready just in case she overcharged me. You should make the same precautions.

5. Clean, and Clean Again

By law, you only have to leave your rental “broom clean.” Since broom clean is a highly subjective term, it’s best to err on the side of caution and leave your rental “brand-spanking-new clean.” If possible, come back and clean after you move out. This way you’ll be sure to catch dust behind the couch and stains in the cabinets.

Do a full, top-to-bottom cleaning job. Start by dusting off the ceiling fans and don’t stop until you’ve mopped all the floors. Pay special attention to the kitchen and the bathroom as they get the dirtiest. Don’t forget the small things like cleaning inside appliances, dusting the blinds, and vacuuming the closets.

Pro Tip: If you have pets, sprinkle some baking soda on the floors and counters and let it sit for an hour or more before vacuuming it up. The baking soda will absorb some of the pet odor, making it less obvious when your landlord does the walk-through.

couple cleaning apartment

6. Take Your Stuff with You

If you really want to irritate your landlord, leave some of your unwanted junk behind. More times than not, when I went into a vacant property for the first time, I found some of the tenant’s stuff. Sometimes it was small things like a box of trophies in the closet or a bag of Mardi Gras beads in the storage shed. Other times, however, I found full bedroom sets or broken appliances.

If you leave anything behind, especially something big, the landlord will have to hire someone to remove it, which will come out of your security deposit. Double and triple check storage areas, closets, drawers, and cabinets before you leave for the last time.

7. Return Your Keys

Many tenants forget this step and it costs them. When you’re finally out of your rental, contact your landlord and set up a time to drop off the keys. Make sure you give him everything you have, including gate and mailbox keys. Otherwise, the landlord will charge you a replacement fee for every key you take with you.

8. Follow Up

Landlord and tenant laws only protect your right to get your security deposit back if you request it. If you just let it go, you may never see your security deposit, and the sad truth is that some landlords get away with just not giving a deposit back.

Typically, the landlord has 30 days to issue you a refund, but some states give even less time (see the security deposit laws by state). If you haven’t heard from your landlord after 30 days, don’t be shy. Write your landlord a follow-up letter requesting your security deposit. Keep a copy of the letter in your “just in case” box.

If you don’t hear anything after a couple more weeks, go to your local court and file a civil suit. That way, a judge will decide how much you’re entitled to and will make sure you get it. Don’t forget to bring all your documentation to the courthouse.

9. Take Precautions Along the Way

In addition to the recommendations above, there are other tips and tricks to keep in mind throughout the term of your lease. Taking these small steps can make moving out and getting your security deposit back that much easier.

  • Move-In Inspection. Ask your landlord to inspect the apartment with you before you move in. While doing the walk-through, keep a list of any damages you notice. Inspect everything from top to bottom, including inside the drawers, cabinets, and closets. Have your landlord sign off on your damages list. If the landlord makes any promises to repair major damage you notice, get the promise in writing. Keep a copy of both documents so you can use them to prove pre-existing damage, if necessary, when you move out.
  • Take Photos. Before you move in your furniture, take clear photos of every room with a date stamp, including inside the closets as well as outside areas, such as balconies. If any damage exists, take close-up photos as well. A visual will help prove pre-existing damage should the landlord try to take it out of your deposit.
  • Move in Carefully. Take care when moving your furniture in for the first time and when rearranging pieces later. Bulky items can scratch floors, rip paint off of walls, and ding door jambs. Add pads underneath chair legs to keep them from scratching the floor when you move chairs in, out, or around.
  • Read the Lease Before You Make Changes. Some landlords will allow you to paint, while others request you don’t even use small nails in the walls. A change you might consider minor may be prohibited by your lease. If you want to make major changes, such as painting a room a new color, get the landlord’s permission in writing before you do so as it will help avoid a conflict later on.
  • Be Careful with the Walls. A lot of renters use expandable brackets to brace large pictures and furniture to the walls. But these brackets often leave large holes when you remove them later. If at all possible, find a less damaging way to display your decor.
  • Keep the Rental in Good Shape. Treat the space like it’s your own property and not “just a rental.” Keep it clean and in good condition while you’re living there. For example, clean up spills on the counters and floors immediately and be particularly careful with light-colored carpets and counters that can stain easily. Treat appliances with respect so they remain in good working order when it’s time to move out.
  • Pay Your Rent on Time. Make sure you have your rent check to your landlord by the due date each month. This is the single easiest way to get and stay in good graces with your landlord. He may also be more forgiving of small wear and tear you cause if you maintain a good relationship.
  • Move-Out Inspection. Ask your landlord to complete a move-out inspection with you after you’ve moved your belongings and cleaned the apartment. Have the landlord explain any damages. If pre-existing damages are noticed, show your landlord the list you agreed on in your move-in inspection as well as the photos you took. You can offer to fix new damages yourself or try to negotiate down the cost of the deduction from your security deposit. Get any agreements in writing so your landlord won’t be tempted to renege on them.

Final Word

Many renters struggle to come up with an entire month’s rent for a security deposit. While you may forget the pain of putting that much down by the time you move out, you are still entitled to your money. If you do your part, keep good records, and follow up, you should have no problems getting your security deposit back.

Have you gotten your full security deposit back after moving out? Did you use any special tricks to cut down on the time and cost of cleaning or repairs?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Angela Colley
Angela Colley is a freelance writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana with a background in mortgage and real estate. Her interests include animal rights advocacy, green living, mob movies and finding the best deal on everything. She blames her extreme passion for never paying full price on two parents that taught her that a penny saved is two pennies if invested wisely.

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  • Nate @ Vertex42

    Tip #4 and the taking photos idea from #9 could have helped us years ago when we had a rental. We were good renters, paid on time, treated the place with respect and when we purchased a home and moved out, we did our due diligence in cleaning up and prepping to leave. We had a minor repair in the bathroom that we should have taken care of ourselves and felt that the rental agency was unfair with the return of some of the security deposit. I think these are great suggestions though!

    • Angela Colley

      Nate,
      I learned tip #4 the hard way myself. I didn’t replace a broken cabinet door handle and got charged at least twice what it would have cost me to replace to myself. Live and learn. At least now we know what to look out for. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/EducationCents Education Cents

    The photos of damage and written repair requests are key. It was a lesson learned the hard way for me.

    The first place I ever rented (with some college buddies our senior year), the landlord was awful. When we first moved in I noticed that the screen door to the backporch was missing a hinge piece (it was one of those that hinged the whole way up). I called the landlord and let his office assistant know that it would need to be repaired.

    As the year wore on, more and more of the door hinge wore out becuase of the stress caused by that first missing hinge piece. I called every time I found a new piece on the ground, telling them that it would need to be fixed or the door was going to fall off.

    Finally, about three months before we moved out, the door did fall off. I took it down and put it beside the house, covered in a tarp. I calld the landlord’s office to let them know that the door had finally fallen off, and where I had put it.

    When we moved out, we received an angry letter accompanying our itemized repair bill, that stated that we were negligent tenants who abused the property, and they were very upset and thinking of docking us our entire security deposit because we had “careless broken the screen door and left it by the side of the house.” When I called to contest the letter and the bill, they “didn’t have any record” of the half-dozen phone calls I had made.

    I managed to get most of the security deposit back, except for the door replacement. Because I didn’t have proof of the initial damage, I was S.O.L. Every since then I’ve been very careful to completely fill out the move-in form and take pictures of any damage.

    Good tips, thanks.

    • Angela Colley

      That is a great point about phone calls. It is all too easy for a landlord to claim he never got a phone call/doesn’t have a record of your repair requests. Definitely something to watch out for as a renter.

    • Angela Colley

      That is a great point about phone calls. It is all too easy for a landlord to claim he never got a phone call/doesn’t have a record of your repair requests. Definitely something to watch out for as a renter.

  • http://blog.impulsesave.com Alysa (a-lee-sah) Seeland

    Angela thanks for posting! These kinds of conversations can be SO awkward and it’s grew to have a game plan leading up and away form the conversation. We were able to save ourselves some money by taking pictures of the screen our icicles ripped through when they melted (believe it or not!) even my low-quality mobile picture was enough for the landlord to realize it wasn’t our fault.

    • Angela Colley

      Alysa,
      That is crazy. Granted, where I live it doesn’t even snow, so I’ve never seen an icicle up close, but I can imagine that would be an incredibly awkward conversation to have with a landlord. But that is a good point, the more photos you have, the less chance you have of having to argue with the landlord over the security deposit.

  • FistedSister

    I am one of those people who firmly believe landlords do not give back deposits. Until I see it happen with my own eyes, I will not change this belief. Maybe it is where I live, but in this area 100% of landlords are scumbags.

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