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12 Issues That Can Reduce Your Rental Security Deposit Refund

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If you’ve ever lived in rental housing, you’ve almost certainly put down a security deposit. Every U.S. state permits landlords to collect security deposits from new tenants. Deposits typically range from one to two months’ rent, and about half of all states impose an upper cap (usually expressed in rent-months) on deposit size. Some states require landlords to keep deposits in a separate escrow account, while others permit landlords to deposit them into regular accounts, commingling their funds with rent and other monies.

Reasons Landlords Seize Security Deposits

Unfortunately, not every security deposit returns to its rightful owner untouched. According to a 2013 Rent.com survey, 26% of Americans reported losing part or all of their security deposits at some point during their renting careers.

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The reasons for the losses were quite varied. While a plurality reported losing their security deposit because they broke their lease and moved out early, others listed pet damage or removing furniture from furnished units as reasons. Troublingly, 36% of respondents reported receiving no explanation at all from their landlords.

In some places, landlords need to provide a precise accounting of the amount and reason for any security deposit seizure. In others, state laws are much more relaxed, and landlords can often get away with dubious or nonexistent justifications for taking the money.

Regardless of where your state falls on the tenant protection spectrum, common legitimate reasons for security deposit seizure include the following:

  • Unpaid rent, either because you fell behind on your payments (perhaps due to job loss or an unexpected expense) or because you broke your lease and moved out before it was up.
  • Physical damage to the property (such as fist-sized holes punched through the wall, or damage to a baseboard heater) that clearly exceeds the threshold for ordinary wear and tear.
  • For furnished units, repair or replacement costs for furniture and other items included with the property.
  • Heavy cleaning and repairs necessary to restore the property to its pre-tenancy condition, such as a fresh coat of paint on scuffed-up walls or work to unclog a backed-up plumbing line.

It’s impossible to completely guarantee that your landlord won’t find a legitimate – or perhaps not-so-legitimate – reason to take a portion of your security deposit after you move on. However, if you can avoid or mitigate these common things that can eat into your deposit, you boost your chances of walking away from your apartment with most or all of what you put down on it – and having more financial wiggle room to cover your moving costs and put down a security deposit on your next apartment.

Things That Can Eat Into Your Security Deposit

1. Failure to Understand Your Lease, Local Law, and Landlord Expectations

For tenants, knowledge is power. You need to understand your lease, local tenant protection laws, and your landlord’s expectations for your tenure.

For starters, read your lease thoroughly and ask your landlord or property manager to clarify any vaguely worded items. For instance, a stipulation against houseguests staying for an “unreasonable length of time” begs the question as to what length is reasonable. Clauses pertaining to cleaning and damage, particularly such phrases as “ordinary wear and tear” and “reasonable effort,” are particularly important to pin down. Don’t be afraid to directly ask your landlord what they mean, and modify the contract as necessary to be more specific.

It’s equally important to understand local tenant protection laws. Landlords, particularly those catering to college students and other inexperienced renters, often assume that tenants don’t know their rights – and treat their security deposits accordingly.

For instance, California landlords are required to return deposits within 21 days of move-out or send a formal letter with an itemized list of damages and their costs, including itemized repair receipts or estimates for all necessary repair work. If you move out of a California apartment and don’t hear from your landlord within three weeks, filing a formal complaint could help you recover hundreds or thousands in lost dollars – provided you know that you’re allowed to file in the first place.

Finally, speak with your landlord or property manager about any expectations that aren’t explicitly spelled out in your rental contract. If you live in a rented single-family house, your lease probably indicates whether you’re responsible for mowing the lawn and clearing snow.

However, what happens if the city issues a fine for your home’s unkempt grass or icy sidewalk? Is it your landlord’s responsibility to pay, or yours? Knowing the answer in advance could save you from a hefty citation bill.

2. Failure to Document the Property’s Original Condition

As soon as possible after moving in – and before placing furnishings (if the unit isn’t furnished already) in their permanent positions – thoroughly document your unit’s original condition. If possible, do this with your landlord or property manager. Some states require landlords to furnish tenants with detailed damage checklists that the tenants must complete and return shortly after moving in, usually within 30 days.

Whether or not you have a checklist, pay special attention to any existing damage, no matter how trivial it seems. Take copious photographs and written notes. Then, email everything to the person responsible for collecting your security deposit and rent.

Documenting your apartment’s original condition provides easy, potent protection against dubious damage claims. If your landlord claims at move-out that the discolored wood flooring in the corner of your living room must be due to your negligence, you can simply call up photographic evidence that the floor was already a mess.

Properties Original Condition

3. Failure to Negotiate With Your Landlord

Many states cap security deposits at one, two, or occasionally three months’ rent – possibly more for furnished apartments. Some don’t set any limits. However, no state requires landlords to demand a minimum deposit. In fact, many tenants don’t realize that they’re well within their rights to negotiate a lower security deposit.

You shouldn’t go into a new rental contract assuming that you’ll leave the place in worse shape than you found it – that’s not being a good neighbor, and isn’t likely to help you find an apartment in the future. However, if you can negotiate a lower security deposit, you have less to lose in the event that you need to break your lease – for instance, if you get a great new job in a different city or state and have to move on short notice, or need to move closer to a sick family member who has taken a turn for the worse.

Though every security deposit negotiation is different, common tactics include the following:

  • Offering to pay a few dollars more per month in rent
  • Accepting a set rent raise (say, 3%, regardless of market conditions) when your lease renews
  • Doing simple chores for the landlord
  • If you have a pet, offering to pay a nominal monthly pet fee (pet rent)
  • Helping your landlord find a replacement tenant before you move out

4. Poor Landlord-Tenant Relations

Landlord-tenant relations are admittedly subjective. One tenant’s attentive property manager is another’s nosy neighbor.

The benefits of good relations are somewhat subjective as well. Not all landlords react to tenant overtures in the same way – a small gesture that impresses a friendly, small-time property owner might have no effect on (or even annoy) a cynical, overworked manager.

Still, tenants who take care to treat their landlords with respect and hold up their end of the bargain in a way that meets or exceeds expectations are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt – and less likely to see their security deposit chipped away for questionable reasons, such as charging for post-tenancy cleaning services under a sketchy definition of “unreasonable wear and tear.” Landlords and property managers also tend to treat good tenants better, whether by prioritizing their service calls, making exceptions to strict pet rules, and allowing some flexibility around move-out – such as allowing early move-out and prorating the last month’s rent accordingly.

You don’t need to become best friends with your landlord to develop good relations and boost your chances of recovering most or all of your security deposit. For tenants, general tips for maintaining good landlord-tenant relations include the following:

  • Timely Rent Payments. Pay your rent on time – on or even before the first of the month, if possible. If you’re facing an unexpected cash crunch and won’t make rent on time, let your landlord know as soon as possible and present a clear plan or schedule for making it right.
  • Good Behavior. Don’t throw wild parties, blare music at all hours, or engage in any other socially unacceptable behavior – particularly if you live in a quiet neighborhood or multi-unit building with thin walls.
  • Cleanliness and Tidiness. Keep your unit’s interior clean and tidy, particularly if you know your landlord or property manager is visiting soon. If you live in a rented house, keep the yard and exterior clean and free of debris.
  • Thoughtfulness. If it seems appropriate, make small gestures for your landlord or property manager throughout the year: a birthday card, holiday present, congratulations on key life events.

5. Modifying the Unit Without Permission

For folks weighing the pros and cons of renting versus buying, the ability to modify an owned home is a powerful motivator to take the plunge and buy. Renters simply don’t have the same leeway to decorate, rearrange, add, or remove to suit their tastes.

Some landlords are fairly laid-back about minor modifications, requiring only a courtesy check before allowing tenants to proceed. Others are sticklers who permit only the least invasive changes. The only way to find out is to ask.

Here are some common rental modifications that can eat into your security deposit if you lack prior permission:

  • Hanging Framed Pictures. Even light-duty wall hooks can poke small holes in drywall, which fastidious landlords are apt to take issue with. Heavier-duty pictures, mirrors, and other hanging decorations can cause more serious damage, particularly if they’re accidentally jarred loose. Landlords typically repair holes by applying fresh spackling and possibly painting over the affected area. To avoid damage or the disappointment of rejection, substitute posters for framed decorations, and use paint-safe stickies to hold them up. Cost to repair: Negligible per hole, but anywhere from $5 to $50 if spackling and painting supplies are required.
  • Painting Walls. It’s natural to want to paint your unit’s walls to suit your tastes, particularly if you plan to be there a while. However, this is one of the most common ways to eat into your security deposit. Landlords who disagree with your color choice are well within their rights to demand that you repaint to their specifications, or to repaint after you move out. Cost to fix: A gallon of paint covers about 350 square feet of wall (roughly a 10-by-10 room with eight-foot ceilings) in one even coat. To cover darker tones, budget for two coats. Depending on your paint brand, number of coats, and whether you have to buy rollers and other supplies, a single room can cost anywhere from $25 to more than $100, plus at least a couple of hours of your time.
  • Adding Shelving or Other Structure-Attached Fixtures. Shelving can add substantial value to a boring room – or turn it into a design disaster. Shelving also compromises wall material, typically to a greater extent than hanging decorations. Cost to repair: $5 to more than $50 (spackle and paint).
  • Modifying Landscaping. If you rent a house with a yard or garden, or live in a building with an outdoor common area, you might be tempted to give your green thumb some exercise. Low-impact activities like weeding gardens usually don’t arouse landlords’ ire and might even draw an appreciative response, particularly when there’s no gardener or groundskeeper on the payroll. However, more aggressive work done without permission, such as removing plants or shrubs, digging new garden beds, planting native vegetation, or trimming and removing trees, is a different story. Depending on local law and the nature of the modifications, landlords may be within their rights to charge tenants whatever it takes to return the grounds to their original state. Cost to fix: $10 or $20 (for seeds and mulch) to more than $500 (to replace shrubs, trees, flower beds, and other major landscape elements).
  • Installing a Satellite Dish. One of the benefits of a cable subscription is that you don’t need your landlord’s permission to get one. On the other hand, satellite companies are quick to ask if your landlord is okay with your plan. That’s because satellite dishes are technically structural elements – they’re fastened tight to the roof or side of the structure. And for signal-finding purposes, they sometimes require the removal of nearby vegetation. However, depending on local laws and customs, your satellite installer is liable to simply take your word that you’ve gotten your landlord’s permission. If your landlord isn’t on board, you’re likely to be on the hook for the dish’s removal. Cost to repair: Negligible (if no structural damage) to more than $100 (for roof or siding repairs).

Amicable landlord-tenant relations can pay off in a big way when it comes to unit modifications. As a rule, landlords are more likely to grant modification requests from tenants with long histories of timely rent payments and good property stewardship than from newer tenants with uneven payment histories and questionable patterns of behavior.

Modifying Unit Without Permission

6. Pet Ownership

Pets cost a lot to feed and care for. And as anyone with a dog or cat knows, they can also cost a lot to clean up after. Though landlords don’t care what kind of food their tenants’ pets eat, they certainly pay attention to the messes and property damage they cause.

Pets can eat into your security deposit in two ways:

  1. Many landlords charge special pet deposits, sometimes nonrefundable, from the outset. These can range from relatively nominal sums of around $25 to $300 or more, depending on the landlord’s preferences and the animal’s breed. Some landlords also charge monthly pet rent, typically $10 to $50, though this charge isn’t a deposit in the traditional sense. It’s important to be honest with your landlord or property manager about your pets. Failing to disclose that you own a pet at move-in, or that you’ve acquired a pet while a tenant, is likely a violation of your rental contract and could technically result in your eviction. More likely, you’ll simply forfeit a portion of your security deposit equal to the pet deposit you would have paid initially.
  2. Landlords who don’t charge pet deposits are more likely to withhold part of their pet-loving tenants’ security deposits for post-tenancy cleaning or repairs. Even small pets can cause damage over time – for instance, cats love to hang out in window wells, and their attempts to reach these areas can really scratch up the walls below in the absence of natural steps or wall protection.

7. Incidental Damage That Goes Unnoticed

People naturally get used to their surroundings, particularly when they spend a lot of time in them. Eventually, you’re likely to lose your ability to view your rental unit critically. If you’re slowly causing unobtrusive but potentially costly damage to the place, you’re likely to pay the price when you move out.

Most damage caused by responsible renters is incidental, not deliberate. Common types of incidental damages, and costs to remediate, include the following:

  • Seriously Scratched or Damaged Floors. Furniture in motion is a leading cause of floor damage. Wood floors are particularly at risk, so take care when moving furniture across your beautiful hardwood and use soft traction pads whenever possible. I learned firsthand how costly serious floor damage can be – my wife and I lost about $500 after I spent more than a year sliding a rolling office chair across unprotected wood in my home office, damaging most of the room in the process. Cost to remediate: $100 to more than $1,000, depending on the size of the damaged area and effort required to repair.
  • Paint Damage. Moving furniture bangs up painted walls, doors, and appurtenances too. So do other incidentals, such as playing children and rambunctious pets. Cost to remediate: Repainting a single room can cost anywhere from $25 to more than $100.
  • Water Damage. Water damage is among the most vexing and potentially costly problems landlords face. Interior damage caused by a burst interior pipe is likely to be covered by landlords’ property insurance policies, but damage caused by a leaky tub or tenants’ carelessness (for instance, not closing the shower curtain or allowing the toilet to overflow) often isn’t. Cost to remediate: Depending on the extent of the damage and whether mold results, anywhere from a negligible sum to well more than the value of the security deposit.
  • Damaged Moldings. The moldings running along your unit’s floor and ceiling look great, but they’re prone to damage – particularly if you have kids or pets continually bumping into them. And yet again, moving furniture is a risk. Cost to remediate: Basic moldings average $5 to $7 per linear foot, or roughly $200 to $300 for a 10-by-10 room. Painted moldings can cost more.
  • Damaged Blinds and Window Trims. The cheaper the blind, the shorter its lifespan – particularly if children or pets are present. Window trims last longer, but can still be damaged to the point of functional loss by repeated opening or modification (such as installing specialized blinds). Cost to remediate: Anywhere from $5 to $40 for a new, functional blind; $40 to $50 per window trim.
  • Damaged Counters. Your rental unit isn’t likely to have top-of-the-line kitchen counters, but replacing or extensively repairing any prep surface is quite costly. And unless the issue is localized or shallow, your landlord is likely to replace the entire counter section where the damage occurred. Cost to remediate: Depending on the nature and extent of the damage, $200 to more than $2,000.
  • Damaged or Totaled Appliances. When it comes to kitchen appliances, there’s a fine line between “normal wear and tear” and unreasonable damage. A previous landlord put up a heck of a fight when we informed him that our 20-year-old refrigerator had given out – he was convinced we’d done something to it. Though he eventually relented and bought a new one at no charge to us, he periodically brought it up as if he’d done us a favor. Cost to remediate: $50 (for a service visit) to more than $1,000 (for a replacement appliance).

8. Unauthorized Repairs

Unless you act as property manager or caretaker, or have some other longstanding arrangement with your landlord that authorizes you to execute repairs in and around your unit, avoid taking matters into your own hands and attempting DIY home maintenance.

Why shouldn’t you do your landlord a favor and fix property problems yourself? Because you could end up making the problem worse – and subsequently costing yourself a lot of money. Depending on the nature of the work, it could cost hundreds of dollars – possibly your entire security deposit, for a serious plumbing, electrical, or structural screw-up – to fix your well-intentioned mistakes.

This general prohibition on DIY fixes even extends to work that directly benefits your landlord, such as replacing broken windows with energy-efficient versions. If something goes wrong with your property, regardless of how trivial or straightforward the fix seems, contact your landlord or an authorized service professional.

If your landlord seems unwilling or unable to provide service, or claims that the issue isn’t serious enough to warrant a fix, compel a fix by threatening to move out – not breaking out your toolbox.

9. Excessive Utility Consumption

If you live in a multi-unit building, there’s a good chance your landlord or property management company includes your utility costs in your rent. Under this arrangement, your water, gas, trash, and electricity aren’t free – they’re bundled into your rent based on an average per-unit consumption rate.

In many cases – particularly if the units in your building are metered separately – your landlord can tell whether you’re deviating substantially from baseline consumption rates. This is also the case in single-family houses and duplexes with rent-included utilities. If you’re blasting the air conditioning at 64 when it’s 100 outside, leaving the heat on with the windows open, tolerating a constantly running toilet, or single-handedly trying to light your city’s skyline with your interior lights, your landlord will eventually find out.

When that happens, your landlord is likely to withhold whatever your careless utility usage cost above the average baseline – even if the ability to do so isn’t spelled out in the lease. Whether this is entirely aboveboard is another story, so a legal challenge isn’t a bad idea. However, taking your landlord to court is certainly less convenient than simply being careful with your utility consumption.

Excessive utility consumption can also arise out of deliberate, dubious attempts at earning side income. Several years ago, my wife and I lived in a duplex with rent-included utilities and free laundry (not coin-operated). Before we moved in, our landlord politely warned us not to invite less fortunate friends over on laundry day.

The landlord claimed a previous tenant had run “a nice little racket” out of the basement, charging people $2 a pop to wash and dry their clothes, then pocketing the proceeds and saddling the landlord with elevated utility bills. However, the landlord had the last laugh – he kept enough of the tenants’ security deposit to cover the cost of water and electricity consumed above the unit’s original baseline, leaving almost nothing when they moved out. And he was on firm legal footing to do so thanks to a lease clause explicitly prohibiting “business activity” anywhere on the property.

Excessive Utility Consumption

10. Failure to Clean Thoroughly Before Moving Out

Cleaning thoroughly before moving out has undeniable costs. You have to spend money on supplies and you have to spend time getting the job done properly. However, the costs of not cleaning before move-out are likely to be higher, particularly if you’ve lived in your place for a long time and haven’t subjected it to regular deep cleanings.

Prior to moving out, make sure the following areas look as good or better than when you moved in:

  • On and Around Appliances and Appurtenances. Dirty kitchen appliances, baseboard heaters, and other household appurtenances usually require little more than elbow grease, spray cleaner, and a scrubber to make new. Don’t neglect areas behind and around appliances, which often aren’t cleaned for years at a time. Cost to remediate: Calling in a professional cleaning service costs $50 or more.
  • Bathrooms. Clean every square inch of your bathroom, including walls, ceilings, and hard-to-reach floor corners, with bleach or an eco-friendly bleach substitute. Pay special attention to discoloration, mildew, and mold in the shower and bathtub. Cost to remediate: A cleaning service can handle a standard dirty bathroom. Serious mold infestations can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to fix, depending on whether the mold has gotten into the walls.
  • Closets and Storage Areas. Polish your closets to a dull shine (not literally) and make sure you don’t leave any dust, dirt, hangers, random clothing items, or other odds and ends behind. Cost to remediate: Additional cleaning service man-hours.
  • Pet Rooms. Pet rooms – where you keep your cat’s litter box or dog’s bed, or anywhere that your pets spent a lot of time – can accumulate hair, dirt, and stench. Clean them as thoroughly as you would any other room, then take the extra step of applying an odor-absorbent cleaner such as baking soda just prior to move-out. Cost to remediate: Substantial additional cleaning service man-hours, and possibly a special carpet cleaning service ($75 and up).

Small-time landlords and active property managers likely have the time and inclination to walk through the property with tenants after a cleaning, point out any deficiencies, and offer a second chance to clean properly. Absentee landlords and large, bureaucratic management companies aren’t likely to offer this courtesy. Plan accordingly.

11. Failure to Return Keys

During a hectic move, it’s easy to forget a very simple step that could prevent a huge headache down the road: returning your unit’s keys to your landlord or property owner. Failing to return keys doesn’t just leave you on the hook for a lock change or re-key, which ranges from $15 to $50 when done solo and anywhere from $50 to $300 when done by a locksmith. In some states, it gives your landlord the legal right to withhold your entire security deposit – at least, until some time after you actually return the keys. In California, for instance, the 21-day security deposit return clock doesn’t start until the landlord has the unit’s keys in possession.

Bottom line: Don’t forget to return your keys. And to avoid a potentially ugly “he said, she said” situation, give them back in person.

12. Leaving Personal Items in Storage

Unless landlords or property managers proudly advertise that they operate a junk removal service in their spare time, don’t assume that they can dispose of an old mattress, bed frame, clothing, furniture item, or anything else you deem unworthy of your new place. Landlords who have to dispose of items you leave charge anywhere from $10 to $20 for a quick trip to the dump to more than $100 for a high-volume junk removal service.

Before or during your move-out, remove your possessions from your unit’s closets and any adjacent storage spaces. If you have a shared or separate basement storage area, attic, shed, or garage, go through those places carefully as well.

If you want to get rid of any bulky items, run a Craigslist ad or talk to your friends and neighbors. If you have enough junk, consider hosting a garage sale. As a last resort, take your unwanted items out to the curb and put a “FREE” sign on them, provided this is allowed in your area.

Final Word

Whether you live in a massive apartment community run by an impersonal management company or a small duplex owned by the lady who lives upstairs, there are concrete steps that you can take to increase your likelihood of recovering part or all of your security deposit.

However, subjective factors are just as important. For instance, maintaining amicable relationships with the people responsible for your apartment or community – your landlord, property manager, maintenance professionals, and even the leasing office staff – can set you apart from other tenants who see those people as mere cogs in the real estate wheel. Maintenance people are more likely to go out of their way for tenants they like – and landlords are more likely to give model tenants the benefit of the doubt on matters that could affect their damage deposits.

Have you ever lost your security deposit, or received less than the full amount back?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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