Of the six apartments my husband and I have rented in the last five years, we have gotten our entire security deposit back zero times. I don't know many people who do. I get it -- things break, get scratched and wear out. Using the deposit to cover those repairs makes sense, but some landlords and property managers are really picky.
Early on in our renting adventures, I was convinced that I could leave an apartment better than I found it. I was sure that my landlord would find nothing to fix after I had vacated the property. I was wrong, of course, and while it's important to try to get back as much of the deposit as possible, I learned that trying too hard can be a huge waste of money.
If you want to recoup some of your security deposit, here are my tips for you.
1. Read. Your. Lease.
Leases tend to specify what you are and are not allowed to do to the apartment, like putting nails in the wall or painting. If your landlord or property manager is OK with you making changes, you still need to know if they'll want you return everything to its original state before you move out or how much they'll charge you to re-do things themselves. Sometimes, these instructions are very specific.
I learned to take such specificity seriously after we didn't get my whole security deposit back from our first apartment. The building required any tenants with carpeted units to have the floors professionally cleaned upon moving out. Otherwise, the management company would hire professionals and pay for it with your security deposit.
I didn't assign much importance to the "professional" part of that requirement, figuring the important thing was to leave clean carpet, which I thought I could do myself. I rented carpet cleaning equipment, spent a few hours on the project, thought it looked great and submitted my receipt for the equipment as proof the carpet had been cleaned. When my security deposit was returned to us more than $200 short of what we expected, I called the management company to ask what was wrong. They said it was for carpet cleaning, and I explained I had already taken care of that. They said I didn't follow the directions in the lease, so they brought in pros to make sure the job got done to their liking. In my attempt to save money, we ended up paying twice for the same service.
Above all, check the local and state laws between landlord and tenants. In most cases, for example, courts rule in favor of landlords being responsible for repainting the apartment if you've lived there several years. Also check tenants rights to know what perks you can expect from your landlord.
2. Take pictures
Before you move in anything, walk through the apartment, take pictures of any existing damage and email the photos to the landlord or property management. Point out the timestamp on the images, if you can. We've never had a landlord charge us for pre-existing damage, so I can't say for sure that this will help you contest repair costs, but maybe our habit of sending these pictures is why no one has attempted to charge us for pre-existing damage.
3. Don't get a dog
I can't speak for other pets -- or other dogs, really -- but our dog has done a fair amount of damage to the apartments he's lived in. He chewed things. Scratched floors. Peed and pooped on many surfaces. Those things are difficult to prevent and even more difficult to conceal. Of the six apartments we've lived in over the last five years, our dog Marvin has lived in four of them. In both dog-free apartments, we got the majority of the security deposits back.
4. If you insist on having a dog, don't get a puppy
Only once did we not get a dime of our security deposit back, and it was from the apartment we lived in when we adopted 3-month-old Marvin. It took us six months to housebreak Marvin. He had some separation anxiety, and scratched at the bathroom door when we left (not sure why -- the bathroom door wasn't stopping him from going anywhere). At one point, Marvin's food started to upset his stomach so he ate carpet, instead (though that didn't treat him any better). He later ripped up a separate section of the carpet, as well, apparently attempting to bury a bone there.
Between the chewed-up baseboards and carpet that was beyond repair, the landlord used our entire security deposit (and $200 pet deposit) to get the place up to snuff for new tenants. Honestly, I was just happy that was enough to cover the extent of the damage.
I'm not actually telling you to not get a dog or a puppy, just don't expect a huge security deposit back if you have one. Personally, I have no problem with the extra costs that come with puppy snuggles.
5. Don't go overboard with DIY cleanup
It's important to leave your apartment in good condition, but it's hard to predict what your landlord will consider a sufficient cleanup. You already know the story about the carpet cleaning. I've also spent time and money patching and painting walls, only to have the landlord say it wasn't good enough and use my security deposit to hire a professional to re-do the work.
At this point, I've committed to not spending much money on a cleanup I might get charged for again, and it has helped to communicate with the landlord about their expectations. Do they always like to paint between tenants? Are they planning any upgrades to the unit after we move out? If so, I know to not to dedicate my own finances to fixing anything that they're just going to do over.
6. but make a good effort to clean well
Still, you don't want to make it easy for the property manager to take money from your deposit. We've been charged for the following things: scuffed walls, chair marks on hardwood floors, food forgotten in the freezer, a dirty microwave, poorly swept floors and insufficient dusting. That stuff is easy to fix, and you probably already have the cleaning materials necessary to do them. We've always attempted to leave our apartment clean, and there are times I was surprised to hear we didn't do a good enough job, but there's only so much you can do. Cleanliness is pretty subjective.
7. Keep in touch with your old landlord
I was really worried our landlord from the puppy-tainted apartment was going to bill us for repairs our deposit didn't cover. (The rent wasn't much, and the damage was ridiculous.) I regularly contacted our landlord to ask about the repairs and the cost, and he kept me updated. The last thing I wanted was to miss a bill in the mail and potentially have it sent to a debt collector if the landlord had a hard time reaching me. I didn't stop contacting him until he confirmed the repairs were complete and we would not be getting any of our security deposit back.
In my experience, you can't wait around at your new place hoping the deposit check will show up. We tried that approach early on, and it took a few months (and, eventually, phone calls) to get some money back. In our most recent move, I maintained weekly contact with our landlady regarding our security deposit, confirming she had our current address and asking what repairs needed to be done. We got 75% of our deposit back a little more than a month after we moved out. I always try to balance politeness with persistence, and it seems to have worked out well this time.
Renting can feel like such a money pit, so when you have opportunities to save or get a deposit back, take them seriously. For example, having good credit can help you get an apartment without paying a high deposit, and the same thing goes for utilities (some gas, electric and cable providers check your credit before setting up service). While rent and utility payments aren't generally reported to the major credit bureaus and factored into traditional credit scores, failing to make those payments could hurt your credit. (Also, failing to pay rent can get you evicted, which can hurt your credit and make it hard to find a new place to live.) Creditors and service providers can send unpaid balances to a debt collector, which can show up on your credit reports as a derogatory mark. You'll want to keep an eye on your credit regularly, especially when you change mailing addresses, so you don't accidentally miss a bill payment and suffer credit damage. You can see where your credit stands by getting two free credit scores with monthly updates on Credit.com.
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