Want Your Security Deposit Back? You'd Better Do These Things

Sorting through stuff, packing box after box, cleaning -- perhaps the only exciting part of moving out is the knowledge that your hundreds (or sometimes even thousands) of dollars that are tied up in a security deposit will soon be returned to you.

And all you have to do is leave your apartment in respectably clean condition. It's a done deal, right?

Don't get cocky. The lease may say "broom clean," but an expert tells us that isn't the half of it.

Beyond the broom

The problem with "broom clean" is the phrase can mean different things to different people, says Wayne Gathright, real estate software developer and president of Tenants.com.

To you, it might mean a quick tidying up. To your landlord, it might mean full-scale deep scrubbing.

To play it safe, Gathright recommends falling somewhere in the middle. He suggests a general light cleaning of every room -- including inside the appliances -- and vacuuming thoroughly when you're done. But you don't need to go as far as renting a steam cleaner (unless your lease specifically says to).

It's tricky, but you stand a good chance of getting your deposit back if you follow this general rule: "It should be obvious to the landlord that an effort was made to clean," Gathright says.

Clean even what you can't see

If you have a picky landlord, cleaning what you can see isn't going to be enough to salvage your full security deposit.

"Tenants often overlook small things that end up costing them all or part of their deposit," Gathright says.

To really make sure you get what's owed, you'll have to get what most tenants miss. Sweep behind appliances, scrub drip pans and stove elements, mop behind the toilet, and wipe inside drawers.

But don't stop at cleaning.

"Turn on all lights and appliances to make sure they are not missing bulbs," says Gathright. "Check the windows for cracks and the screens for any damage."

Try to put yourself in your landlord's shoes. It may seem like a small thing to you, but if it irritates the landlord, he might take it out on your security deposit.

"We even know of one tenant that got charged for dust on the ceiling fans," Gathright says.

Leave nothing -- and we mean nothing -- behind

You probably know that when you move, you have to take everything with you (that includes trash cans and the food in the freezer).

But you may be tempted to leave behind some of the improvements you've made to the space. After all, if it makes the space look better, the landlord will appreciate it, right?

The short answer: Probably not.

Landlords like improvements they agreed to in writing -- anything else is a gamble. To play it safe, "leave the rental the way it was in the first place, even if you think [your addition] adds value to the room," Gathright says.

That means ripping down your shower curtain, uninstalling curtain rods, pulling up drawer liners, and double-checking for anything else you added.

Arm yourself with proof

Once you're done cleaning, you have one step left: Channel teen detective Veronica Mars and document your work.

Take date-stamped photos of every room. Open closets, appliances, cabinets, and drawers, and get a shot of those areas, too. Don't forget the balcony and porch areas.

The more photographic proof you have, the easier it will be to challenge your landlord if you do get docked.