How to get your security deposit back

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Don’t let your landlord walk away with your security deposit. The time to start laying the foundation for getting your security deposit back is before you move into your apartment or rental house.

Start with familiarizing yourself with the laws governing security deposits in your locale to make sure your landlord abides by them, says James Evans, president of the Institute of Real Estate Management, which is affiliated with the National Association of Realtors. “A lot of times, unfortunately, you’ve got to educate the landlord,” Evans says.

Spell it out in the lease

Before you sign the lease, make sure you understand it.

A lease might say you don’t have to pay to fix “normal wear and tear,” but Evans says he refuses to allow that wording in leases. Instead, request that the lease contain specific details on what you will and won’t be responsible for cleaning or repairing.

If a landlord refuses to spell it out, “I’d find someone who will,” Evans says.

Check the lease to see if you are expected to hire a professional cleaning company when you move out.

The lease should state whether the landlord must keep your security deposit in a separate, interest-bearing account, says Neil Garfinkel, the partner heading the real estate practice with Abrams Garfinkel Margolis Bergson LLP in New York City. Depending on your location, you could receive the interest earned on your security deposit.

Check it out before you move in

Once you’re satisfied that the lease is in order, make sure the house or apartment is, too.

In some states, the landlord is required to provide a checklist before you move in so you can note any damage.

Briana Hartzell, who writes a blog for United Services Automobile Association’s military spouse community, recalls that, with one home she rented, the property manager filled out a form that said there was no damage. Hartzell insisted in filling it out herself and noted three pages worth of damage.

“When you go through, go through like a detective,” Hartzell says. “Examine every room in detail.”

Take photos or use video to document all flaws, she says. Do everything from looking for scrapes and dents on the baseboards to testing every sink to ensure it functions properly.

Document problems and repairs

It’s almost inevitable that things will break, and it’s the landlord’s obligation to repair them.

If relatively inexpensive items (such as smoke detectors or locks), aren’t repaired within a reasonable time, you can pay for the repairs and deduct the cost from your rent, Evans says. Keep receipts.

Hartzell recommends emailing the property manager regularly to establish a timeline in case problems crop up. For example, in April, you may say all is well. In May, a pipe might start leaking. The email trail will show that you didn’t ignore a problem when it arose. Be sure to document whether the problem has been repaired.

Be ready at move-out time

Before moving out, Hartzell suggests asking the property manager what is expected. In one case, she was required to clean the windows and clear out any dog fur from the backyard.

Keep receipts if you get the carpet professionally cleaned or hire a cleaning company, she says.

Take photos or videos after you have moved your belongings out. “It may seem a bit overboard, but taking 50 photos is worth a $1,300 deposit,” Hartzell says.

Then do the final walkthrough with the property manager to make sure everything is up to par.

Know your rights if you don’t get your cash

Even when you think everything is good to go, make sure your landlord follows the law when returning your security deposit, Garfinkel says. The landlord will likely have to tell you within a certain time whether he is refunding your security deposit or plans to keep all or part of it to cover damage.

If the landlord doesn’t return the security deposit or makes a claim you think is unjustified, you can take the landlord to small claims court, Garfinkel says. Each jurisdiction has limits on the maximum amount in dispute.

To have a chance of winning, “you should be able to document you did what you were supposed to do under the lease,” he says.

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