You’ve heard horror stories about landlords refusing to return a security deposit. How can you be sure it won’t happen to you? Every state has laws to protect tenants and force landlords to return their deposits on time. Read on to learn the steps required to get yours back and what to do if they refuse to hand it over.
Before You Move
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” This is where you put your axe to the grindstone.
1. Do a Walkthrough
When you move into a new place, walk through it with your landlord. Document any damages you see and have your landlord sign off on them. If they fix pre-existing damages with your security deposit later, you’ll be able to fight it in court.
2. Check Your Lease
Find the termination clause in your lease agreement. Chances are, you will have to give 30 days’ notice to end your lease, but each agreement is different.
Your landlord must send you the deposit within 30 days of your move date. In most states, landlords are required to keep the money in a separate bank account. If it’s accruing interest, you may be entitled to that, too.
3. Take Photos
Take timestamped photos of everything from the floors to the ceiling fans. If you find any damage, snap a close-up. This will come in handy if you have to prove damage existed before a certain date.
4. Pay Rent and Give Notice
Never use a security deposit as your final rent payment. If the landlord needs part of your deposit for a fix and the remainder doesn’t cover rent, they can sue you for non-payment.
Avoid those issues and always pay your rent on time. Heck, your landlord will probably let more things slide if you do. Get on their good side and they might not cause a fuss over that wall fixture.
Give notice of your departure early so your landlord has ample time to find a new tenant. Better yet, find one yourself. They’ll be grateful and more likely to make the process easy on you. Copy the notice you gave them and store it for safekeeping.
5. Organize, Prepare, Paint
Your apartment probably doesn’t look the way you found it. It’s time to rearrange the layout, remove furniture, and paint the walls. Hauling cabinets and wardrobes while you’re stressed out is a recipe for disaster. Invest in your peace of mind and move any large furniture ahead of time, if possible.
Generic-apartment-beige isn’t your color? If you painted over that, it’s time to return it to its old bland glory. Ask your landlord what shade of beige they like; they should have the original color number.
During the Move
The preparation is over. Now we’ve come to the fun part—heaving all your stuff into an overpacked vehicle.
1. Mind Those Corners
We’ve all caught a couch or two on a narrow doorway. Try to move large objects with care and avoid making any scuffs, dents, or marks. You only have to make it through one more day!
2. Scrub, Clean, Wash
This is one of the most important steps you can take. Scrub your place from top to bottom—no stovetop unwashed, no closet unkempt.
“Leave the place cleaner than how you found it” applies here. Get the dust off the fans, check the closets for unused furniture, and scrub the pans beneath the stove. Do it after moving the furniture so you don’t miss a spot.
3. Final Documentation
Take another round of photos with timestamps to show what the place looked like after you moved. Once again, take close-ups of any damage. This step is also a final cleaning check. Don’t leave any trash behind, especially large furniture. If your landlord hires movers for the broken dining table you left, the money will come out of your security deposit.
After the Move
The hard part is over! Now it’s time to get that deposit back.
1. Provide Your New Address
How is your landlord supposed to return your deposit without knowing where to send it?
Make copies of the letter containing the new address. In fact, make copies of all communication between you and your landlord. This will protect you in case things go awry.
2. Show up to the Final Inspection
Many states give you the right to be present during final inspection. Walk through the place with your landlord and ask if there are any areas you can clean better before you leave.
3. If You’re Getting the Run-around
You’ve done the right things, but you’re getting wishy-washy answers or none at all. This is the last thing you want, but it’s okay. You’ve planned for this!
Write a letter demanding payment of your security deposit. In most states, you’ll have to write one before you file any civil lawsuits.
Make sure your letter is strongly worded and clear. Write why you deserve the payment and provide evidence. Walk through your story and state that you will take legal action if necessary.
For most landlords, this will be enough to scare them into payment. If they’re still bristling, it’s time to go to court.
File a Civil Lawsuit
Take a trip to your local courthouse and file a civil lawsuit. Your case will go before a judge, who will make a decision within a few minutes. You will have to pay a small fee, so keep that in mind. If you have all the documentation recommended in the points above, the judge will rule in your favor.
You may be thinking, “That’s a lot of hassle. Maybe I shouldn’t bother.” Remember, this is your money and you are entitled to it. A security deposit is not a donation. Make sure you get what the landlord owes you.