9 Tips for Keeping Your Security Deposit

You might think your security deposit is as good as gone, but with a little bit of TLC—and a dogged commitment to documentation—you’ll stand a good chance of getting yours back!

Moving is the absolute worst. Not only is it mentally and physically exhausting, but it usually costs a pretty penny too. And it costs even more if you end up losing the security department for your old place. That’s a whole month’s rent or more that you could have used to pay for moving costs or stuck into savings for a rainy day that instead just gets washed down the drain.

But it doesn’t have to be! If you take the right steps, you can actually get your deposit back when you move out. It means taking care of your property and paying attention to issues that crop up during your lease, but the financial benefit to getting that money back is totally worth the work. If you want to hang onto your security deposit, here’s what you need to do!

1. When you move in, document existing damage.

Jessica T. Orsby, Esq. (@dmv_lawyer)  is a landlord-tenant attorney with A+O Law Group in Maryland and Washington D.C. She has a great deal of experience litigating cases that involve the return of security deposits.  As such, she had a number of helpful tips for getting one’s entire security deposit returned to them when they move out.

Her first tip was to document any damages when you first move in. “There are often disputes about whether damage to an apartment existed when the tenant arrived,” she said. “Usually, the issue boils down to whether the tenant has any proof of the pre-existing damage.”

“When you move in, take a moment to make note of everything that is even slightly wrong with the apartment. Take photos and provide your list and photos to the landlord. Sometimes landlords provide a walk-through move-in checklist for this purpose. Make sure to complete it.”

2. Properly maintain the property.

If you want to get your security deposit back, you really need to maintain the property. This might sound a bit simplistic, but many times the simplest advice is both the best to remember and the easiest to forget. And this goes beyond just common sense upkeep, as Ornsby laid out:

“Some leases have clauses informing tenants of little things that the tenant is responsible for that a tenant might not be aware of. These things could include changing certain filters, for example. If the lease requires you to complete special maintenance, be sure to follow-through or negotiate this term out of the lease.”

3. Don’t resort to DIY fixes for damages.

There some problems that you can totally solve with a DIY fix. It may not be pretty, sure, but it does the job, right? Well, when it comes to getting your deposit back, that “helpful home hack” could actually land you in the wrong. Maintaining the property is one thing, thinking you can fix anything is another.

“Patchwork can result in security deposit deductions,” said Ornsby. “If your lease prohibits patchwork, don’t do it. If you decide to complete repairs yourself, have a professional do it.”

4. Report leaks, pests, and mold in a timely manner.

“The beauty of renting is that maintenance is mostly the landlord’s responsibility,” said Ornsby. And she’s right! There’s no greater feeling than seeing an expensive fix to be made or infestation to get rid of and knowing that you aren’t going to be the one footing the bill.

But just because you don’t have to pay for it doesn’t mean you should just sit back and ignore it.

“If you notice there is something wrong tell the landlord immediately. Do not wait to see if it will get better. Failing to report issues can result in your deposit being withheld,” said Ornsby.

5. Train your pets or don’t get one.

Having a pet is great, but having an untrained pet could lead to your security deposit getting torn to shreds … much like those three pairs of slippers your dog decided were chew toys.

“Pet stains and odors can ruin carpets and carpet replacement can be expensive,” said Ornsby. “If your pet is not already trained then do not get one for the time being.”

6. When you move out, formally request a walk-through.

“Depending on which state you live in, your landlord may not be required to complete a walk-through when the tenant moves out,” said Ornsby, adding that, “You should always request one from the landlord, in writing.”

“Requesting a walk-through in writing creates a paper trail and shows the landlord you are serious about having one. Once you set up a time and date for the walk-through, be sure to attend and take plenty of photos.”

7. When you leave, take photos.

Isn’t this a nice little bookend? Taking photos when you move in and then again when you move out? It sure is. But it’s also a way to have concretely documented the state of the property when you relinquished responsibility for it.

“Whether you participate in a walk-through or not,” said Ornsby, “be sure to take plenty of photos when you have moved your items out.”

8. Make sure you clean. Thoroughly.

Moving is stressful. And while it might be tempting to just say “screw it” and not thoroughly clean your old property before moving out, doing so could put your security deposit in serious jeopardy. Before you schedule that last walk-through or take those final photos, you’re going to want to suds up, buckle down, and make sure that it’s spotless.

To help provide you with a little guidance, here are some move-out cleaning tips from Jessica Samson, Spokesperson at The Maids (@themaidscorp), one of the largest house cleaning services in North America:

  • Floors: Sweep, mop and vacuum. Use a commercial cleaner for carpets if they are badly stained, preferably one that uses a very low moisture process.
  • Walls: Sweep out cobwebs and wash the walls. Pay close attention to kitchen walls and areas above vents or heaters. Remove all nails, screws and other hangers and patch the holes with spackle. Repair any dents or holes in the walls and clean all of the switch plates.
  • Windows: Clean windows inside and out, including sills, trim, and tracks. Notate any broken windows, torn screens, blinds, and curtains, so you have a record when it comes time to settle up.
  • “Doors: Make sure doors and locks work correctly and all keys are accounted for to return to the landlord. Notate any damage to doors, frames, and hardware.
  • Kitchen: Clean the sink, countertops, and trim. Wash cabinets inside and out and clean any shelves. Clean the microwave inside and out (and the filter if there is one). Clean the stove and oven thoroughly, including the drip-pans and the grunge beneath them. Wash the refrigerator inside and out, underneath and ever behind (don’t forget the walls back there!) Clean the inside and outside of the dishwasher including the strainer and the door seals. Remove any exhaust fan filters and clean the entire exhaust and filter thoroughly with degreaser.
  • Bathrooms: Clean tubs, showers, vanities, sinks, toilets, cabinets, walls, trim and exhaust fans. Make sure everything is free of mold and mildew, even the grout.
  • And the rest: Make sure smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are clean and functional. Replace the batteries if needed. Replace any burnt-out light bulbs and clean all light fixtures. Clear out everything from closets, cabinets, and drawers. Remove everything from patios, decks, terraces, balconies and clean these areas. Get rid of any trash, debris and anything else that wasn’t there on move-in day.”

9. Be nice to your landlord.

This final tip comes from James McGrath a licensed real estate salesperson and the co-founder or Yoreevo (@yoreevo), a real estate brokerage firm in New York City. His advice? Don’t be a jerk!

“The best advice I can give is to simply be nice to your landlord,” said McGrath. “At the end of your lease when your apartment is inspected, there will be a lot of judgment calls. How many scuffs on the walls are too many? How worn down is the carpet? If your landlord likes you, they’ll be more likely to let small things go.”

“Keep your communications friendly, pay on time, don’t bother them with minor issues and you’ll quickly become a favorite tenant of theirs!”

If you want to read more about how to save money on home costs, check out these related posts and articles from OppLoans:

What other questions do you have about the financial side of renting? Let us know! You can find us on Facebook and Twitter.

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James McGrath is a co-founder of Yoreevo (@yoreevo), a New York City brokerage working to lower commissions for buyers, sellers and tenants. Prior to starting Yoreevo, James was a financial analyst, most recently the hedge fund Citadel.
Jessica T. Ornsby, Esq. is a litigator based in Washington D.C. and the managing partner of A+O Law Group. She primarily handles real estate, family, and business litigation matters. Jessica can be reached at jto@aolawgroup.com or @dmv_lawyer on Instagram.
Jessica Samson is a wife and mother who lives in a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska, and works professionally in communications for The Maids (@themaidscorp), the most trusted name in home cleaning. Using professional supplies and state-of-the-art equipment with a proprietary cleaning process, The Maids is the residential cleaning service of choice for busy families. Visit Maids.com or call 1-800-The Maids (843-6243) to learn more.

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