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Want Your Security Deposit Back? Ask These 6 Questions

security deposit returned
Every penny counts when you’re moving, so it’s important to do everything you can to get back 100% of your security deposit.

When you’ve just landed a new apartment in San Francisco, CA, a security deposit is similar to the pile of work on your desk at the end of a Friday. You could push it aside for now, but you’ll still have to deal with it on Monday (or when your lease is up).

It’s important to be proactive about taking care of your rental to help ensure you’ll get back every penny. Here are six important questions to ask before you sign the lease that can help save you some dough.

  1. Does your landlord expect the unit to be returned spotless?
  2. Your landlord might be a stickler for cleanliness, and not just about sweeping the floors and dusting. They might expect a sparkling-clean oven, microwave, and fridge — as well as freshly spackled and touched-up walls. Find out by asking your landlord what is expected at move-out time. If you’ve put off cleaning or don’t have the time, hiring a cleaning service to deep-clean the unit before you move out might be worth the investment. That way, you’re able to dictate how much you spend rather than your landlord charging an unrealistic amount.

  3. What is normal wear and tear?
  4. If you’ve lived in the same place for several years, it’s almost guaranteed to not look as good as the day you moved in. The carpet will show wear, the paint will fade or show smudges, and there might be nicks on the walls. Simple wear and tear like this happens over time and the landlord shouldn’t charge you for that. In other words, the landlord can’t remodel the place on your dime. But if the damages are excessive and require extensive, that’s on you and repair costs will come out of your security deposit.

  5. What’s the charge for repainting?
  6. Did the existing wall colors not work with your feng shui? You might not have to cover the walls in floor-to-ceiling artwork. If you wish to paint the walls a soothing aqua chiffon or maybe a lovely hyacinth, you need permission from the landlord first. However, you’ll either need to paint the walls back to the original color before you move out or let the landlord take a repainting fee from your security deposit. Unless you know how to prep walls for painting like a pro and can be certain you won’t get paint on trim, baseboards, or anywhere else it shouldn’t be, let your landlord paint for you. Once you know upfront how much they’ll charge you for the privilege of painting, those boring walls might start to look nice.

  7. Who is responsible for lawn maintenance?
  8. Lawn maintenance is a tricky area for renters and should be covered explicitly in the lease. If it isn’t, generally speaking, when you rent a multifamily unit, the landlord is responsible for lawn care. If you rent a single-family home, you are probably responsible for the upkeep of the grounds. But there can be multiple levels of upkeep. What you consider well-kept might not match the landlord’s definition. Find out how often you need to mow the lawn and whether you need to water it, trim bushes and shrubs, and keep weeds under control. When in doubt, maintain the property of your rental as you would your own house. If the landlord needs to spend money to return the grounds to the same condition as when you moved in, that will come out of your security deposit.

  9. What about pets?
  10. Cats might ruin the carpet by using it as a scratching post, and dogs sometimes dig holes in the yard. The bottom line is pets can cause damage. Landlords know this, which is why some don’t allow pets. The ones who do might charge a pet deposit (if your state allows it). If you paid a pet deposit, that is what the landlord uses instead of the security deposit to pay for any pet-related damage. If you weren’t charged a separate pet deposit, the landlord can use your security deposit to repair any pet damage.

  11. What if something breaks?
  12. If you spot a problem, tell your landlord right away. Whether you caused the damage, or it’s a regular maintenance issue (which your landlord usually covers) and the problem later turns into a disaster, you could be on the hook for the damage. For example, if you spot water coming in from a leaky roof, the landlord needs to fix it right away, and they will usually pay for it. But if you fail to report noticeable issues soon, steep mold-removal costs could be on your tab.

The bottom line

The closer you can get to having your place look just the way it did when you moved in, the more likely you’ll be to get your full security deposit returned (Pro tip: Take photos!). But if the landlord does keep some of your security deposit, they almost always need to provide you with an itemized receipt detailing the reasons. How long landlords have to handle this varies by state, so familiarize yourself with your state’s laws and regulations. If you don’t receive written explanation as to why you’re not getting the full deposit back, contact your landlord and ask for an explanation. If that still doesn’t work, you may have to take your landlord to small claims court. If you’re successful, some states require landlords to pay you a penalty fee.

What’s your tip for getting a security deposit returned? Let us know in the comments!

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