Landlords who rent out homes take on their fair share of risk -- namely, that tenants will come in and trash the place, leaving them with thousands of dollars in repairs in the aftermath. That's why landlords are in the habit of collecting security deposits from tenants.
Typically, your security deposit will be due when you sign your home's lease, and it'll generally be the equivalent of one month's rent -- sometimes more. The amount your landlord is allowed to demand in security deposit form varies from state to state; you can check your state’s rules to make sure you’re not being overcharged. Having that security deposit protects your landlord in the event you damage your living space, whether intentionally or not, or in the event that you fail to pay rent at any given point in time.
But because that security deposit can constitute a sizable pile of money, your goal should be to get it back once your lease expires and you move out of your home. And if you do these key things, your chances of reclaiming that cash are pretty high.
1. Take before and after pictures of the home
Maybe your home had a partially dented living room floor or banged-up wall when you moved in. But if your landlord isn't aware of that, or is aware but tries to pin that damage on you, then you may have a hard time proving you didn't do it. That's why it's crucial to take pictures of your home the day you move in, and share those time-stamped photos with your landlord immediately. That way, if there's pre-existing damage, your landlord won't be able to pin it on you.
Some landlords provide tenants with a move in/move out checklist that makes it easier for both of you to track your rental’s condition from the start of your lease to when it ends. If you get one, it’s important that you fill it out, sign it, and send it to your landlord via email so there’s proof of what you recorded. And if you’re not provided with an official checklist, create one yourself. List each room in your home and note its condition, paying attention to things like chips in the floor, holes in the wall, and so forth.
Similarly, be sure to take pictures of your home the day you move out, and once again, share them. If you leave your home in pristine condition, and a repair person comes in the day after and damages part of it by accident, you'll have a means of proving that you didn't do anything wrong.
2. Adhere to the terms of your lease
Sometimes, getting your security deposit back simply boils down to sticking to the rules as dictated by your lease. If you're not allowed to smoke in your home, don't light up and impose that rule on guests as well. If you're not allowed to have pets, don't get a dog or agree to watch your friend's dog on occasion. If your landlord smells smoke in your apartment or sees floor scratches related to pet damage, he or she may very well get away with holding back some or all of your security deposit to address those issues.
3. Be mindful of how you treat the home
Treating the home with respect could make it easier to get your security deposit back, and by that, we're talking about using common sense. If you're moving furniture, invest in sliders so heavy items don't damage the floors. If you're hanging artwork, use temporary hooks that don't leave deep holes in your home's walls. Also avoid jerking the refrigerator door open, slamming your bathroom door shut, and engaging in any sort of behavior that's likely to cause low-grade yet noticeable damage. In other words, get into an owner’s mindset. Pretend that home is your own, and treat it as such.
4. Get written permission to make changes to the home
Your landlord has the right to expect your home to look the same when you move out as it did when you first moved in. As such, your landlord may withhold your security deposit if you make permanent changes to that space that cost money to undo. If you're intent on making changes, whether that means putting up curtains or painting the walls a different color, get your landlord's permission to do so in writing. That way, he or she can't use them as a reason to refuse to give you your money back.
Keep in mind that your landlord may agree to let you make changes to your living space, but only if you then restore your home to its original state by the time you move out. If you’re required to do so but don’t, there’s a good chance you won’t get your security deposit back.
Losing your security deposit could leave your bank account balance several thousand dollars lower than it needs to be. Follow the above tips, and with any luck, you'll get your original deposit back without a hassle.