How Secure Is Your Security Deposit?
During the exhausting process of moving into a new apartment, the last thing on your mind is moving-out day. But since your landlord is probably holding a sizable chunk of your money in the form of a security deposit, it’s awfully risky not to prepare for the end of your tenancy right from the beginning. So before you start unpacking dishes and hanging prints on the walls, take a few simple steps to avoid the misunderstandings and disagreements that have made disputes over security deposits legendary.
Looking Under the Hood
Giving your unit a thorough inspection when you first move in is essential. (Better yet, do it before you sign the lease!) Don’t neglect to check out things that might not be readily apparent, such as water pressure and sink drainage in the kitchen and bathrooms, or operation of appliances. It’s best to inspect the premises before you move in; it will be easier to spot problems while the place is bare.
Make a detailed inventory of what you find. The best way to do this is with a good checklist. The more you record about the unit when you move in, the better position you’ll be in when moving out to show that certain problems already existed before you moved into the unit. In some states (see list), landlords are required to give new tenants a written statement on the condition of the unit at move-in time, including a comprehensive list of existing damage. In other states, many landlords provide a checklist to new tenants, but some do not. You can always draft one yourself.
Ideally, you and your landlord should fill out the checklist together to prevent any disputes or disagreements. Otherwise, it’s smart to bring along a roommate or a friend so that there’s at least one other witness to the condition of the unit at move-in time. If you spot problems, describe specifically what is wrong. Rather than simply noting “damage to carpet,” for example, state “cigarette burns, frayed edges in carpet next to picture window.” The more detailed you are, the clearer it is that you’re not responsible for those damages. You and your landlord should both sign the checklist after completing it. Make a copy so that each of you has one.
At the end of your tenancy, you’ll make another inspection of the same items, noting their condition at move-out time. If items that were okay at move-in are now damaged, your landlord may hold you responsible for fixing them. But you’ll be protected from being billed for damage that existed before you ever moved in.
States where landlord must provide move-in statement:
A Picture Is Worth…
Besides completing a checklist, you may also want to document the condition of your unit with photographs or video. If you take photos, have doubles of them developed immediately, write the date they were taken on the backs and send your landlord a set as soon as you get them back. That way your landlord won’t be able to claim that they were taken later than they actually were. If you can, use a camera that automatically date-stamps each photo. If you videotape the premises, clearly state the date and time while you are taping, make a copy and send it to your landlord right away. Repeat this process when moving out.
Getting Your Deposit Back
If you’ve taken all the measures described above, you’ll be well-protected when you move out. Still, until you get back your money there’s always room for disagreement. Thankfully, most states hold landlords to strict guidelines as to when and how to return security deposits. Landlords who violate these laws can be held to stiff penalties.
Landlords are typically required to return security deposits from 14 to 30 days after you move out. The landlord must send to your last known address either:
Your entire deposit (plus interest, in some states) or
A written, itemized statement describing how the deposit was applied to back rent, cleaning or repairs, plus the remainder of the deposit.
The general rule is that you are not responsible for normal wear and tear. If you cause damage by your unreasonable carelessness or deliberate misuse, however, you must pay for it. And you must leave a rental at least as clean as it was when you moved in. For example, if an entryway carpet must be replaced because it has simply worn out, that’s the landlord’s responsibility. But the cost of replacing the dining room carpet because your fish tank sprang a leak will properly come out of the deposit.
Because “normal wear and tear” can be interpreted many different ways, disputes often arise. The bottom line is that the better you itemize and document the condition of your unit when you move in, the better case you’ll have against a landlord who tries to gouge you on the way out.