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Moving Out? Here’s How to Get Your Entire Security Deposit Back

A young couple carrying boxes into their new place.
AJ_Watt/ Getty Images

Moving can be expensive. You might have to pay for rental trucks, packing equipment or even new furniture or appliances. If purchasing a home, there’s also the down payment and closing costs. If renting, you often must pay your first month’s rent, a security deposit and maybe even a pet deposit.

One source of relief from all these expenses is the security deposit you should earn back from the residence you are leaving. As a renter, you are entitled to earn the entire security deposit amount back when you move out, as long as you hold up your end of the bargain.

I rented a fair amount of houses and apartments before finally purchasing a home earlier this year. At some rentals, I earned my entire deposit back; at others, I didn’t see a dime. The deposit total for my last rental home in Nashville was $2,600 ($1,600 security deposit and two $500 pet deposits). I prioritized proper maintenance of the home to get every penny back.

Here’s how:

Research Rental Property Reviews Before Signing

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Most rental companies are managed honestly and fairly, but like in any industry, there are companies to steer clear of. Before signing a lease, read reviews of potential apartment communities on Google, the Better Business Bureau and even Facebook. If you see common themes regarding poor customer service, uncleanliness, difficulty getting a security deposit back or other unscrupulous business practices, it is probably safer to avoid that community.

If renting a house from an owner, you will have more of a challenge finding reviews. Ask the landlord if he or she can provide verifiable statements from past tenants. It’s a long shot but worth asking.

Ask for a Detailed Checklist

Before or when you move in, your landlord should task you with doing a thorough review of the property condition. Denise Supplee, a realtor, property manager and co-founder of Spark Rental, explains the ideal process: “Do a pre-settlement walk-through, preferably with the property manager/landlord, and be specific. Write down everything you see. Take pictures as well. Before signing, make specific written arrangements on what will be fixed and what will remain as unrepaired on your inspection report. Both parties then sign in agreement.”

Beyond the walk-through, you can ask your property manager for the checklist they use when reviewing the property when you move out. A good landlord will be happy to show you everything they look for — and they should be willing to do so again when you move out.

In fact, most landlords want you to earn your entire deposit back. According to Supplee, “Real estate investors don’t want to have to spend tons of money fixing damages,” she says. “I can’t speak for all, but when I go to reevaluate a property after a move out and I go in and see a property left in great condition, it makes me smile from ear to ear. I would much rather have that scenario than have to keep a security deposit for damages, which, frankly, rarely covers the actual damages.”

Stay on Top of Maintenance and Cleaning

One of the perks of renting an apartment or home — one that I dearly miss now as a homeowner — is free maintenance. When something breaks, you are off the hook for paying to fix it (unless you broke it through negligence).

What you shouldn’t do, however, is ignore a problem like a leaking dishwasher or a broken garage door. If problems are left unresolved, they could grow worse or lead to more damages that would then be considered your fault. And when fixing it is as easy as calling your landlord or submitting a request on the resident portal, there is no excuse for delaying repairs.

Some maintenance may be your responsibility, like mowing the lawn or replacing the air filter. Review your lease thoroughly to ensure you keep up with your responsibilities.

For your own comfort and hygiene, you should also stay on top of cleaning throughout your lease. Regularly scrub down your kitchen and bathrooms, dust all surfaces, vacuum and clean any carpets and maintain your outdoor living areas. Doing so will make your home more inviting to guests and make it easier to clean up when you move out.

Don’t Miss These Problem Areas

Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

If possible, clean your apartment a day or two before moving out and schedule a walk-through with your landlord to point out additional problem areas.

A thorough cleaning should include:

Kitchen

In the kitchen, wipe down all countertops, clean out all cabinets and drawers, scrub down the sink and mop the floors.

Scrub the stovetop. Take out all shelving in the oven and clean it thoroughly. Do the same for your refrigerator. Don’t forget to move all appliances and sweep behind them.

Bathrooms

Scrub down the sinks, toilets and showers in all bathrooms. Dust lighting fixtures, clean the mirrors and mop the floors.

Throughout the Home

Vacuum all carpets and mop all floors. If necessary, carpet clean the house (especially if you have pets). If you don’t own a carpet cleaner or can’t rent one, ask your landlord what the charge is for them to clean all the carpets in your home. Often, it might be more affordable than the quote you would get from a professional carpet-cleaning company.

Ask your landlord if you need to patch nail holes in the wall and paint them. If the answer is no, get it in writing; if the answer is yes, ask for the matching paint color. (In my experience, once you ask for the matching paint, they will often tell you not to worry about it.)

Dust everywhere, wipe down all walls and doors and clean the windows.

Outside

If your rental unit has a garage, broom clean the space and clean any oil spills.

If the rental property has a yard and/or trees, clean out the gutters and mow the grass.

Nancy Wallace-Laabs, a licensed real estate broker in Texas, tells me, “Tenants often fail to consider the outside condition of a property with a yard. For example, the biggest hit on a tenant’s security deposit is the failure to pick up animal waste in and around the property.”

Wallace-Laabs adds that another common issue is “failure to make arrangements for large piles of debris left in the driveway — or overflowing trash cans left in the garage.”

Collect Evidence — Just in Case

Businesswoman with camera phone photographing new home.
Sidekick/ Getty Images

After thoroughly cleaning your rental, document everything with pictures on your phone, and back those photos up to the cloud or a computer. Also, save any written communication with the landlord regarding your responsibilities before moving out.

“Most landlords will be fair and reasonable. Some [will] not,” Supplee tells me. “However, if the renter is armed with documentation, should a court hearing be needed, odds will be on the renter’s side.”

I have been lucky enough not to have to challenge a landlord in court. However, upon move out, I typically offer to share my photos with the landlord “if it will help expedite the return of my deposit.” Although it may seem passive-aggressive, I find that it: 1) informs the landlord that I haven’t forgotten they owe me money; and 2) lets the landlord know that I’m prepared to challenge them if the returned deposit amount is unfair.

If you are preparing to move out of a rental, prioritize cleaning and maintenance as best as you can. Security deposits can be a substantial amount of money — and as long as you put in the effort, that money can (and should) be yours again.

Timothy Moore is a full-time editor and freelance writer in Germantown, Ohio.

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