Want Your Security Deposit Back?

Posted by on Tuesday, October 4th, 2016 at 2:23pm.

Want Your Security Deposit Back?

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 Boston, MA, 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 it’s time to move out).

It’s important to be proactive so you can help ensure you’ll get back every penny you deserve — and you can’t just assume the security deposit will let you “live out the last month” either. That concept exists only in tenants’ minds and isn’t really a thing (ever) … unless your landlord has agreed to it (in writing).

Here are six important questions to ask before you sign the lease that can help save you some dough.

1. Does your landlord want the place returned spotless?

Your landlord might be the type who meticulously checks for cleanliness, and not just by inspecting for dust. 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 they expect at move-out time. If you know you’re messy, you might want to pay a cleaning service to scour your place before you move out. That way, you control how much you spend instead of leaving a mess for the landlord to clean — and to charge you for. Don’t leave dilapidated furniture behind. If the landlord has to discard it, expect to pay for any charges incurred.

2. What is normal wear and tear?

If you’ve lived in a place for several years, it’s almost certain it won’t 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. These things are simply normal wear and tear — stuff that happens over time in any home or apartment. 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 repair (wine or pet stains on the carpet, a child’s “artwork” painted directly on the walls, broken doors or holes in walls from who knows what), that’s on you and will come out of your security deposit.

3. What’s the charge for repainting?

Were the walls in your rental just painted but you already know that the wall color won’t 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 first need permission from the landlord. If you get the A-OK, 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 do it. Once you know upfront how much they’ll charge you for the privilege of painting, those boring walls might start to look kind of nice.

4. Who is responsible for lawn maintenance?

Lawn maintenance is a tricky area for renters and should be spelled out 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 kept up might not be what the landlord has in mind. Find out, for example, 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 spends money to get the grounds in the same shape as when you moved in, that will come out of your security deposit. Keep in mind that maintaining is one thing, but making the yard your own is another. Get permission before you plant a flower bed or vegetable garden, and know that any bushes or trees you plant should stay with the house when you move.

5. What about pets?

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.

6. What if something breaks?

If you spot a problem, tell your landlord right away, whether you caused it (and need to pay for it through your security deposit) or whether the repair is one the landlord pays for. Either way, if you neglect to tell the landlord 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 don’t report the dripping water and a mold problem eventually develops, those mold-removal costs could be on your tab.

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 get your security deposit back or a written explanation as to why not, contact your landlord and ask for your security deposit. 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.

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