Amidst the stress of moving to a new place, the last thing you want to deal with is a major battle with your landlord to get your security deposit back. But all too often, landlords look to squeeze their vacating tenants for every cent they can, whether legal or not.
The fine print in most leases allows for "normal" wear and tear, but the definition of normal can differ between tenant and landlord, and laws governing security deposits vary by state. We consulted with Attorney Carl Goodman of Lynn, Massachusetts, who specializes in landlord-tenant matters. He cut through some common misconceptions about security deposits so that you can keep your hard-earned dollars in your bank account, where they belong.
Read Before Your Sign
Sometimes amidst all the excitement of moving into a new place, we can forget to read things carefully. But if you want to get your full security deposit back, read your lease agreement carefully. "I didn't know" is not a valid legal excuse.
According to Attorney Goodman, in many states, in order for a landlord to be able to deduct for physical damage to the premises, the landlord is required to provide the tenant with an Apartment Condition Statement at the time of initial occupancy. The form allows for the tenant to list any defects, problems or required repairs. Usually the form must be returned to the landlord within a specified time period failing which there is a presumption that the premises were in good condition. Tenants should not sign these forms until the apartment is ready for their occupancy and they have carefully inspected. Keep a copy with a notation of date of delivery to the landlord. If you are not given a form like this, send a letter by certified mail detailing the defects and required repairs. And keep a copy!
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Dollars
Take photos of everything as soon as you move in, said real estate blog Zillow.com. Document all existing damage so that you don't get stuck with a previous tenant's mistakes. If you see any major issues, discuss it with the landlord up front. Either get him to fix it, or sign an itemized list saying he recognizes the damage was there when you moved in.
Sometimes damage is inevitable, but if you have put a hole in a wall or stained a carpet, it could be a lot cheaper to fix it yourself or hire someone to do it for you. While your landlord is supposed to charge you a market rate on repairs, it's easy to pad the bill, especially if you don't know how much the going rate for a repair is. Get an estimate and decide whether you want to fix it yourself or roll the dice with your landlord.
Get it in Writing
Make sure to save any emails between you and your landlord. Did a request to fix a leaky radiator go unanswered by your landlord, leading to water damage? Did you ask your landlord if you could paint a bedroom, and he signed off on it? If you can document repair requests and show approval for alterations, the landlord can't turn around and stick you with the bill afterwards.
Know Your Responsibilities
You might not have caused damage, but if you leave your place looking like a pig sty, you could be on the hook for cleaning costs, according to MSN.com. Some rental agreements force you to pay a cleaning fee if you leave a messy apartment for the next tenants to inherit. It is common courtesy, but it could also be a smart financial decision to give your apartment a thorough cleaning before you turn your keys in.
"Many states do not allow for routine cleaning to be charged to the tenant but documenting the condition at the end of the tenancy is imperative. Take photos," said Attorney Goodman.
Get a Receipt
If you are forced to cough up a portion of your security deposit for repairs, demand to see detailed receipts documenting all repairs, otherwise, your landlord could pocket your money and pass on the damage to the next tenants.
Attorney Goodman also recommends that you (the tenant) keep copies of all lease documents in a folder so that if a problem occurs during or after the tenancy, you are equipped with all necessary documentation to assert your rights.
Attorney Goodman also suggests that tenants search the internet for landlord-tenant and other consumer information that applies to the tenant's state. Information from one state is not applicable to other states as landlord-tenant laws are local in nature.
According to Attorney Goodman, the most reliable online landlord-tenant information is found at official websites of the state Office of the Attorney General, Consumer Protection or Consumer Affairs, and local legal aid or legal services offices. Many state courts have websites with links to self-help, online law libraries, and general landlord-tenant information. Some states have specialized Housing Courts with online information.
Be careful about relying on information on other websites. There is a good deal of general information and bad information floating around cyberspace.
If all else fails, threaten to lawyer up. Sometimes just the threat of a serious challenge is enough to get a landlord to budge, according to the New York Times. Remember, they don't want to waste days battling in court any more than you do.
"If you need to fight your landlord, you will likely be well served by retaining an attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant matters," said Attorney Goodman. "In many states, statutes provide for the recovery of your attorney's fees and in some instances double or triple damages for certain unlawful actions by a landlord including failing to properly receipt, hold, and account for security deposits," he said.