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Where's My Deposit?!

Updated on September 22, 2012

Successful Renting


Where's My Deposit?!

Moving into an apartment or rental home can be an exciting and stressful time. There are so many things to do. You must get your utilities turned on, get things packed and moved, unpack, and locate local places to shop for groceries, schools, etc.

On top of all of this madness, you also have to deal with the expense of moving. One of the biggest expenses is the deposit most landlords charge in addition to the first month's rent. Often times the deposit is equal to or more than your rent. This can put a huge financial strain on your budget and many people depend on receiving a previous deposit back in order to pay for the new one. So when a landlord decides to keep part of or all of your original deposit, it can be devestating. It may seem like you have no control over whether this happens to you or not. Don't lose hope! There are things you can do to ensure that you get your deposit back. It just takes planning and follow-through on your part.

Before You Sign

Prior to moving in, be sure to discuss with your potential landlord what the expectations are for the return of your deposit. Once you have determined what it will take to receive a full refund, put it in writing! If your landlord has a pre-printed rental agreement, be sure that the language concerning the rental deposit is clear and that it matches what you were told verbally. If it does not, you should take the time to write clarifications on the contract. If there is no mention of the deposit return in the agreement, be sure to write it in. Use concise language including exactly what is required to qualify for a refund and the amount of time the landlord has once you vacate the premisis to return your money. If the landlord baulks at the idea of doing this, then you should heed this red flag and walk away from the rental. A reputable landlord will welcome your thoroughness and will feel comfortable with a mutually agreed upon agreement.

In addition to making sure that deposit refund language is included in your rental agreement, you must also do a complete walk-through of the rental property. If your landlord does not provide you with a checklist, broken down by room, then make one of your own to include as part of your rental agreement. (Be sure that this checklist is mentioned in the rental agreement itself and not just attached). Also, it is a good idea to take before pictures that show the move-in condition of the property. Take both inside and outside pictures. You should document any damages you find, no matter how small. Don't forget to take the time to go over the carpet and flooring carefully. Since this is a potentially expensive replacement item, any stains, rips, scratches, or other anomalies should be recorded on the checklist as well as in pictures. It is not necessary to attach a copy of the pictures with your agreement. However, you need to keep them in a safe place, as they will be your only proof of the original state of the property should a dispute arise later.

Doing a little research can be extremely helpful when dealing with rental issues. The Internet provides a plethora of information on renter's rights and obligations which vary by state. You may also find rental agreement forms and checklists there as well. One example of an excellent website for this kind of information is and These are just two examples of resources available online.

One more area that is often overlooked by potential renters is property maintenance and repairs. You should make sure that your rental agreement stipulates what the process is in case a repair is needed. Typically, there are two types of repairs: emergency (needed within 24 hours) and non-emergency (needed, but not right away). The last thing you want to happen is for something break down and for you to get stuck paying the bill with no reimbursement in sight. For example, if the water heater quits working, what do you do? Some landlords want to be notified for all repairs while others would prefer the renter to take care of it and to provide them with receipts for reimbursement later. Either way, your rental agreement should clearly state what steps must be taken for repairs. Otherwise, you could end up paying for the whole thing or the landlord might keep your deposit to resolve monetary conflicts.

Once You Move In

As with anything, you will find over time that things break down. Any items you find that are in need of repair should be handled in writing as well. While some landlords may tell you to "just give me a call" if something is wrong, a prudent renter will provide notification in writing as well. Not only does this help to avoid any mis-communication, it can also be a valuable record of the effort you made to keep the property in good working order while you lived there.

There is such a thing as "fair wear and tear" that applies to rental property which allows for a minimal amount of "damage" over the life of the rental agreement. This, by no means, is a free pass to break windows, put holes in walls, or to stain the carpet. However, normal life happens and things get worn down. Still, it is your responsibility to make repairs and to clean the property when things happen. Again, you may want to photograph any damage for which you are responsible as well as the repair work done by you. Keep all receipts showing repairs and cleaning for which you paid as well. Be sure that you know what your rental agreement says about things like small holes in the wall made by hanging pictures, carpet cleaning upon move-out, and landscaping responsibilities.

The best thing to do, of course, is to treat the property you are renting gently. You need to remember that you are just borrowing the property; you do not own it. Therefore, you are responsible for damages you cause. Handle these immediately. Do not wait until you move out, hoping that the landlord won't notice the damages because he or she will notice. Remember, their goal is to keep your deposit.

Moving Out

When the time has come for you to move, be sure and follow the terms of your rental agreement regarding notification. Most agreements require at least a 30 day notice prior to vacating. This is true even if you have fulfilled the term of the original agreement. For example, if you signed a one year lease and you are planning on moving at the end of month twelve, you should notify your landlord by the end of month ten. Don't assume that fulfilling the length of your rental agreement is sufficient notice. It's not. And vacating the premisis without the required notice may cost you your whole deposit in lieu of rent.

Once you have moved all of your items from the rental property, it's a good idea to hire a professional cleaning crew to come in and do a thorough cleaning. This modest investment (usually around $150) will help to ensure that you recieve your deposit back. If you'd rather not pay someone else to do the cleanup, then prepare yourself to clean the carpets, scrub the bathrooms, and clean the oven. Don't forget the refrigerator and microwave. Landlords will check everything.

After the cleaning is done, do a final walkthru. Note anything that is not perfect. Once again, it is a good idea to take pictures of every room for your records. This photographic record will document the move-out condition and may be your only proof that the property was in good condition when you left. Honestly record any stains that could not be removed. Landlords have been known to exaggerate the size of any damages you may have left behind.

When you are ready, let your landlord know, once again in writing, that you have completed your move-out. Request that your deposit be returned in full within the time dictated by state law or by the rental agreement.

When Things Go Wrong

If all goes well, you will receive your refund within the time allowed. If not, you will be forced to write yet another letter stating your objections and demanding the return of your money. Don't be bullied by disreputable landlords. They will try their best to intimidate you and make you feel like you have no choice but to accept their decision. This is not the case. In your letter, remind the landlord that you have carefully documented the move-in and move-out condition of the entire property and that you have pictures to substantiate your claim. Let them know that you are willing to do what it takes (i.e. small claims court, reporting them to the proper authorities, etc.) to be treated justly. If they try to ignore you, keep writing. Be sure to send your second round of letters certified, signature required. This will let them know that you mean business. And, as a last resort, if the landlord insists on keeping your deposit, follow through. For a small fee, usually $50 or less, you can file a claim in Small Claims Court asking for your deposit. Of course, you only want to do this if you truly feel that you are deserving of a refund.

Renting property is a good option for many people, especially in today's economy. By taking the time to prepare a manageable rental agreement, documenting the condition of the property, maintaining this documentation throughout the rental period, and correctly following through with all move-out requirements, you can have a successful experience.


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