Don't give your landlord an extra month's rent

5 Tips for Getting Your Security Deposit Back

by Tali Wee

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Most security deposits are typically one month's refundable rent that the landlord applies toward any property damage after tenants vacate. Depending on the monthly price of a rental property, the deposit can be difficult for tenants to budget on top of first and last month's rent and moving costs, all due at lease signing. Plus, the down payment increases for tenants with pets or additional residents. The silver lining is the deposit is usually refundable as long as the property is in good condition when tenants move out.

In order to ensure this money is returned after the lease is up, consider these five tips.

1. Document Everything

Record all of the damages in detail when moving into the rental property. An initial walk-through should take place as soon as the lease is signed. Be sure to document even minor damages, such as water stains on the ceiling. A landlord can dock these repairs from a deposit if a leaseholder is unable to prove they aren't liable. Back up all evidence with high-quality photos with time stamps so there is no room for dispute.

2. Give Notice

Report all necessary repairs in a timely fashion. Try to correspond primarily through email, so there is written documentation of requests and notices. If renters delay notifying their landlords of plumbing leaks, they may be held responsible for damages due to hesitation (i.e., warped floors after letting water drip from a sink for months). If a landlord ignores these notices, address their negligence in future written correspondence. For example, a follow-up email for a disregarded plumbing leak should state the date and time the first notice was given.

3. Clean and Repair

Leave a rental property in as good or better condition than move-in day. Steam clean any stained carpets and be sure to scrub down the bathroom(s) sufficiently. Most importantly, repair any minor damages caused during the lease period, such as a torn screen door, broken microwave handle, or burned out light bulb. Even nail holes should be covered with spackle to avoid a potential repainting charge. These fixes cost less for the tenant to correct than risking the landlord overcharging for the repairs and diminishing the deposit return. For more guidance on local tenant repair laws, search for the state's tenant union.

4. Follow Up

Unless a deposit is non-refundable, a tenant should look for their money back within 30 days of moving out in most states. Some states require landlords to refund or notify past tenants of charges within 14 days of the lease expiring. If the deposit is not returned in full after providing a mail forwarding address, the tenant has the right to request an invoice of the deductions made to pay for necessary repairs. Landlords cannot charge for general wear and tear. For example, a landlord cannot reserve money for a new refrigerator or stove just because it has aged since the lease began.

Related: Clever Ways to Reduce Your Rent

5. File a Lawsuit

If the landlord does not comply with any of these laws, it may be necessary to file a suit in small claims court. However, it is important to note legal fees often surpass the amount disputed. This is why "slumlords" assume they can get away with keeping unwarranted deposits as it is more difficult and costly to fight them than to sacrifice the check. Before taking the property manager to court, attempt to contact them through a demand letter. Mention a plan to seek legal help should the itemized list of deductions or the merited deposit not be returned.

As long as tenants treat their rental properties with respect, they shouldn't be liable for any large damages after their lease expires. Keep communication clear with the landlord through the months leading up to the end of a lease and make sure to leave the property in clean condition with all included furnishings and appliances intact.

Tali Wee is a mortgage and finance writer at Visit Zillow to search local Dallas rentals.

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