Renters: Get back your security deposit
The language in rental contracts is often murky, so make things clear with your landlord before you move in and move out. And, of course, your best bet is to leave the premises as you found them.
It's moving day and you've packed up and scrubbed your rental clean. When you hand your landlord the keys, you're confident you will have your full deposit back in no time.
But after a few weeks without a check or any word from your old landlord, you start to worry. After a month, you start thinking of him as a swindler.
What could be the problem? Well, lots of things, and the majority have nothing to do with your landlord's character. Instead, experts say most people lose their money over simple — and preventable — misunderstandings.
Taking just a few key precautions can help you avoid forfeiting any future deposits.
'Normal' wear and tear
Technically, the laws in most states say that a tenant must return a rental in its previous state minus "normal wear and tear." That's where things get a little tricky.
"It's one of these legal phrases that drive people nuts because there's no definition," says Janet Portman, an attorney and author of "Every Tenant's Legal Guide."
Normal wear and tear always needs to be evaluated in the context of the tenants living there, Portman says. If a landlord rented a three-bedroom apartment to a family of four, he can't use the same standards for wear and tear that he would for a single person.
This is a routine problem for renters with children. "There are going to be wear and tear issues with children that you won't have with adults," she says.
This doesn't mean you can let your kids color on the walls with magic markers. But landlords have no right to charge more of a deposit or keep more of one simply because you have children. If they do, Portman says, they could potentially face a discrimination suit.
Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and manager of 2,500 rental units in California and Nevada, says the following would all qualify as normal wear and tear:
- Some matting of the carpet.
- A few nail holes (This doesn't include big gouges from where you tried to hang a giant mirror with 16-penny nails).
- Fading or yellowing of the paint.
Griswold says most landlords expect to repaint at certain intervals — often two to three years — to make an apartment look fresh for new tenants. But if you've made changes or damaged the paint in the first year, you're probably going to need to repaint the place — or get dinged on your deposit.
Some things that clearly don't fall under normal wear and tear include:
- Stains and burns on the carpet.
- Broken windows.
- Broken or missing blinds.
- Gouges in the doors and walls.
- Flea infestations caused by your pet.
- Pet scratches on the molding and on or around doors. (Landlords often vary wildly on whether pet scratches on floors are considered normal wear and tear. Ask your landlord upfront where he stands.)
If you have problems like these, Griswold says, hire a professional to come in and repair — just be sure to clear it with your landlord first. Don't try to do the work yourself. It might cost more to hire someone, but at least it gives you control over how much you will be charged.
Don't let little problems go
Another way to avoid losing your deposit is to stay on top of the little repairs when you live there. If you don't call the landlord to fix the dripping kitchen pipes, he may be able to hold you liable for the mold and rotting wood under the sink later, Portman says.
A clause in most leases requires tenants to "promptly report problems." "You need to nip problems in the bud," Portman says.
Gwen Schlenker, 48, a resident of the Northglenn suburb of Denver, wishes she’d followed this advice. While she reported plumbing problems in her rental house to her landlord, he never adequately fixed them, and they eventually caused her basement ceiling to cave in. "This would have never had happened if he had fixed the problem," she says.
Schlenker paid for her own repairs to get the problem fixed in a timely manner and then tried to withhold rent as a means of being repaid. But since she didn't get her landlord's permission to use the plumber, Portman says she may be out of luck. Colorado is one of three states — the others are Wyoming and Arkansas — that don't require landlords to provide a "fit and habitable" place to live. And there's no provision in Colorado for withholding rent for repairs. (Half of the states do allow tenants to withhold rent if basic services aren't provided. But oftentimes, this money must be put into an escrow account until the landlord can rectify the situation.)
Schlenker's options: work out a deal with her landlord when she moves out or go to small-claims court and let a judge decide how much she pays. The lesson here, Portman says, is to be proactive in dealing with problems and familiarize yourself with state and local rental laws.
Most landlords, Griswold says, are willing to be flexible, as long as you have treated the place with some level of respect. But the bottom line is it's best to be clear upfront on just what a landlord's expectations are.
The power of the walk-through
When you move in — even if it isn't required in your state — walk through the place with your landlord, noting any damage or wear and have him sign off on it.
"Take along your digital camera," says Portman, and document the condition room by room. "It protects you if you see that the tile is chipped around the bathtub already."
Some states actually require landlords to give you move-in or move-out checklist where you can document the condition of the apartment (you can find a good move-in list here). Keep a copy of all these documents and do another walk-through prior to move-out so you can discuss any problems and expectations for cleaning or repairs. If you want to hire professionals for repairs, make sure you have the documented approval of your landlord. Then, keep any invoices and mail your landlord a copy to verify that you're taking care of the problems and expect to receive your full deposit back. (A note on mailing your landlord: Certified mail is best because it requires your landlord to sign for it. But if you find that your landlord is somehow avoiding the mail, resend your letter and get a certificate of mailing from your local post office. This doesn't require your landlord to sign anything and it verifies that you actually mailed it.)
Portman also recommends doing a final walk-through after your furniture has been loaded onto the moving truck, so your landlord can't claim that your big overstuffed couch was hiding a problem.
Is it really clean?
Like beauty, cleanliness is often in the eye of the beholder. But "if you bring in the dirt, you have to remove it," says Griswold. "Clean it like a hotel. (Then ask yourself) if you were the next guest, would you accept it like this?"
That means, he says, using germ-killing chemicals like bleach, rather than water and a damp rag to wipe down counters. Tenants should also clean the oft-overlooked places like tile grout, shower tracks and the broiler pan and oven.
"People should be capable of cleaning (their own apartments), but most do such a poor job of it that is it unfair to the next tenant," says Paul Marokus, a landlord with properties in Colorado, Utah and Texas.
Many tenants, even those who cook regularly, fail to clean the oven. Others, he says, give their hardwood floors a beating, and don't spiff them up before moving out.
Like many landlords, Marokus copes by subtracting a cleaning fee from the deposit — $80 in his case — that he specifies in the lease. Ask your landlord if he regularly does this, and make sure it's similarly documented.
Where's the money?
If everything looks pristine and your landlord has signed off on the condition of the apartment, you should reasonably expect to get your deposit back within a month. In a few rent-controlled areas like Los Angeles, landlords may even be required to pay you interest for the time they have held onto your deposit.
If you haven't gotten a check, send a letter to your landlord — again, by certified mail — asking for your money back and providing any invoices for repairs you made to the place.
If you get no response, your recourse is to take your landlord to your local small claims court. These courts handle disputes over amounts of $10,000 or less. Fill out the forms (available online or at your local county courthouse) and mail them in. The court can notify your landlord or you can do it yourself, Portman says.
On the day of your hearing, remember to bring all your documentation, including any pictures you have that show the condition of the place, records of cleaning and repairs and any other communication with your landlord.
"They are pretty efficient and they can give you a decision right from the bench," Portman says, though they could require you to go to mediation first.
With deposits running as high as two months' rent in many markets, there's a lot of incentive to fight for your money. "A lot of tenants just don't realize that they have options," Portman says.
My landlord wants me to pay him back for a bill ($60) he received from a plumber stating that BREAD ( actually a piece of toast) was the cause of my garbage disposal's non function. I called 3 different plumbers to make sure that I was of sound mind, they all agreed Bread (water soluble) did not cause the disposal from working.
I would win the case in court hands down (declaring--insanity).
Please tell me I am the only one who's been told this. I'm hoping no one else on earth would ever come to the conclusion that a small piece of toast clogged a garbage disposal.
I have been a tenant and now I am a landlord. As a tenant, I left my apartment ****-n-span clean top to bottom, respected the place and got ALL my money back. As a landlord, I have plenty of stories such as $4,000 in damage due to unfit pet owners, a fire in the kitchen that was left unreported to me and the tenants took oak contact paper to the cabinets to cover the burns and left the roll in the drawer. The walls and ceilings still had blackened remains and the panel on the new stove was crinkled from the heat. Walls were left filthy dirty in one home and was a sty. My deposits are $50 to $100 under the cost of monthly rent. So that goes fast with damage. I often wonder how people live like slobs and how they can justify treating homes badly. These "bad tenants" have either paid for the damages or went to court. In today's market, there are no real margins when mortgages are still in play. I am very good to my tenants, provide CLEAN and nice stand alone homes and have waved late fees etc and that has come to bite me badly. If you are too nice, it is a sign of weakness and you get walked on. So many times landlords are victimized. They have to go above and beyond in a court scenario while the tenant doesn't in a PC world. I screen tenants but you can still wind up with bad apples. I have some really great tenants and some who started off shaky but got back on track when terms of the lease were articulated again. This is a live and learn venture and no way a "get rich" way of life. Homes need constant upkeep and proactive care that can be costly such as new roofs and new heat air systems. So you are lucky to break even at year end when managing 7 homes when big ticked things need replacing or you have had damage and can't collect on a tenant judgment (good luck on that when they know how to scam the system and fly under the radar screen). Tips: Talk to you landlord and keep the lines of communication open. Pay rent on time, report problems with the home immediately, and DO NOT bring in people to stay for >2 weeks who do NOT belong on the lease. You will have a NO issues, have a great landlord/tenant relationship, and will get the deposit back. You may also be rewarded with no rent increases.
I put down over $1500 dollars in security deposits, including $250 cleaning, key, and garage opener deposits. I did leave stains on the carpet that were hard to lift, I think it needs to be steam cleaned. I figured the cleaning deposit should cover it. And also a couple holes in the wall. I am willing to pay for all of that but it's been 3 months and I still haven't received anything from the realtor, and he's doesn't return my phone calls. He said that the owner was really mad and wants to change the carpets but they can't find a match. I think he is trying to rip me off. What should I do? write him a registered letter then take him to small claims? I don't know how to handle this.....?
Some do and some don't return your deposit regardless of how clean you make the house or apartment after moving out. It is all about the money. So, you pay the monies to sue. It should not have to come to this, but there are some shaddy dealers out there who call themselves landlords.
I am fortune enough for the first time in life, since renting for past 20 plus years to have landlords that I enjoy. They don't bug me and I don't bug them. If something needs fixing, it gets done. I take care of them and they take care of me. It really feels good.
Plus, many of you don't seem to know that many states have a 14 day waiting period from date of move out for the landlord to send back your deposit or a statement of repairs done and how much was used of your deposit, this has to be sent to the former tenant for any monies kept by the landlord. They CANNOT just keep it for any reason, it has be to in writing and specified!
Also, when you move out you should have pictures of the place when gone and before and after you did anything to the place that was rented to you. That will be your proof in court if anything happens in the future.
If there are laws that are needed to be found it will be under the BBB website or the AG office of the landlord tenant codes of your states you rented in.
Do not let them bully you in anyway. The law is more on the tenants side then the landlord, but people think that they have no where to turn. Remember you have rights and you have the law to back you up if you have a legitimate claim to your deposit.
Plus many states have a cap on amounts that can be sued for in small claims, some are up to 5000.00 but some are only 2500.00. Check with your court house for that amounts.
The best advice you could receive is this:
Include copies of the state laws as pertains to every part of your letter of demand, immediately following the statement of each respective issue. Also, in your final paragraph, include the state statute stating what the penalties for the landlord's failure to remedy the problem. You would be surprised how quickly a landlord will change his mind about keeping your money unjustly upon learning that he stands to lose between 2-5 times that amount plus attorney's fees and court costs.