Renters: Get back your security deposit (© Joann Frederick)

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."

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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.

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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.

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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.