When Jon King and his wife moved to a new, dog-friendly apartment, he left their Oakland, Calif. apartment in near-perfect condition to avoid losing the $1,500 security deposit. But when King received a check missing nearly half that amount, he quickly figured out how to get a security deposit back.
“They hired someone to clean the apartment and said it took two days and charged me $400 just for that,” he said. “As a real estate agent, I’ve hired people to clean a four-bedroom house and it only took three hours.”
When King asked for the bill for the hardwood floor repairs, he found the company only cleaned the floors and charged less than what the landlord was asking for. He decided he had a case, and is now taking his former landlord to small claims court.
Very few renters take their landlords to court, which is why some property owners try to take advantage of good tenants, said Douglas Pensack of the Illinois Tenant Union. His organization is just one of many around the country that can help tenants understand their rights when it comes to residential security deposits. Some even offer help free of charge, so check to see if there’s one near you!
If you’re a renter like King and want to help ensure you get your security deposit back, check out our expert tips below before your next move.
Read Your Rental Lease Carefully
It’s a common renter’s mistake to skim a lease or not even read it at all, said Pensack. But it’s important to not only read, but also to understand a rental agreement, especially when it comes to fees and expectations.
“Look closely before you agree to sign it,” Pensack advised. “Landlords purposely write leases in legal language that tenants do not understand. The most important things to look for are: time and money. How long you are agreeing to stay and how much you are planning to pay for things, like utilities.”
He’s helped hundreds of clients with security deposit disputes during his 28 years at the organization.
Since King works in real estate and helps homeowners manage rental properties, he knows more about leases than the average renter. Regardless, he read his new agreement with a close eye to avoid more future court dates.
“A lot of them are pretty boilerplate, so I look for the finer points like what I’m responsible for,” he said. “I also look for what I can do to the apartment (to avoid deposit deductions), like whether or not I can paint.”
Take Pictures of the Rental Before and After a Move
Document the state of your apartment before you move in to prove how the rental looked before you moved in. This will show carpet stains from former tenants, and other previous problems that you should not be held liable for.
“If there’s damage when you move in, request in writing that those things be corrected,” Pensack said. “You want to be able to prove and document everything.”
It’s just as important to take pictures after you’ve vacated a residence to show that you left in a good, clean condition. You can also ask your landlord to inspect the rental unit with you, to avoid discrepancies.
“Sometimes landlords will try to justify stealing a security deposit by claiming things were broken, dirty, or left in the apartment,” Pensack added.
This is what happened to King, because even though he says he kept his apartment in top-notch condition throughout his lease, the landlord claimed it was a “mess” and “disaster” after he moved out.
“They said there were deep gouges in the hardwood floors, which had to be repaired and refinished,” King said. “But they were in really good shape.”
While King didn’t take pictures of the apartment before and after his stay, he plans to bring photographs of the apartment from when he still lived there to his court date. He also plans to take post-move snaps before the next relocation.
“I didn’t think that it would be a problem,” he said. “I’m going to be more diligent with this new place.”
Research Local Laws on How to Get a Security Deposit Back
Tenant laws vary from state to state and city to city, so it’s important to know your rights in your area to avoid losing your security deposit.
“It’s in the interest of the tenant to acquaint themselves with the law before they act,” said Pensack.
Many landlords will risk the fact that tenants do not know the laws, because the vast majority of tenants do not sue for lost deposits.
“If you (the landlord) steal 1,000 deposits and only four tenants sue you, then how does that hurt you?” Pensack said.
But you can protect yourself and be confident enough to go to court, if necessary, by checking city and state websites to read and understand your rights. The sites typically list items like the condition a tenant must leave an apartment in, how much of a deposit a landlord can charge and what steps he/she needs to take to inform the tenant of any damages.
Recently, a Miami renter was nearly swindled out of her $1,200 security deposit. But thanks to research and help from a local news station and pro bono attorney, she found out that she was entitled to her full deposit back since her landlord never sent her a formal letter within the legal timeframe of 30 days.
Since King rents in a state with some of the most tenant-friendly laws, according to Pensack, he’s got a good chance when he heads to small claims court in November. Although he’s hoping his former landlord will settle the dispute and return the remaining $700 from his deposit before then.
“In California, tenants have a lot of rights,” King said. “It’s harder for landlords to slide something past us, as long as you pay attention.”