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Getting the most out of your security deposit

Moving into a new apartment typically requires an expensive upfront payment—usually your first month’s rent plus a security deposit that’s equal to (drumroll please) your first month’s rent.

Ouch.

If all goes as planned, you expect to get that deposit back when you move out. But a lot can happen between the time you move in and the time you leave.

When I moved out of one of my first apartments, the landlord claimed that I dented one of the doors. Thankfully, I took pictures when I moved out showing that the door was in good condition.

After sending my landlord the photo to dispute the charges, he mailed me a check for the rest of the deposit I was missing.

I’m glad I took those pictures, but even if you don’t document everything with your camera, you can increase your chances of recovering your security deposit with these handy tips:

Carefully read your lease—including the fine print!

When you know the rules, you’re less likely to break them. This doesn’t mean you need to memorize the lease, but it is important to understand what needs to be done in order to get your deposit refunded. For example, normal wear and tear may not affect your security deposit status at all. But, depending on your agreement, you may be required to clean windows, repaint, and fill nail holes. Bottom line: read everything.

Know your rights as a renter

In general, most laws tend to favor landlords, but there are rules that protect renters, too. For example, it’s illegal in 47 states for a landlord to keep your deposit without an explanation in writing. Of course, these laws vary by location, so remember to read up on your local tenants’ rights.

Take care of your rental during your lease

If you or a pet damages something during your lease, take care of it or report it to your landlord. In most cases, if something breaks as a result of everyday living, the owner of the building is responsible for fixing it.

Most importantly, before you leave, give your unit a thorough cleaning and fix any cosmetic issues such as dings in the wall or carpet stains. It’s also a good idea to document the condition of your unit (before and after) with photographs. Give one set to your landlord when you move out.

With these tips and little luck, chances are you’ll have your full security deposit back where it belongs—in your hands.