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If you rent, as many people do, you likely had to pay a rental deposit before you moved in.  I only lived in one apartment in my lifetime, and we had to pay a month of rent as a deposit.  This was right after college, and my friend and I stayed there for two years, at which point he moved out and I stayed for several more months before moving out myself.

After I moved out, I was not expecting to get much of the deposit back.  Unlike what you might expect from two guys in their early 20’s, we actually tried to keep the place in good shape.  We were pretty clean and kept on top of things, so why, then, was I not expecting to get the deposit back?

Because of the spaghetti sauce incident. 

At the job where I was working, we staffed a 24×7 operation.  As such, we rotated through various shifts.  The ‘night shift’ only required a couple of people, so thankfully we only had to be on this shift for about a month out of the year.  This was my month.

Because of this, my schedule was all off, and I was sleeping as Rob (my roommate) got ready for a normal day shift.  I was not too happy when he burst into my room, panting that he needed to warn me about something.  After assessing that it was the ‘crazy’ hour of 7am (crazy to someone for whom this was regular sleep time), I figured it had to be important enough for him to wake me up.

He told me to be careful because he had dropped a jar of spaghetti sauce, and there could still be glass on the floor.  I figured I was still half asleep as it could not possibly be right that he said he had dropped a jar of spaghetti sauce, because what reasonable person would be making spaghetti at seven o’clock in the morning?  Especially when Rob appeared to now be running late for work.

I asked what he was talking about, and he explained that he had opened up the cupboard, and apparently it was someone’s wise idea to store the spaghetti sauce all the way on the top shelf, and that it hadn’t been pushed all the way in, for when the door opened, down came the spaghetti sauce, hitting the countertop, breaking open, and sending a spray of spaghetti sauce everywhere (including all over his suit, which I’m not sure ever got worn again).

At this point, I was laughing hard enough that I was fully awake, so I threw back the covers and proceeded to head out, as I wanted to see for myself what had happened.  Rob told me that most of it had stayed in the jar, the majority of what came out had spilled on the counter, and that he had cleaned up ‘the rest’.

When I went out to look I was expecting our kitchen to look as if a massacre had taken place, and was mildly disappointed when it appeared that Rob had actually done a pretty good job cleaning it up.  There were only a few spots where I saw the telltale dots of red (including a couple on the ceiling, which I got a big kick out of).  Then, I looked on the carpet in the dining room and noticed some strange splotches.  The carpet was the beige carpet that probably adorned most apartments at one time or another, as cheap as it comes.  It was brand new when we moved in, so when I saw a bunch of light colored stains, I was curious.

I asked Rob about it and he said (somewhat annoyed by this point because now he just wanted to leave) that he some had sprayed over and that he used ‘cleaner’ to clean it up.  At that point, he left, and I went over to where we kept our cleaning stuff.  I found that he had indeed used ‘cleaner’…which contained bleach!

The spots weren’t huge, but there were a few of them and they were big enough to tell that something was amiss.  At that point, I figured that we would likely be buying new carpet for the next tenants after we moved out.

It was probably another year or so that we lived there, and those stains mocked us every time we walked through the apartment.  A few weeks after I moved out, an envelope arrived from the management company.  I opened it and found….

The full amount of our deposit.  $525 bucks! (Yes, it was a pretty cheap place, even back in the mid-90’s)  I called Rob and neither he nor I could believe that we had not been charged for the carpet damage.  Of course this was the same place who listed a ‘pet charge’ of $25 per month if you had cats, but they never charged us (in fact, the ladies that worked the office stopped by to see our kitten, so it was no big secret).  I’m guessing enforcing rules wasn’t at the top of their list at the time.

Still, I doubt that many are so lucky.  It’s important to keep your place in good shape if you want your money back.  It’s money that technically belongs to you, and in many cases, people forget about it, so getting that deposit check back is almost a way of getting free money.

How do you increase your chances of getting your security deposit back in your pocket where it belongs when you move out?

Choose Your Roommates.  In my case, my buddy and I knew each other through most of college.  We knew we got along.  We knew that we were both reasonably clean and responsible, so this match worked.  Many people choose roommates because they get along on a personal level, but understanding how they take care of their stuff, how clean they are, and how well they work as a team is important, because these things will all spill over into how your rental looks after you leave.  If you live by yourself, hopefully you know what to expect going in!

Understand Rules.  When you sign a lease, there’s a bunch of small print that might be hard to read, but it’s there for a reason.  Many people get charged for things that they simply didn’t know about.  Are you allowed to nail holes but not drill anything into the wall?  Can you paint an accent color?

Clean Regularly.  Damage to rental property is another but if excessive cleaning has to be done, this will be taken out of your deposit, and this can easily be avoided by cleaning regularly.  Dusting, vacuuming, not letting food sit where it shouldn’t, there are all things that need to be a part of your life regardless if where you’re staying actually belongs to you.

Be Honest.  If you damaged something, you may be inclined to try to hide the damage or act as if you know nothing about it.  Forget it.  The owners and managers aren’t dumb, they’ve likely heard it before, and you’re not going to get away with it.  In fact, if you have something you know got damaged, the best approach is to disclose it when you give your intention to move.  You may be surprised because one thing that could happen is that you’ll be given the option to fix it yourself, something that will likely cost less than if it’s fixed after you move out.

The best approach of all is to treat a rental unit as if it were your own property.  Most people will not willfully damage their own property, and will go out of their way to ensure that damage doesn’t take place to something that they own, so if you keep this in mind, you’ll likely not have anything to worry about.

Renters, do you typically receive all of your security deposit back after you moved out or have you gotten some of it held back?    Landlords, what are the types of things you’ve witnessed which required you to hold back deposit money?