Get Your Rental Deposit Back After You Move Out

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?

25 thoughts on “Get Your Rental Deposit Back After You Move Out”

  1. As a landlord, I can say that this is a tricky issue. I would love to give back 100% of the deposit all the time, but that is impossible. However, I have given a full deposit back to all renters but one. That particular tenant left my house with $6000 worth of damage and we had to actually threaten to sue him in order to get reimbursed for the crazy mess that he left us with.

    • I know there are great profits out there for doing rental property and such, but some of the risks and headaches about people doing damage or not paying or other issues, just makes it not worth it for me.

  2. When I rented in college, I never had a time when I didn’t get my deposit back. I am pretty handy, so if there was something that was broken, I would fix it. My parents always taught me to take care of things, so I made sure to do so.

    • How you’re raised makes a big difference. Regardless of where I have lived, I’ve tried to treat where I live as my own. Whether it be my own place, a room in my parents house, a dorm, an apartment, living with respect for where you are is key

  3. I have had 20 or so tenants and have only kept the deposit once, when the couple that was renting split and then disappeared without giving notice. I actually took a cleaning fee and pro-rated rental and refunded a little bit. For mild damage, I take my losses. I took a cleaning fee from another muslim guy who said he couldn’t clean the kitchen because I had opened a bottle of wine there and there may be a drop of alcohol that would touch his skin. There is a deposit protection scheme in the UK that obligates landlord to put the deposit amount in a third party account and justify why they keep part or all of it at the end of the tenancy. The tenant can file a claim if deemed unfair. I have toughened the contract rules with time but never enforced them.

    • I think just having the rules tough can often be enough ‘incentive’ into people keeping things as they should.

  4. Great tips. Like you, I’ve had apartments where I was SURE I wasn’t getting any or most of my security deposit back, but did. However, there was one apartment where we were spotless and left the apartment in awesome order…and the management company took nearly all of the deposit. You’re right on: you never know. Probably better to not expect any back, no matter how clean you are.

  5. I love your stories! I think that landlords assume that after a year or two, they have to replace the carpet. I always get 100% of the refundable part back. But I try to leave my place clean enough so they don’t have to do much to it.

  6. My parents have had various rental properties over the years and you are right on about maintaining the place and keeping it kinda-clean. By far the biggest reason tenants don’t get all their deposit back is from the carpets. They almost always need to be professionally cleaned or worst case scenario, replaced.

  7. As a renter, I did not expect to get all of our deposit back on our first apartment. my husband put a dart board in the living room and we both missed it completely way too often. I spackled in the holes but didn’t even try to repaint so it was super obvious. But we got our deposit back without any hassle at all.

    As a landlord, I’ve only kept part of a deposit once out of 4 times. The guy left something sticky all over the bathroom countertop and floor. It was like a green gel. So I kept $60 that we used to pay our biweely housekeeper to clean it all up. I included a copy of the receipt along with the rest of his deposit…

    • That’s funny about the dart board.

      I like the idea of sending the copy of the bill explaining why they didn’t get the deposit back.

  8. When I lived in my apartment the man didn’t even want a deposit. I asked him how much he just wanted first months rent, not even last months rent.
    Once I start renting out my house I don’t think I’ll be so trusting. It seems crazy to have an asset like a house/apartment in the hands of someone else without some type of insurance.

  9. That is hilarious. I would have laughed too!

    I had a similar thing happen to a friend, except with a bottle of wine. Needless to say, they did not receive a deposite back. Maybe light beer isn’t a bad idea..

  10. The last time I rented I got a BILL instead of any of my deposit. I wasn’t expecting to receive most of my deposit back, but I wasn’t expecting a bill. At least it was itemized and I was able to dispute various parts. I was there for two years. The first year was under one management company, and they were pretty lax (didn’t even have a form or walkthrough with me to see what was/wasn’t there when I moved in). During my second year the property changed management companies and when I moved out they were very strict. I got billed for things that were/weren’t there when I moved in. My father in law suggested I went line by line and explained why I thought I should or shouldn’t have to pay for an item. There were a few things that I agreed with (I left the freezer messy – forgot to clean it after emptying it), but they wanted to charge me for a stove fan cover and light that were never there, replacement of 2 light bulbs in the bathroom – when they’re suppose to replace those, light/plant hooks that were in the ceiling when I got there, etc. After the well worded letter, we agreed that I wouldn’t have to pay anything and wouldn’t get the deposit back -just call it even. My deposit was only half my month’s rent so I was fine with that. That was better than having to pay an additional $200!!

    I don’t plan on renting again, but if I ever do, that experience taught me to THOROUGHLY examine and document everything, even if I don’t think it could be counted against me, when I move in and have the management either fix it or verify and sign-off on the items, then both keep copies of that doc.

    • Definitely agree on carefully documenting everything! I pointed out every little thing I noticed when we first did the walkthrough of our place with the agent.

      Our current house is pretty shabby (was at the bottom of my acceptable limits) and the carpets/walls are all pretty ancient. Add to that general wear and tear (though that’s always subjective) and our move-out inspection should be interesting.

  11. Ugh, I’ve had so many nightmares about getting deposits back. Total BS: new tenants at a previous place complained about dust on the balcony and lint in the dryer.

    Definitely agree on choosing your flatmates carefully – I’ve ended up shouldering the bill for oil spills on the driveway, and things like that.

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