Q: I’m moving into a new place that requires a large security deposit. How do I protect myself so I get it back when I move out?

A: In a perfect world, security deposits would be fully refundable. In the real world, one of the bitterest battles between landlord and tenant arises over security deposit issues.

How does a renter avoid conflict from the start? Start when you move in, being sure to do a complete walk-through of the premises. Most leases decree that the unit “is to be returned in the same condition as when first rented, less wear and tear.” Your task at hand is to establish exactly what condition the place was in front the start.

Where to begin? Hopefully the landlord will provide a walk-through or inventory checklist at move-in. If not, create your own.

If possible, draw out a basic floor plan on a sheet of paper. Label the rooms, and indicate where windows and doors are placed to help narrow down the details. Bring a camera to back up any notable items, especially those already damaged, such as chipped tile or peeling paint. For each room, make note of the following items:

  • The paint and how it looks. If the unit was freshly painted top to bottom, that’s the threshold you’ll be responsible for. If just a few walls, say the kitchen and baths are painted, make careful note of that condition. Be sure to “look up, down and all around” when checking the condition of the paint for each and every room.

  • Floors. Every type has its weak spots. For example, wood floors can be easily scratched, and expensive to refinish. Carpets may look fine, but knowing their age helps. Ask when the floors were last refinished or replaced. If freshly refinished, ask what steps are needed to keep them in good condition.

  • Vinyl or linoleum underfoot? Flooring seams are notorious for splitting, especially where water can seep in around sinks and bathtubs. Check carefully for any pull-ups or binding, or the pulled-up vinyl could be on your tab.

  • Window coverings should be checked. Even though most jurisdictions don’t require window coverings, such as blinds or drapes, many landlords include them at move-in. If none exists or only on certain windows, jot it down on your floor plan.

  • Don’t overlook the screens. While not terribly expensive, replacing several can add up. While you’re looking out the windows, be sure the glass isn’t cracked or broken, and that all windows open, close and lock properly. If not, let the landlord know.

  • Light fixtures should brighten your list, too. A flip of a switch will determine if fixtures work as they should. Ask if there are any master switches, typically found in living rooms that control an outlet or two and save frustration later.

  • Smoke detectors. A must-have for every bedroom and some hallways, check that the alarms are fully functional. Simply press the test button, usually at the center of the detector. You may need a pencil tip to reach older models. If the alarm sounds the alert, you’re OK; otherwise, alert the landlord to replace.

  • Drains. Run the water a few minutes. If they don’t drain freely, add that to your “please repair” list.

  • Kitchen. With appliances galore, there’s much to explore. Open the oven. Is it spotlessly clean or caked with grease? Do all the burners fire? Does the garbage disposal hum when switched on or simply groan with trapped debris? If a fridge is included, open the door and take a sniff inside.

  • Bathroom. Built-ins such as soap dishes and towel racks should be in top shape. Be sure the tub/shower enclosure is clean and not hiding mold in the cracks or that water dripping from the spout. Check that the toilet is clean, and the sink is not cracked or chipped.

  • How’s the appearance of the tile? Tile is expensive to replace, especially in older buildings where the classics are no longer available. One tenant was charged several hundred dollars for a chipped corner tile. He couldn’t remember if it was broken when he moved in, and was forced to pay the tab.

  • Jot down how many keys you are given at move-in, including the mailbox key. The number of remote control- or security-type keys should be noted, too.

Doing a good job of keeping track of the details can save you time, frustration and hopefully your security deposit at move-out.


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