Security deposit use and abuse leads the list of litigation between landlords and tenants. So how can one avoid dispute and slide out of home safely? First, understand what monies can be deducted from deposits. Basics include unpaid rent, cleaning, and returning the premises to the condition as when first rented. Top deposit busters include:

  • Rent: Prior to taking off, most states require a tenant to give written notice to the landlord. State notice requirements vary from 10 to 30 days, with written notice usually required to prevent misunderstandings about rent owed or date of departure. Some tenants assume that if their lease is up, they can simply leave. Not so fast, unless you want to leave some money behind. Unpaid rent is a common deposit deduction when forgetting to give notice–30 days’ worth in some states–and may be kept by the landlord if no written notice was provided before exiting. It doesn’t cost a thing to give written notice–and save misunderstandings later.

  • Extra rent: Slipping out early or breaking a lease altogether can cause the deposit to be forfeited for the amount equal to the rent due–and then some. Until a suitable replacement tenant is found, you may be on the financial hook. Fish around for suggestions from the manager or landlord for catching up with a replacement tenant. Not getting along with your roommate? You’ll need to pitch in your share of the rent until another person replaces your spot.

  • Cleaning: Often a tidy sum is kept by landlords for cleaning. “But it wasn’t clean when I moved in,” some tenants lament at move-out, according to Jim Silton of Silton Management in Westwood, Calif. “If it isn’t clean, be sure to complain at move-in. At move-out, it’s too late,” Jim notes. Units have to be returned at the same level of clean as when first rented, or the deposit may be used to mop up the mess.

    What type of cleaning? Here it gets tricky. Some landlords consider “clean” just removing your worldly possessions, while others expect the carpet shampooed and the grout scrubbed using a toothbrush and bleach. To help define the level at move-in, before and after photo’s are ideal. If not, ask for a cleaning checklist from the landlord if you wish to tackle the task yourself at move-out.

  • Restoring to original condition: Hotly contested by both landlord and tenant, “condition as when first rented” is a term often used in leases, but often not documented. Allowable as a deposit deduction, protect yourself with lots of photographs or video of the move-in condition. Some states, such as Arizona and Washington, require that a move-in inspection checklist be given to new tenants. Others, such as California, only have a move-out inspection requirement at the present time. Check state code for details. No matter what the law, document now or defend later.

  • Damage: Think of damage as injury to the premises. Often a spontaneous event, damage can range from a broken window to a torn rug. The longer you leased a place, the more wear and tear is expected, especially for carpets and paint.

  • Excessive wear and tear charges: If you rented a car and dented the fender, that would be damage. But what if you rented a car for a year? Common sense would expect the tires to be worn, but not be ruined by a spike strip. Visualize the same for a rental. How does one avoid being charged? Once again, an inventory walk-through with photographic backup should set the pace.

  • Missing items: For example, if the place was rented with towel racks, return it with the same towel racks. Any fixture, which means anything attached, cannot be removed unless permission was granted (in writing) by the landlord.

Deduction warning: Being warned of deposit deductions is now part of state law in such places as California, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, to name a few. Other states may have laws pending or newly in effect (check for details with your local or state source). The warning includes a mandatory notice to tenants by the landlord of the option of doing a pre-move-out inspection. Not sure where to get a basic form?

An itemized checklist, great to start and end a tenancy with, is available from many sources, including from the California Department of Consumer Affairs at Probably the best protection against unfair deductions, the “prior-to-move-out walk-through” allows both landlord and tenant to get a grip on potential security deposit deductions–before anyone flies off the handle.


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