Q: Im planning to move into a new place next week and the landlord is taking a hefty deposit. Any suggestions on getting it back when I move?

A: Deposits are always a concern for renters, especially with higher rents raising the bar on deposits. To ensure that your monies are returned, it’s important to know what to do before, during and at the close of the tenancy to safeguard your investment.

First, know the condition and inventory of what you’re renting. Before taking possession of the property, complete a walkthrough of the property preferably while still vacant. An excellent checklist is available free from the California Department of Consumer Affairs Web site; select "inventory checklist" from the menu. The site offers excellent advice and how-tos any renter can appreciate.

When filling out the inventory checklist, you’ll need more than a pen; bring along a clipboard, blank paper, ruler, tape measure and a camera to detail the items listed. Besides documenting conditions, it’s good to know the size of any damage, such as a chip in the bathtub enamel. Be sure to ask the landlord what items are new or redone in the unit, especially flooring, paint and fixtures. New appliances should be noted on the sheet, too.

When filling out the form, understand the top deductions and how to avoid them. While cleaning fees and unpaid rent are common, there are larger expenses to be wary of.

Biggest deduction winners? "Well, I know this is a shock, but alas, it would be carpeting," explains property manager Jim Silton, who handles approximately 400 properties in Los Angeles. It’s important to do more than just "check the box," as a single bleach stain or worn carpet could cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If it looks like new carpeting, ask. If it’s not new, note the existing condition. "Sometimes a landlord will charge a higher amount for replacement of carpeting, not taking into account its useful life," Silton notes.

Other types of flooring, such as hardwood, tile and linoleum should also be scrutinized. Because flooring covers a large area and cannot always be matched, protecting your security deposit requires knowing what you stepped into and protecting them during your tenancy.

Another ding to avoid is painting. Costs have grown over the years, especially with the higher expense of lead-free paint and materials. Once again, a single stain or large nail hole may signal the need for a wall or entire room to be painted. If you’re moving in and there are pre-existing nail holes, stains or markings, a photo alone may not do it justice. Draw a simple sketch of the room’s floor plan and indicate with an "x" the damage location and type to correspond to the photo. Sounds crazy, but a few extra moments could save you a bucket of cash.

Appliances can be expensive to fix or repair, and should not be on your tab if you rented them dented, chipped or broken. Since it’s impossible to run every appliance at move-in, note if there’s a problem when used. If the dishwasher leaks all over the floor, reporting it promptly in writing to the landlord can keep you from getting soaked financially.

Mold and mildew? Look under the sink and around water sources, such as around a tub or shower for discoloration. If the place had water leaks that caused the mold to form, that’s not your fault. Failing to report it promptly during your tenancy is another story. Report leaks promptly before damage is done.

Countertops and sinks? Look for chips, stains and discolorations, especially around the edges and faucet.

Watch out for rare or hard to replace items that are very expensive to compensate for. Some properties may include one-of-a-kind features such as chandeliers, bookcases or custom materials that need special care. Rather than quibble over their condition or value, ask the landlord to detail the hard-to-define items. Custom paint colors are also a red flag, since they rarely can be matched if tampered with.

Once your checklist has been meticulously completed, and hopefully approved by the manager or landlord, be sure to file documents with your rental paperwork.

A few weeks prior to move-out, you can dust off the list and do a "before and after" evaluation. In some states, landlords are compelled by law to offer a pre-move-out walkthrough a few weeks before move-out. Wherever you live, it’s worth asking the landlord for a stroll. Using your finely tuned checklist should help keep the landlord from stalling or even keeping your deposit.


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