One of the many fees associated with renting a new apartment is the security deposit. It’s an amount of money a landlord will collect from renters before they move in, and it’s commonly used to cover damage to the property, key replacement, and any late or unpaid rent. It’s usually the equivalent to one month’s rent, but in some cases can be substantially more.
Most tenants can expect to get back some or all of their security deposit when they move out—depending, of course, on the condition they leave the place in. However, recouping your security deposit is not always a given.
So what keeps people from reclaiming that precious cash they put down?
Every situation—and landlord—is different, but if you commit one of the seven following transgressions, there’s a really good chance you won’t be getting your full security deposit back.
1. Moving out late
Your move-out date determines when the apartment can be fixed up for the next tenant, since landlords typically paint, replace carpets, and make repairs when the unit is empty. But if you move out late, you’ll delay the whole process—and prevent your landlord from being able to allow the new tenant to move in and start paying rent. In such a case, landlords might decide to recoup their losses by keeping part or all of a tenant’s security deposit.
However, “late” can have other meanings, according to Bruce Ailion, an Atlanta, GA-based realtor and attorney: not paying your last month’s rent on time, not returning your keys on time, and not allowing the transfer of utilities on time. All of these factors can hurt your chances of ever seeing your security deposit again.
2. Moving out early
Landlords don’t like surprises, and moving out before your lease is up is a bad surprise. Whether you’re moving by choice or by force (i.e., if you get evicted), when you leave early, the landlord may not have another tenant lined up to move into your unit. So, an unoccupied room could cost the landlord, who will be likely to keep your security deposit to help recoup the loss.
3. Letting your pets run wild
While you may consider your pets to be family members, landlords often see them as another possible reason to withhold your refund.
“Pets can destroy property and create issues that may require the carpet or hardwood flooring to be replaced,” says Jason Burroughs, founder and CEO at Able Body Moving and Delivery in Birmingham, AL. “They may also require the landlord to repaint and even repair Sheetrock.”
4. Letting your kids run wild
Kids say—and also do—the darnedest things, and your landlord isn’t amused.
“Kids spill juice and food, write on walls, and generally lack understanding of consequences, which can cost you,” Burroughs says. Just as a landlord is likely to penalize you for any pet damages, damages caused by your kids will often result in a penalty.
5. Exceeding normal wear and tear
This is a key factor: Anytime your unit is damaged above and beyond normal wear and tear, you probably won’t get your money back.
“Normal wear and tear can be difficult to define, but landlords generally see it as signs of deterioration associated with regular use,” says Katie Powell, an area manager for the Connor Group, a real estate investment firm.
Things like small carpet stains, dirty grout, and minor scrapes on wood floors all constitute normal wear and tear. “However, excessive stains, rips or tears in the carpet—especially if the damage spans multiple rooms—would require replacement,” Powell says.
Holes in the walls, damage from smoking indoors, or any existing maintenance issues are all typically seen as beyond the scope of normal wear and tear.
6. Failing to return your place in move-in condition
It’s natural to want to personalize your unit while living there, but don’t forget to leave it in move-in condition, or a close approximation of how it looked when you moved in. This means removing your personal effects, and possibly returning wall colors to their original state before you leave.
“Robin’s-egg blue may have seemed like a great idea to liven up your apartment, but bright or dark colors can be difficult to cover when returning your apartment to its original condition,” says Powell. If your landlord has to pay to cover the walls you painted, it’s likely coming out of your deposit.
Also, don’t assume that the next tenants will want your personal belongings.
“Make sure you take all of your stuff when you move out,” says Eric Mendelsohn, an agent at Warburg Realty in New York. “Landlords can withhold security deposits for furniture that is left behind to cover the cost of removing it.”
7. Subletting your unit without permission
Subletting, or renting out your apartment to someone else while you’re not living there, sounds like a pretty sweet arrangement. But if you don’t have formal permission from your landlord, it could land you in hot water that could cost you your deposit.
Shane Lee, a statistical data analyst at RealtyHop in New York, almost lost her security deposit several years ago when she tried to sublet her New York apartment on Airbnb to earn some extra cash—without getting her landlord’s permission.
“It took me some effort to convince the landlord to not withhold my security deposit, but I was very close to losing two months of rent,” she says.
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