Renters: How to Get Your Security Deposit Back

By Salvatore Friscia, San Diego Premier Property Management

In order to make sure you get your security deposit back when you move out, you have to take steps before you move in.

In today’s rental market, most security deposits are equal to the amount of the first month’s rent and depending on where you live, that can amount to a nice chunk of change. To make sure that the majority — if not all — of that security deposit is returned to you upon move out is strongly dependent upon the request and use of a “Move-In/Move-Out” checklist. Many landlords fail to provide such a checklist and that’s when the responsibility falls in the hands of the renter to guard against unnecessary security deposit deductions.

To accomplish this, each tenant should be provided, or should provide themselves a written “Move-In/Move-Out” checklist. The “Move-In/Move-Out” checklist allows both parties to identify in writing the initial “Move-In” condition and the final “Move-out” condition of the apartment or property. These checklists will eliminate any misunderstandings regarding which party will pay for non-normal wear and tear repairs throughout the tenancy and upon move out.

Prior to receiving the keys from the landlord, the tenant should completely inspect the property and document the existing condition on the “Move-In” side of the checklist. It is necessary to document the condition of the appliances, windows, screens, blinds, doors, walls, lighting, flooring, a/c, heating, toilets, faucets, ceiling fans, and any other necessary interior and exterior areas. During the initial walk-through with the landlord, it is important to review the findings and have them sign and date the document. Even if you initiated this process, be sure that you provide your landlord with a copy of the agreement.

Document Everything With Photos

The use of a digital camera is also recommended upon both “Move-in” and “Move-out” to capture images or video of the property if the condition is challenged at a later time. The “Move-In” checklist also helps to avoid the common “It worked or was that way when you moved in” argument. Furthermore, if an area or appliance shows signs of damage or heavy wear and it is necessary to request a repair, the repair can be justified by referencing the initial condition.

The use of the “Move-out” side of the checklist comes into play after notice has been given to vacate. The landlord should advise the tenant in writing that they are entitled to a voluntary pre-move out inspection approximately 2 weeks prior to the move-out date, but if they fail to do so, the tenant may also request the pre-move out inspection in writing. This is a voluntary inspection and participation is not necessary but it would be in the best interest of the tenant to allow both parties to openly inspect the property and compare the condition to the already completed “move-in” checklist on file. The pre move-out inspection is an opportunity for the landlord to revisit the property and advise the tenant, based on the current condition, of possible withholdings, if any, from the security deposit. The pre move-out inspection will also allow the tenant an opportunity to be aware of and make the necessary repairs or cleanings to avoid such security deposit deductions.

If the necessary repairs and/or cleanings are not performed prior to move out, they can and most likely will be documented on the “move-out” checklist as a deductible item and withheld against the tenant’s security deposit funds. Comparing the “move-out” checklist against the “move-in” checklist will help evaluate the necessary deductions. It is important to know that any repairs held against the security deposit should be itemized along with a receipt for services and copies should be given to the tenant along with the remaining funds within 21 days of vacating (check your local laws).

These lists are for the protection of both parties and should be taken seriously. Having the proper written documentation regarding the “Move-in/Move-out” condition of the rental will help offset unnecessary security deposit deductions and can offer peace of mind knowing that if the rental is maintained the majority if not all of the security deposit will be returned. It is a win-win for both parties and is strongly suggested to avoid unnecessary headaches and expenses.

Salvatore Friscia is a seasoned real estate investor and a residential property management specialist, focusing on single-family homes, condos, and small apartment complexes. He is the founder of San Diego Premier Property Management as well as The Friscia Group One, an investment group focused on distressed properties. He is a regular contributor to Buildium’s All Things Property Management blog.