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By Paula Pant / Trulia
July 22, 2015
Andrea Artz—Dana Tezarr

If you’re a renter, or in the market for a new rental, one of the biggest pain points when it’s time to move is the return of your security deposit. Given that your initial deposit may have been anywhere between one and two months’ rent, it’s important you take the necessary precautions to ensure you get most of your money back!

Here are a few suggestions from Trulia to avoid losing a rental security deposit.

1. Take photos (or video!) when you move in

The first step to protect your deposit happens when you move in to your new rental. Walk through the unit with your landlord and take photos (or video) of every nook and cranny. Your photos should depict the space at the “macrolevel” (entire rooms) as well as the microlevel (get close-ups of any existing damage).

Email the files to your landlord on the same day, so that you both have digital, time-stamped documentation of the condition of the property at move-in. If the video files are too large to email, send them to your landlord via Dropbox or upload them to YouTube as private videos.

Your landlord will appreciate this gesture, as you both share the same goal: You both want solid documentation during move-in so that you won’t get into a brawl during move-out. Your landlord wants the property restored to its move-in condition, so the more you can “prove” that move-in condition, the better — for both of you.

2. Give ample written notice

Your lease might specify the amount of notice you need to give your landlord before you move out — usually anywhere from 30 to 60 days. Your lease will also specify what types of communication are acceptable forms of notice. For example, you might need to send your notice letter or an email to a particular address. Make sure you comply with the exact requirements as written in your lease — or else you may find that you’re breaking the terms of your lease.

Your lease doesn’t specify anything about move-out letters? Be sure to ask your landlord before you move in how much notice you’ll need to give — and get their answer in writing.

The reason your landlord keeps this provision in place is so that they have enough time to conduct showings of your unit before you move out. Vacancy is one of the biggest expenses that drain a landlord’s wallet. The more you can help reduce vacancy (by giving plenty of notice), the better.

3. Don’t obstruct showings

Don’t be obstructive or difficult when your landlord tries to set up showings for new tenants. For example, don’t insist that you must be home during every showing, forcing your landlord and the potential new tenant to work around your schedule. Don’t change the locks. Don’t leave your house as a giant mess — but don’t leave valuables out either.

Some leases include provisions that state that the landlord can charge you if you’re unnecessarily obstructive during showings. And even if your lease doesn’t assess a penalty, it’s still good diplomacy to be accommodating. The easier you make your landlord’s job and reduce their out-of-pocket costs (including vacancy times), the more likely you’ll be to get your deposit back.

Bonus: You’ll also get a good rental reference out of the deal.

4. Ask for the master paint

Did you hang artwork, curtain rods, or a wall-mounted TV in your unit? If so, then you’ve probably put a few holes in the walls. Those holes will need to be filled and painted.

Before you move out, take a trip to the local hardware store to pick up some spackle to patch those drywall holes. Then ask your landlord for the precise paint color, including the SKU number and brand name/finish.

You should know that you’re specifically searching for “Ivory Invitation” in an eggshell finish or “Realist Beige” in a flat finish.

Chances are, your landlord will repaint before the next tenant moves in. But by cleaning up nicks and generally refreshing the wall paint, you’re more likely to have a smooth final walk-through.

5. Clean the carpets

When it comes to wall-to-wall carpets, an ounce of prevention can equal several hundred dollars in cure.

Lay a rug near your entry door, where you can wipe dirt, mud, and snow from your feet before you start tromping across the carpets.

Vacuum regularly while you’re living there. If you can, make a practice of walking indoors without shoes, which extends the life of carpeting.

While you’re at the hardware store picking up the master paint, rent a steam cleaner and deep-clean your carpets before you move out.

6. Don’t leave anything behind

The last thing that your landlord needs to handle is dealing with your stuff after you move out. Take everything with you when you go; don’t leave any of your personal possessions behind.

This is an extra-essential point. In some states and municipalities, you’re not considered “moved out” until your personal possessions have also vacated the premises, which means that your landlord might be able to charge you rent for the length of time that your stuff remains in the rental unit.

In many states, your landlord must also endure the process of legally evicting your possessions. (Landlords are subject to strict rules for handling a tenant’s belongings.) This means that if you leave personal property behind, you may have an eviction on your credit record in addition to liability for several months of back rent.

Bottom line? Take your stuff with you. (All of it.)

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