How to hold onto your security deposit

Landlords routinely ask for a security deposit–usually one month’s rent–when renting. The security (or damage) deposit is a way for the landlord to recover for unusual damage. Holes in the wall, for example, or stains in the carpet. It is not a way for a landlord to fix damage that is the result of ordinary wear and tear.

When you move out, the landlord must return the security deposit, plus interest, but he or she can deduct anything he or she actually spends to repair damage.

But it seems like some landlords cannot bear to give back the security deposit, and so they come up with all kinds of bogus charges. The secret to holding onto your security deposit is being able to prove you left things in good order. The only way to do this is by carefully documenting the condition before you move in and after you leave.

Here is how.

Documenting damage

Before you move a single thing into the apartment, take a camera and stand in the center of each room. Start by taking a picture of a piece of paper with the name of the room on it. (You will need this to remember what you were taking pictures of when you move out months or years later.) Then take pictures of the ceiling and floor, and keep snapping as you turn in a circle. If you spot any damage–carpet stains, dents owill have a certain r holes in the wall, etc.–take a close-up picture.

This is your baseline.

When you are done, file those photos away on your hard drive where you can find them again.

When you move out, do the same after you have cleared out all your belongings and cleaned the unit.

It’s that easy. Hold onto the pictures in case you need them.

Getting it back

After you move out, your landlord should give you an itemization of any damages and the cost to repair them. Landlords may recover money for damage, but not for ordinary wear and tear. If you think the charges are wrong, pull out your photos and look closely. If the carpet really did need to be cleaned, it should show up in your pictures of the floor.

If you think the charges are off, start by taking it up with your former landlord. Show them the pictures and ask why they felt the need to do the work in question.

If you get no response, take them to conciliation (small claims) court. The party with the best evidence will usually win. And if you have pictures from move-in and move-out, and they back up your argument, you will probably win.