Secrets to Getting Your Deposit Back

Hi! I'm Carmen, an experienced real estate agent and property manager dedicated to making real estate simple!

So, you’re buying a home for the first time. Congratulations! You’d probably like to find a way to maximize your cash on hand after forking over the down payment funds and closing fees, right? I get it. It can be a shock to even the most prepared among us to see that savings account balance drop. I mean you probably spent years squirreling away every spare penny to purchase a home. If you’re wondering how to start to rebuild that account balance quickly, getting your deposit back from your rental home can be a great start! 

First the not-so-great news: you cannot assume that you will receive back every deposit you paid at move-in. But there are some ways to ensure you get as much back as possible. The biggest source of information regarding all of these tips will be your actual lease or retail agreement, so have it handy as you read and let’s get going. 

Here are some keys to getting your deposit back:

Understand your deposits.

When you signed your rental agreement, you agreed to certain terms and conditions, and you handed over various fees and deposits. Some of these might be refundable and some might not be. Read through your lease to remind yourself what deposits you paid, and which of those payments are eligible for refund. Here are some common deposits you may have paid:

  • Damage deposit
  • Security deposit
  • Pet deposit 
  • Last month’s rent 

I cannot speak to the terms of your specific lease, but pet deposits, for instance, are generally nonrefundable; damage and security deposits, on the other hand, generally are--if specific conditions are met. Which leads me to my other tips…

Give proper notice.

Your lease should tell you the required minimum timeline and proper procedures you must follow when you move. Different jurisdictions have varying rules about the amount of time required to give notice, so I won’t speak to those here. 

However, if you are still under lease and you want to move early (commonly called “breaking a lease”) you will probably be responsible for paying for the remainder of that lease. You will need to discuss the specifics of your situation with your landlord.

If your lease is still active, you should make note of when it will expire. Also note if and how it renews or converts automatically to a month-to-month contract. If you are already in this month-to-month status, you will still need to adhere to the requirements for timely and proper notice, but you may have a little more flexibility in timing your move

The bottom line is that if you move out without proper notice or you break your lease, you risk not getting your deposits back. So know the terms of your lease and follow it to maximize your deposit refunds.

Honestly access the current condition.

A good rule of renting is to behave like a Girl Scout and “leave it better than you found it.” By better I mean leave the property cleaner and better maintained than you received it, with minimal to no new damage. Of course, normal wear and tear of a rental home is expected. For instance, foot traffic will wear down carpet, corners of cabinets and walls will get minor dings, and the shine and sheen of flooring will fade over time. 

However, if there is more than wear and tear, you will need to either repair it or pay for the repairs out of your deposit. For minor issues, you might be better off to take care of them yourself; however, you should look at your lease before embarking on any repairs--there may be restrictions on what, if any repairs, you are allowed to do on your own as a tenant.

One of the most important documents when you are a renter, second only to your actual lease, is your Move-in Walk Through form. Hopefully you have that, since it should itemize (and have pictures of) any damage that existed in the property when you moved in, and proves that you are not responsible for it. This includes appliances like the refrigerator and microwave. Use this document to make sure you are not putting time and energy into repairs that are not your problem. Knowledge is power! 

Clean it up.

If possible, try to build in a day or two at the end of your rental period before you hand over the keys to do a deep clean and complete yard clean up. Seriously, this elbow grease will pay off when it comes to getting back more of your deposit. Scrub or wipe every surface in the entire house, wipe down and/or degrease all appliances, wash hand prints and smudges from the walls, clean the windows and window tracks--I mean do a full-on, top-to-bottom cleaning. Making the place sparkle is one of the easiest ways (well, maybe not easy, but you know what I mean) and often overlooked tricks to getting your deposit back.

One note regarding cleaning: check your lease. There is likely some sort of stipulation regarding carpet cleaning. You may be required to pay for the service to be performed before you turn over the keys, or you may have paid a nonrefundable fee for the property manager to facilitate the move-out cleaning. Also look for mentions of requirements to clean the exterior windows, gutters, etc. Make sure you do everything required, or you can say goodbye to at least a portion of your deposit.

Show up for the move out inspection.

Not everyone does this, but you are entitled to attend. Request an appointment with your property manager to accompany them on the move-out inspection when you hand over your keys. That way if there are any questions about the condition of the property and whether or not you will be charged for specific issues, you can discuss those issues on the spot. But please be respectful. Most property managers are not there for a shake down, so to speak. They know that things happen, and if you are polite, have been a good tenant, and have done the other items on this list already, they may show some grace on the small stuff.

Bonus Pro Tip

Your refundable deposits will probably not be handed to you in exchange for the keys. The property manager or landlord has to do the move out inspection, compare the move-out to the move-in, and get bids for any needed repairs. That takes some time--and just like guidelines for giving notice, different cities, counties, or states have varying rules for how much time a landlord has to return money owed to you. And don’t forget to make sure to give them the best address for them to send the refund to you once it’s ready! 

Not all of us have security deposits to lean on but if you have a lease and paid deposits at move in, I’d encourage you to look closely at what steps you need to take to get your deposit.

If you are looking to go from renter status to home ownership status, check out my easy 6 easy steps to become a homeowner.

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