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Security deposit 101: What your landlord will (and won't) forgive

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Between the endless phone calls and the arguments, getting your security deposit back from a landlord can be one of the most frustrating parts of leaving a rental. 

Legally speaking, renters are not obligated to pay for "normal wear and tear"—the scuffs and aging, known as "unavoidable deterioration," that are the inevitable result of living in an apartment. If you inflict damage on your place—think ripping a hole in the carpet, rather than merely wearing it down—you can kiss your security deposit (often a month's rent or more) goodbye. 

But we all know that sometimes landlords will give you a break, and sometimes they'll hold your money hostage for seemingly inconsequential issues. We spoke to experts to get the lowdown on what will truly cost you your deposit—​and what most building owners will (or must) let slide.

OPEN YOUR WALLET

If your landlord returns only a portion of your deposit, you should get an explanation or breakdown of the deductions. (If you don't, ask for one.) Scenarios that often lead to partial deductions include the following:

Leaving your stuff. Believe it or not, your landlord does not want your old mattress—and if you don't take it with you, they'll probably charge you for it.

“Anything that costs the landlord time and/or money to dispose of will be a deduction," says Jay Heydt, a senior managing director at Citi Habitats. "Bags of garbage or clothes may be up to 25 percent of the deposit." Chairs and sofas will cost more, he says.

The rule of thumb? Leave your place “broom clean,” meaning free of detritus, says Trevor Matwey, a former property manager and a research analyst for LandlordsNY, a resource network for New York landlords.​ “Give it back to the landlord as clean or cleaner than it was given to you.”

Cracked tiles. Broken tiles in the bathroom or kitchen are not considered wear and tear, so the replacement costs can be deducted from your deposit. Best to fix cracks when they happen.

Extreme painting. “It’s wrong to think you can paint your apartment whatever color you like and leave it like that,” says Heydt. Dark colors, in particular, are a no-no since they'll probably require extra coats and layers of primer to cover up. Even if your landlord plans to repaint for the next residents, you still have to paint the walls back to the original colors from when you moved in (again, that whole "give it back as you found it" maxim).

Big holes in the walls. If you punch the wall and leave a tennis ball-sized dent, don't be surprised if your landlord fails to return your security deposit, or at the very least holds back as much as it costs to repair the issue, including materials and labor. Even quarter-sized holes are considered "significant damage," says Matwey.

Likewise, damage from the mounting brackets of flat-screen TVs occasionally cuts into the return of a deposit, says Ellen Cohen, a broker at Stribling & Associates. Some renters have their movers take down their flat-screens on moving day itself and don't leave time to fill the holes. Better to make arrangements in advance, whether that's enlisting your super to take on a small side job or picking up the necessary spackling supplies at your hardware store.

While some small landlords may overlook tiny holes from hanging art and the like, legally they don't have to.

Broken appliances. Cracked shelves in the fridge, broken knobs on the stove, or broken light fixtures—all of these will cost you, since they aren't considered "normal wear and tear." If an appliance stops working due to no fault of your own, the owner will have to replace it.

Doggie damage. Your cat's habit of using the doorjamb as a scratching post? That could cost you big time. “Heavy scuffs on the floors that the landlord will have to refinish, scratches on the door bottoms—this is all significant damage," says Heydt. 

Temporary walls. Just like your old mattress, your landlord does not want to deal with the removable walls or partitions you installed to turn your one-bedroom into two. You're responsible for taking them down, and if you don't, you could be forced to cover the landlord's bill for disposing of them. (And you won't have any control over how much it costs.) 

Meanwhile, many temporary wall companies will dismantle them—sometimes for free—so give yourself plenty of time to arrange that, and fix any remaining damage to the walls or floors.  

Building repairs. It's not common, but if building management finds that you're responsible for damage to common areas or missing items from the gym or laundry room, prepare to pay up from your deposit.

Same goes for moving day. “When people use movers to move, the moving company submits their insurance information to the landlord or building management in case of any damages to the building during the move," says Heydt. "But if you’re not using professional movers, and something breaks or is scuffed or scratched, absolutely that will come out of your deposit."

KEEP YOUR MONEY 

Water stains in sinks and tubs. As long as the landlord is aware of the leaky faucets that caused the marks, you should be okay—​and it's a good idea to make them aware, so the problem is documented (and, hey, might actually get fixed)"Such situations should be taken care of before they become much worse," warns Heydt.

A shabby paint job. If the walls don't look so fresh, don’t worry. “Fading is part of ‘wear and tear,’” says Matwey. Similarly, some chipping may occur because of an existing issue like weak plaster. It may require more than a paint job to rectify the issue, but that wouldn't be your responsibility. 

Apartment upgrades. If you've got a small landlord and you've installed features—like better light fixtures—that make the space more desirable, the landlord may be happy to keep them. “If it makes the space better, they may not mind," says Cohen. But before you make the upgrades—let alone leave them standing—get permission! 

TIPS TO RECOVER YOUR DEPOSIT 

Of course, the best way to sidestep a squabble over how much of your deposit your landlord should return is to avoid a disagreement over damage in the first place. Follow these rules:

  • Documentation is key: take pictures of your apartment when you move in, and keep records of any discussions you have with your landlord about repairs or installations—either emails, texts or notes of phone conversations. That way, you can prove that something was there when you moved in, or that it falls into the "wear and tear" category, rather than major destruction. 
  • If something goes wrong in your place, report it to your landlord as soon as possible. Otherwise, issues that are not your fault could become your responsibility or turn into way bigger problems. For example, if you notice that the paint has bubbled up near the ceiling, it could be water damage. "It is your responsibility to tell your landlord right away," says Heydt. In fact, standard leases have language saying that the tenant is responsible for "repairs and replacements whenever the need results from a tenant's act or neglect." 
  • Landlords usually check for damage after a lease is up, says Heydt, and they won't give you a second chance to make repairs after the inspection. If you need to fix anything, do it before you move. 
  • The relationship between a tenant and a building owner, particularly a small landlord, plays a big role in how much of your deposit you'll recover, says Cohen. If you've paid the rent on time and generally maintained a rapport, you'll have a better chance of avoiding fights over who should cover what—and convince a landlord to overlook minor repairs. “For instance, I know an owner that was renting their condo out for 10 years," says Cohen. "Their last tenant had a dog that caused what could easily be considered significant damage to the carpeting. But they were good tenants otherwise. [The landlords] could [have kept] the entire deposit but they only kept a small percentage.” 

Related:

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