Renters often choose to lease rather than buy their home to take advantage of the flexibility of being able to move without the burden of selling a property. But moving into a rental typically requires a security deposit — which renters want to get back in full when they move.

We asked the experts at Apartment List for tips about how to make sure you get your security deposit refunded and what to do if your landlord doesn’t return your deposit as expected.

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To maximize your chances of getting your security deposit back, Apartment List recommends the following four steps before you move in:

  • Read the fine print. Read the early termination clause of your lease agreement, as it should contain requirements for early lease termination that may allow you to get your deposit back. Your plans might change, and you may need to move out earlier than expected. You might get a new job or decide to move in with your significant other. Early lease termination might cost you your security deposit.
  • Do a walk-through. Ask the landlord to give you a tour of the apartment before you move in. Create a checklist of all the different locations and items in your new apartment you need to inspect for damage or wear and tear. During your walk-through, carefully document all defects and marks no matter how insignificant they seem. Don’t forget to take photos for your records. Filling out a move-in checklist sounds like a chore, but it will help you avoid paying for damages you didn’t cause.
  • Get everything in writing. When you are done with the inspection, ask your landlord to sign the list of defects and marks. Ask for damages left by the previous tenant to be fixed prior to your move-in date. If that can't be done, make sure to note in your lease which damages were there prior to the start of your lease.
  • Know your rights and local legislation. Depending on the state in which you live, there are most likely laws preventing landlords from charging unreasonably high deposits. There could also potentially be rules about time limits on how quickly the landlord needs to return the deposit to you. Usually, if the deposit is not returned in full or in part, the tenant must receive an itemized list of deductions.

If your landlord refuses to return your security deposit when you move out, Apartment List recommends the following steps:

  • Ask for a list of deductions. Your landlord must provide an itemized statement in which they must list everything that was subtracted from your deposit. The list usually contains things like missed rent, cleaning, repairs, the amount that was deducted for each and the balance left of the deposit. Deductions, such as repairs and cleaning, should include receipts supporting them. Your landlord must provide this paperwork within a certain number of days after your move-out date. The number of days varies depending on the state in which you live.
  • Send a demand letter. If you tried negotiating for the return of the security deposit with your landlord to no avail, you will have to write a demand letter. Send it with certified mail and request a return receipt. In the letter make sure to state the amount you are requesting to have returned to you and the reasoning for it. State the facts and avoid emotionally charged content in your letter, as it may detract from its credibility. Instead, cite state security deposit laws, attach photo evidence, emails and receipts.
  • Get legal advice. If your former landlord hasn’t been communicating with you or you haven’t received your money back, it may be time to seek legal advice. Perhaps, if the law is on your side, you will need to file a lawsuit in the small-claims court. Having a lawyer is not required in small-claims court, but it might be a good idea to get one. Legal fees can be included in your lawsuit. In some cases, you can sue for extra damages if the landlord acted in bad faith.