6 Ways to Avoid Losing Your Security Deposit

About a quarter of renters have lost their security deposit at some point. Here’s how to keep yours.

 Young Woman Resting After Moving Into New Home
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[Read: How to Decorate an Apartment Without Forfeiting Your Security Deposit.]

3. Get written permission for any modifications. Renters don't have the freedom to customize their home the way an owner does. Before making modifications such as hanging a chandelier or affixing cupboard liners, run it by your landlord. "It's better to ask for permission than to beg to be forgiven," Taylor says. "You could lose your security deposit if you install your flat-screen TV on the wall or if you paint your walls and it's not an approved color."

You may think the new paint or lighting is an upgrade, but your landlord might want to keep the unit neutral to appeal to future tenants. Even if your lease doesn't have a clause forbidding customizations or if you get verbal permission to paint, Taylor suggests getting permission in writing to avoid potential disputes later on.

4. Clean the apartment before you move out. Some landlords or management companies vary in their definitions of clean. Many apartment managers ask for your residence to be "broom swept" before you leave, "which means basically clean the house like your parents are coming," Taylor says. "Leave it better than when you came."

Make sure you clean carpets and inside the refrigerator, as renters sometimes overlook those areas. Also be sure to remove any trash bags or belongings. "Sometimes tenants leave stuff behind, which some landlords don't like," Taylor says. "That puts someone else in the position of having to move it."

5. Mind your pets. Tenants with pets often pay a separate pet deposit to cover damage from a cat that may urinate on the carpet or a dog that scratches up the floor. Some of this behavior may be inevitable, and you might not get your money back if the damage requires costly repairs. McGary says in single-family homes, it's not uncommon for a dog to dig up the backyard or damage the sprinkler system. "When you start chewing up sprinkler systems or you have a pool or a hot tub, it costs real money to repair those," he says. "Cats urinate in carpets, and people don't realize that smell is extremely difficult to get out of the pads themselves. Usually you have to pull it up, seal it, clean it and that's expensive."

[Read: How Much Should You Pay for a Pet Deposit?]

6. Know tenants' rights in your state. Rules on tenants' rights and security deposits vary by state. In California, for instance, landlords can only use a security deposit to cover unpaid rent, clean the unit to resemble the condition when the tenant moved in, repair damages caused by the tenant or replace or restore any keys or furnishings. Under California law, landlords have 21 calendars days after the tenant moves out to fully refund the deposit or send an itemized statement explaining the reason for deductions. In most states, the timeline is 15 to 30 days from the time tenants surrender their keys, so drop off yours on time to avoid any delays.

If your landlord doesn't return your security deposit and fails to offer a good reason for withholding the money, find out what recourse your state offers, like small claims court. "Depending on whether it was a really big security deposit," Taylor says, "you would weigh that against the time and financial cost of taking that action."