There are countless honest, forthright, not-at-all-shady landlords out there, and hopefully you rent from one of them. But any guy who has spent a few years leasing apartments in a city has probably run into a landlord who tried to dupe, cheat, or swindle him out of a few bucks—or his entire deposit.
“Disputes between landlords and tenants are the single most common type of lawsuit in small claims court,” says attorney Janet Portman, author of Every Tenant’s Legal Guide and executive editor of Nolo.com, a legal advice site.
Portman says most tenants put themselves at a legal disadvantage by not understanding the existing laws, or by failing to take proper measures to protect their cash. Keep in mind: Your landlord does what he (or she) does for a living. He likely knows the law inside and out, and he may use your lack of knowledge to pick your pocket.
So how can you protect yourself? Keep reading.
DOCUMENT EXISTING DAMAGE
One of the best ways you can protect yourself is to perform a thorough walkthrough with your landlord or rental agent BEFORE you move in, Portman says. “Inspect every aspect of every room, and write down and photograph any damage,” she says. Carpet frayed? Write it down. A missing oven knob? Write it down.
When you’ve finished your walkthrough, sign and date your list, and ask your landlord or agent to do likewise. Now, when it comes time to move out, you have a solid wall of protection between your deposit and claims that you’re at fault for preexisting damage.
If your landlord or his proxy won’t perform the walkthrough with you, ask a friend to come along. Have him sign the checklist, and email your landlord photos of all damages you observed. These measures won’t always stand up in court, Portman says. But they at least give you some ammo if your landlord claims you broke something that you know was already busted when you moved in.
DON’T PAY EXCESSIVE DEPOSITS
Most states limit the amount of deposit money a landlord is allowed to collect from new tenants, says John Fisher, owner and founder of Tenant.net, a New York City tenants’ rights portal. The less money you hand over up front, the less you have to worry about clawing back when you move out. So check the laws, and push back if your landlord is asking for more than he’s entitled to collect, Fisher says.
READ YOUR LEASE AGREEMENT
This sounds like a no-brainer. But a lot of people neglect this simple precaution, Portman says. There may be clauses in that lease agreement outlining the amount of notice you have to give your landlord before moving out. Fail to give it, and you may be on the hook for an extra month’s rent.
KNOW THE DEFINITION OF “NORMAL WEAR AND TEAR”
In almost every state, a landlord can’t use your deposit to cover normal wear and tear, Fisher says. That means if your carpet is dirty, or if wall paint has grown dingy, you shouldn’t be charged to clean or repaint, he says. A lot of tenants don’t know this, and so they surrender part of their deposit to cover those costs.
Likewise, some landlords will keep part of your deposit to cover cleaning services after you’ve moved out. But in most places, you’re only required to leave the apartment in “broom clean” condition, Fisher says. Unless a cleaning fee is outlined in your lease agreement, you shouldn’t have to pay to clean the place for the next renter.
ALWAYS REPORT ISSUES IMMEDIATELY
A refrigerator light stops working, or you notice a leak beneath the kitchen sink. If you don’t notify your landlord immediately, you may end up having to pay extra if he claims your failure to report the problem led to bigger or more expensive repairs, Portman says.
Always let your landlord know about issues—even minor ones—immediately and via email so you have an electronic record of the interaction. In fact, whenever possible, stick to email and avoid talking with your landlord on the phone. Not all emails are court admissible evidence, but they may still help you push back against a landlord making claims you know are bogus.
PERFORM A PRE-MOVE OUT WALKTHROUGH
Two weeks before you move out, ask your landlord to come by and walk through the apartment with you to look for damages, Portman advises. If he finds any, offer to fix them to his satisfaction before you leave. He may not agree. But if you know you may be on the hook for a wall you damaged or a window you broke, taking this step could help you avoid paying a premium for your landlord to perform the repairs.
It’s also a good idea to ask your landlord to be present when you move out. If he’s willing, ask him to walk through with you and note any damages. When you’re finished, write down all the damages and have him sign and date the list. This can keep him from dipping into your security deposit to cover BS repairs.
FINALLY, KNOW THE LAWS
“It’s not your landlord’s job to educate you about the law,” Portman says. She and Fisher recommend visiting the website of your state attorney general’s office, which will usually have a lot of resources on tenants’ rights. For example, you may find laws requiring your landlord to return your full deposit—or provide a list of damages—within seven days of your move-out. If he fails to do this, you may be entitled to your full deposit plus interest or penalties. There may also be information about what your landlord is and is not allowed to pay for with your deposit money.