Liberate Your Security Deposit By Acing Your Move-Out Inspection

Restoring an apartment can be easy, if done methodically. Thankfully, wikiHow has a useful room-by-room guide to help get your apartment spick-and-span.

The best way to ensure a smooth exit is to perform your due diligence when moving in; documenting the initial state of your apartment lets you and your landlord know which stains or gaping holes are not your fault. Once the cleaning is done, keep documenting. Hang on to your pictures and notes even after your joyful reunion with your security deposit. — CAREY GREENBERG-BERGER

How to Clean an Apartment Before Moving Out [wikiHow]

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  1. mantari says:

    When I was renting, I’d either get my full deposit back, or very close to it. One place was even shocked that I went as far as patching holes in the wall.

    One last tip:
    If you have repairs that need to be done to your apartment, get them done before you move out. They’re far less likely, that way, to take those repairs out of your deposit as ‘damage’.

  2. veterandem says:

    Back in the days when I rented, I lived in a duplex (the other side is where my landlord lived) and when I moved out, I painted the walls with FREE paint from the local houseold hazardous waste facility where they take paint instead of it going to the landfill, most counties now have one (you can get cleaning supplies/pesticides there as well). He had a carpet cleaner, so that was free. All it took was some elbow grease and time. The day I moved out, he had the check in hand AND a pair of tickets to the Colorado Avalanche vs. Detroit Red Wings playoff game! I don’t like hockey, so a friend of mine used them. Just goes to show there are inexpensive/free ways to clean a house so you can come out ahead!

  3. Juliekins says:

    When we checked out of our last apartment, we hadn’t been too hard on things, even though we’d lived in the place for three years. We found a bit of touch up paint and those Mr. Clean Magic Erasers incredibly helpful. The management company required professional carpet cleaning, but if you turned in a receipt from their preferred place that went a long way toward them not asking any questions.

    I’ve only ever rented in one town, but I rented quite a few places and all but one of them had a move-out checklist or cleaning guidelines that could be turned into a checklist. Treat those guidelines like your very own personal move-out Bible.

    Nooks and crannies count. Baseboards and heating/cooling vents count. For the deity of your choice’s sake, lightbulbs count. If you damage something while you’re living there, get it fixed before you move out.

    Oh, and if you have friends who get plowed at parties and can’t prevent themselves from knocking holes in things, stop inviting them to parties.

  4. Juliekins says:

    @FitJulie: Oh, and I’ve always gotten my full deposit back. I guess I forgot to mention that.

  5. weave says:

    Also check your state’s tenant-landlord laws. Mine (Delaware) says the landlord must provide a listing of all damages and charges within 15 days of moving out and provide a refund of unused security deposit within 30 days. It also listed a penalty of non-compliance of double the full security deposit to be paid to the renter.

    One of my apartments didn’t do that, so on day 32 I filed a small claim with our local Justice of the Peace court. The landlord then called me to offer to bring me my check personally, but I just said “Sorry, see you in court.”

    On court day (no lawyer required) the landlord representative tried to hand me a check for my security deposit again. I refused.

    We walked in, judge asked why they didn’t follow the law, the rep said “It must have gotten lost in the mail” and the judge said the law didn’t say it had to be mailed in 30 days, but tenant must receive it and the burden to ensure that happens in time is on the landlord.

    So the judge ruled in my favor, for twice my deposit back plus court costs I paid! He gave them three days to pay up or the apartment’s rep would be looking at a few days in jail. I got my check early the next day!

  6. Black_Umbrella says:

    This could not have come at a better time, i have to be out of my Apt by the end of the month! Thanks again consumerist.

  7. j-o-h-n says:

    @FitJulie:
    “…but if you turned in a receipt from their preferred place that went a long way toward them not asking any questions.”

    Heh, here one of the mega-landlords also owns a carpet cleaning company — can you guess which is the ‘preferred place’…

  8. mopar_man says:

    Thanks for that heads up weave. I’ll have to look into that.

    This is going to come in handy in a few months as well. Thanks for the link.

  9. mobbo says:

    The best advice I can give is to go to your local grocery store and rent a Rug Doctor carpet cleaner. It’s only $25 to rent and it gets your carpets REALLY clean. I had a puppy at my last place and the apartment landlord actually went out of her way to tell me I needed to save money because I WOULD be paying for new carpet. After I got the Rug Doctor, the carpet was really clean, all the way down to the padding.

  10. andre060 says:

    Am I the only one who *didn’t* find that article useful? I can sum up in one sentence: “Document everything when you move in, and clean everything really well when you move out”. All the tips for cleaning seem really obvious…

    I would have liked more tips like this one: To clean the inside of your microwave, fill a bowl with 50% water, 50% vinegar, and microwave it for 5 minutes. The steam from the mixture will soften up all the caked on stuff inside your microwave and make cleaning it *alot* easier.

  11. crackblind says:

    Also document any damage that occurs while living there that you aren’t responsible for. We had a radiator leak that damaged a few wood tiles not quite in the middle of the floor. Maintenance took a look at it and said it would be a major hassle as they’d have to tear up most of the floor to get to it (the wood tiles interlocked). It was under furniture so we didn’t care and they asked if it was okay to leave it be. We said fine.

    When we moved out, the landlord of course had no record of this and we were charged with the replacement of the floor. Luckily we remembered when the leak was and pressed him on that repair record and he backed down.

    If you agree not to have something fixed GET IT IN WRITING!!!

  12. Crazytree says:

    maybe I should do a CA guide on getting your whole deposit back 75% of the time. :0

  13. Black_Umbrella says:

    So after reading the many praises for the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser i ran out and bought a pack. Surprisingly, they are pretty cheap.

    They are amazing, sort of. It scares me to think whats in that little foam block…it seems to melt the paint a bit like car rubbing compound. Anyway it does the job and does it extremely well except where i tried a bit too much on certain marks and the slightly different color paint underneath the top coat is coming out.

  14. j-o-h-n says:

    @Black_Umbrella:
    Wikipedia to the rescue, it’s “a formaldehyde-melamine-sodium bisulfite copolymer. The foam, because of its microporous properties, may remove otherwise “uncleanable” external markings from relatively smooth surfaces. … its polymeric substance is also extremely hard. This means it is actually working like sandpaper but on a very small scale”

  15. @Black_Umbrella: The Magic Eraser is, indeed, magic. (Well, it’s not, but I’d still like to think it is.) I’m moving into a new apartment next week, and I used one on my kitchen cabinets. (I always wear gloves when I use them — am I the only one?) In any case, it cleaned the cabinets wonderfully. And it does wonders for scuff marks especially. But be careful using them on painted walls — you might notice, as you pointed out, a colour difference (sometimes, a very noticeable one). But that’s a small price to pay for…MAGIC.

  16. ChristopherDavis says:

    One tip not mentioned in the article is that tabloid newspapers make great ways to timestamp your photos. (In these days of digital cameras and photo manipulation software some doubts may be raised, but this technique is still potentially useful.)

    To use them, just make sure that you have that day’s front page, complete with large-type screaming headline, and that it’s in the picture you take that shows your lovely cleaning job. This is a reasonable “proof” (noting the caveat above) that the photo was taken at move-out time rather than being an old move-in photo.

  17. VeryFancyBunny says:

    @loquaciousmusic: My experience with the Magic Eraser is that it was very good on surfaces, woodgrain cabinets, and walls coated with oil-based paint, but left noticeable marks on walls coated with the low quality water-based paint used in many apartments. Also, it was not very nice to my hands. I’ll follow your lead and wear rubber gloves next time. Other than that, magic!

    I’d also like to echo the commenter above who recommended the Rug Doctor. I borrow my friends’ carpet cleaner several times a year, and it comes in especially handy when I’m moving out of a place. It makes the cheapo apartment carpets look GOOD.

    Also: dust the baseboards, and clean crumbs out of kitchen cabinets and drawers.

  18. FLConsumer says:

    Pictures before AND after = guaranteed deposit back. Even if you don’t have “before” pictures, as long as there’s not major damage to the place, take pictures afterwards…and take pictures of EVERYTHING. Even the scummiest landlords in this area returned the full deposit after it was mentioned that photos were taken.

  19. LatherRinseRepeat says:

    I’m not sure if this is the same for other cities/states.. But in the city of Los Angeles, renters are entitled to the interest that is earned on your deposit.

    http://www.lacity.org/lahd/secdep.pdf

  20. Black_Umbrella says:

    @LatherRinseRepeat:

    Yeah, i am not sure if that is everywhere, but here in hoboken nj security deposits are required to go into a savings account. Its not much but at least its something.

  21. jstruan says:

    You can use toothpaste to plug small holes in the wall.

  22. tqbf says:

    Here’s what I dislike about this post: it presumes that if you exercise due diligence when you move in and do a professional job of cleaning your apartment before you leave, you will not lose your “thirteenth month’s rent”.

    Here’s why that’s a problem (at least in IL, MI, and CA):

    (a) The standard of care for a renter is not “like new condition”. You are not, for instance, expected to re-paint the apartment, though your landlord will certainly attempt to charge you for that. Restoring the apartment to whatever pristine standard the landlord feels is necessary to re-rent at a 30% rent hike is the cost of doing business as a landlord, not the cost of tenancy.

    (b) Following these instructions, you will doubtless spend many hours (or, like us, many hundreds of dollars) to detail your apartment. But there is no objective standard this work can be held to. So, for instance, you can repaint the whole apartment and still have it painted again, and no matter how much dusting an mopping you do, your landlord will still “hire” a “cleaning service” (at 250% of prevailing rate) to do the job over.

    (c) No matter how diligent you are, your landlord is simply going to make things up. You will do the walk-through inspection, but the landlord will have many days (likely, 2 weeks) to actually return your check, and when they do, you will find unexpected deductions.

    (d) No matter how diligent you are, your only recourse against a corrupt landlord (read: virtually any landlord) is a civil suit that will (from experience) take over 18 months to resolve.

    Far better advice for retaining your security deposit:

    (1) have your lawyer (any lawyer, for $50) formally request the security deposit, whether you “like” your landlord or not. Make sure they cite the civil penalties for fraudulent claims — politely.

    (2) familiarize yourself with your local tenants union.

    (3) make the “13th month’s rent” the 12 month’s rent. When the landlord complains, ask for the walk-through right then and there, and then ask what the problem is with simply applying the deposit to the rent.

    The renter’s security deposit is one of *the* consumer scams and it’s a shame Consumerist doesn’t cover it better. Unless you’re a jerk, if you’ve ever had a bite taken out of your deposit and had to wonder whether it was legit, you’ve been had.

  23. DissociatedMaven says:

    I rented in a somewhat shady area of DC before… and photos of all previous damage can do wonders. With a digital camera, the cost of this is basically nil. I’ve also found that having a lawyer friend hang out with me during the exit inspection can do wonders.

  24. tokyowars says:

    I always make sure that I have all my gear moved out two days in advance. I then do the walk through with the real estate agent, noting anything they don’t like.

    Technically I still rent the property for the next two days so I use that time to fix the things that were the source of contention.

    I always get all my bond back now.

    (I learnt this the hard way after losing A$107.00 for dirty skirting boards…)

  25. Ookseer says:

    My last apartment I was so exhauseted after moving the stuff out that I didn’t clean. At all.

    During the check out the manager said she’d take $45 out of my deposit to clean the place. Best $45 I ever spent, given how much time/effort and energy would have gone into getting the place properly clean. I probably would have had to spend almost that much just on supplies.

  26. acambras says:

    Just moved into a new dump this month. Not only did I take tons of photos of existing damage, but I put the photos into a memo in a Word document. Within the footer, I put the apartment #, the date, and a blank for the manager’s signature. So within 2 weeks of moving in, I submitted 2 color copies of this memo (replete with photos) to the manager, had her sign every page of my copy, and gave her a copy. I am hoping this helps when we move out.

  27. jeffj-nj says:

    When I moved out of my last apartment, they kept $300 of my $1,375 deposit for “cleaning costs”. In all honesty, the place was pretty trashed, so I considered that fair. The management company, for those interested, was Hekemian, in NJ. Everyone is sure to mention the name of a company which does them wrong, but it’s much rarer to hear about not getting burned.

    My current apartment, I’ve been in for almost 5 years now, and have tried to keep the place clean – not just for security deposit reasons, but also because I’m older, more responsible, and enjoy living in cleanliness – so I hope to get my deposit back in full. If I don’t, I will be calling my lawyer. I will not pass ‘GO’. I will not collect $200. I will advance directly to the phone.

  28. acambras says:

    One important thing –

    Make sure you have given your forwarding address to the old landlord/slumlord — having documented evidence of when you gave your forwarding address isn’t a bad idea. In some states, landlords have a certain amount of time to return your deposit — however many days from when the keys are turned in, or however many days after they receive your forwarding address, WHICHEVER IS LATER. So if they don’t get your forwarding address, the timeframe within which your landlord has to return the security deposit can be drawn out a lot longer.

    So when you turn in your keys and go on that walk-through, give the landlord your forwarding address, and try to get him/her to sign a brief statement that they’ve received your forwarding address.

  29. RandomHookup says:

    @tqbf:

    Didn’t realize I was corrupt. Guess I should start acting that way.

  30. tqbf says:

    Do you put your tenants security deposits in your own personal or business bank account? Then you already are acting that way.

  31. RandomHookup says:

    @tqbf:

    Wow! That’s a huge presumption of guilt.

    I provide separate escrow accounts to my tenants, provide them the account number and address as required by Mass. law, allow them the option of receiving interest payments on the annual renewal of the lease, return security deposits with interest within 30 days of vacating premises and provide an annotated listing of all deductions for damages. I provide them a damages checklist to complete and return to me to document any pre-existing conditions.

    I also take pictures before and after to provide my side of the story, but my tenants have always been cooperative.

    Some people in every field are slimy, but it’s dangerous to paint with a broad brush. This is just a side business to me, but I pride myself on being a pretty good landlord.

  32. tqbf says:

    You’re a hero. I mean it. Instead of being defensive about generalizations about landlords, revel in how much better you are than the rest of the field, and share my lament about how unethical your peers are.

    The law in MA might be more progressive than in IL, CA, or MI, but in those places, standard operating procedure for landlords is to stick your deposit right in their business bank account, which turns the security deposit into a “tax” they have to pay at the end of the lease — one from which they will vigorously seek deductions.

    The people most hurt by this godawful situation don’t read Consumerist and don’t know where to find a lawyer to draft a simple request for the return of their deposit. Taking unjustifiable deductions from a security deposit — money that doesn’t belong to you — is simply theft. And there’s an epidemic of it.

  33. I’m going to have to agree with tqbf. The landlord has no reason to expect “like new” condition of the apartment unless the tenant was there for only a very short period of time.

    I would have also liked tips on how to clean difficult/unusual stains.

    Any tips on dealing with new management? I’m moving out in a couple of months and the new management claims to have no records of anything that happened before they took over. I doubt they kept the move-in sheets.

  34. tqbf says:

    There’s no “unless”, Rectilinear. The landlord has no reason to expect “like new” condition because the law (at least in IL, MI, and CA) states “reasonable wear”. I didn’t just make those words up. Even if you only live there a month: don’t get charged for repainting or recarpeting.

    In your situation especially, I’d drop $50 to get a laywer to draft a polite but firm request for your deposit back, making it clear that you know what your rights are. Management companies are the worst.

  35. tourpro says:

    I successfully sued my former landlord last year in small claims court. They were claiming the entire deposit. We got the entire amount back plus filing cost. It was immensely gratifying.

    Something not emphasized enough is “reasonable wear-and-tear”. That and being able to prove pre-existing conditions is the crux of the argument.

  36. JayXJ says:

    A few things:

    Carpet Shampooer: If you have kids or pets it is more economical to just buy one of the things for $150 and be done with it. You never have to rent one again and they’re a huge bonus when doing your monthly car shampooing.

    Check with your landlord or management company about add ons. Some appartment complexes will charge you to remove improvements (ceiling fans, electric can openers, undercabinet lighting, etc…) that you have made. Do your move in and move out walk throughs with a running camcorder. Ask the leasing agent the date ON VIDEO. Submit all repair requests in writing and ask for a copy of the repair order. Be polite and professional with all dealings with the management company. You are bound to have several things go wrong in the course of a year. If you’re polite and easy to deal with things go much more smoothly.

    800 to 1000 grit wet sandpaper works wonders on persistant oven stains. Just sand lightly and check often.