October 1, 2018

A security deposit ensures renters pay their monthly dues and follow the terms of their contract. When renters fail to do both, or either, their security deposit serves the secondary purpose of minimizing your cost. And there will be costs to minimize, without a doubt.

Unless you've filled your apartments to the ceiling with packing peanuts, you can expect to find damage — doubly so if you lease in an area that's close to a local university. This article will list three details you should check before returning a renter's security deposit in full.

Though these deductions may seem small, they add up quickly. Keeping your properties in good repair is a costly and labor-intensive job, so whatever additional money you can find will contribute to the betterment of you and your tenants.

But first, take these preliminary measures.

Make Regular Rounds

With some particularly fierce tenants, the matter of the security deposit might come before a judge. For a fair ruling, it's crucial you have photographic evidence of the cleanliness and quality of your space before and after its occupation. This insurance can save you considerable cash.

Make regular inspections of your property. Catching a tenant in violation of your agreement will work to your advantage when deciding deductions in their security deposit later. More than that, it allows you to survey any potential problems and attend to them before they grow beyond your control.

Establishing your presence will make tenants less likely to disrespect their living space. If they know you stop by for regular visits, your building will remain tidier, resulting in a lighter workload when they eventually move away. Having said all this, you should be aware some renters will try to outsmart you.

Here are some of the tricky methods tenants use to hide the damage that you can check for.


It might be something as simple as a rug or a plastic bag left behind in the wake of a moving truck. But you should completely clear, clean and inspect all floors for gouges before you check them off your list. A deep groove from sliding a couch is more severe than non-deductible wear and tear.

Similarly, every wall should be bare of all posters and paintings, especially any decorations that were in the apartment before the renter moved in. Some of your craftier tenants might hide a three-inch hole in the wall with a "forgotten" photo they conveniently left behind. Uncover all your spaces to cover all your bases.


All it takes is a few drops of Gorilla Glue for even the clumsiest of college freshmen to put a faucet handle back together again. And many of them will. That's why it should be a top priority to check fixtures closely for hairline fractures, chips, and cracks that could break apart in your hand.

When taking a survey of the apartment, run your hand along with any crown molding. If it's low to the floor or midway up the wall, there's a high probability it's come into contact with feet or elbows. Depending on the wood or material, a high impact may have loosened or damaged it.

DIY Fixes

Any appliances that have become broken by negligence and "mended" are still, for all intents and purposes, broken. The do-it-yourself mentality might be a positive trait in homeownership, but it's not applicable to leasing an apartment. After all, you can't expect your next tenants to make the same repairs.

As you move through your list of appliances, checking them off box by box, be on the lookout for any misplaced paneling or duct tape patchwork. Absent screws are a good indication of recent tampering. If you're able to confirm a tenant manipulated an item, you can add it to your list of deductions.

Poor Appliance Care

Appliances can be expensive, and it’s not always obvious that these should be regularly cleaned. Particularly after a long-term tenant moves out, make a point to check overlooked appliances like washing machines or tough stains in fridges. Some damage will be very obvious, but these can be home to traces of bacteria and mold you may not immediately catch.

Of course, always ensure you can differentiate between regular wear and tear and tenant negligence.

The Bottom Line

No one enjoys playing the bad guy, but you have limited funds and a contract. When you've made sure your space is clean for new tenants — that the walls aren't about to collapse and everything is in working order — you can rest easy in the knowledge that you're only doing your job.

Make sure you do that job right.

About the Author: Holly Welles covers real estate topics for the up-and-coming renter or homeowner. She runs her own blog, The Estate Update, and can also be found dishing up advice over on Twitter @HollyAWelles.

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