Before You Sign That Rental Agreement…

Make sure you do a detailed…and I do mean detailed…walkthrough, and document everything that is wrong with the place. Yes, this is a post about my personal experience, so grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and learn from my mistakes.

Six years ago my husband and I moved to Southern Oregon. It was a quick move, and we were under time pressure to find a place to live. We found a little two bedroom duplex and signed a rental agreement. One year and one baby later, the two bedroom side of the duplex was too small for our growing family. Fortunately for us, the other side of the duplex, a three bedroom place, opened up.

That’s where the trouble starts…

Our landlord wanted us to move as quickly as possible. After all, if he could get us into the three bedroom side quickly, he could rent out the two bedroom side quickly, and that’s good for his bottom line. We didn’t object, because we were looking forward to more space.

We had a pretty good relationship with our landlord, and because of that, we didn’t do things in a very conventional way. To move things along faster, I vacuumed up after the old tenants left. I mopped the floors and wiped down the dusty cabinets.

The landlord did the minimal amount of work to make the house livable, we did a quick walkthrough, and signed the new rental agreement.

5 years later we bought a house and moved out. We had been good tenants, and we had left the place very clean. We were expecting a deposit back. We didn’t get one. Instead we got a bill for $68.

Granted, we didn’t have a very big security deposit…only $150, I believe, though I will be going back to check on that for sure. And we did have a pretty big charge for a refrigerator crisper drawer that cracked. I overfilled it with produce. Oops. So I take full responsibility for that.

Beyond that, however, we were billed for damage to the bathtub where our tension bar was placed….except that the damage was there already when we moved in. I never really considered it “damaged”, because if you place a tension bar there, it will affect the paint job.

We were billed for the dial caps on the faucet mixers that were missing on the bathroom and kitchen sinks. You know, the plastic caps that say “H” and “C”? They just fell off while we used them in the normal course of the day. I personally would consider that normal wear and tear, but perhaps I’m wrong.

We were billed for dented screens that we never took off the windows. I don’t believe we dented them, though I can’t say for sure. If we did, it wasn’t by being rough or anything. My kids were too short to reach the bedroom window screens.

And my favorite charge was $1 for every missing lightbulb. We had those light fixtures that held 4 bulbs to a fixture, a major waste of electricity in my opinion. So while we lived there, I put two energy efficient bulbs (equivalent to 75 or 100 watts) in each of the fixtures and left the two other bulbs empty, rather than placing 4-60 watt bulbs in each fixture. I left the energy efficient bulbs in the house, knowing that both the landlord and the new tenants were into green living.

I know post sounds a little, I don’t know, bitter, and I’ll admit I’m frustrated at the moment. I plan on calling the landlord later today to remind him of a few conversations we’ve had in the past, and I’m confident that I can get him to work with me enough to just call it even, without either of us owing any money.

And perhaps I’m way off base here. I’ll admit I don’t know anything about being a landlord. All I know is that we’ve rented several places in the past, and we’ve always received our full security deposit back. And we haven’t done anything differently, except that I broke the crisper drawer this time. So if you are a landlord, feel free to advise me if you know these charges are customary, or whether they are along the lines of normal wear and tear.

But the lesson here is no matter how comfortable you are with your landlord, and no matter how good your relationship is at the time, make sure you document EVERYTHING that you think could eventually be an issue. Don’t worry about looking nit-picky. 5 years down the road, you’ll be thankful that you did, and it will save you a big headache and possibly lots of money.

5 years ago I knew nothing about personal finance, and I was the kind of person who wanted to be nice and not make waves. I’m glad to say that I’ve learned and grown, and if I were to sign a new rental agreement today, things would go a lot differently. Fortunately that won’t be an issue for me again.

If you’ve ever rented, what has been your experience with security deposits? Have you always gotten everything back? Or does your landlord deduct for every little expense?

32 thoughts on “Before You Sign That Rental Agreement…”

  1. I ran into this article looking for something that might give me legal direction. My landlord, Harold, told us a few weeks ago that he would accept our security deposit as last months rent. He came by the apartment first to make sure everythig looked good, and then said his good byes to our family and wished us well. A few days ago I recieved a bill for $490. He is stating that the carpets are bad, which they are in the same condition as when we moved in, except for some normal wear and tear. These are the same carpets he already inspected and said were fine. Then he says that he had to pay someone to clean and paint the apartment. It was clean when I left, and we lived there for 3 years, so painting seems like a good idea, I get the painting. Lastly he is mad at us because after having been out of the aprtment for 3 weeks we turned the gas and electric off. We got a bill for his furnace. He says that when we turned off the utilities in our name we wrecked his furnace. The furnace was going before we left. The repairman had been out a few months earlier telling him to replace it, and that he could only do a temporary fix. Harold is now charging me for that bill, as well as $38 in rent which I have no idea where that came from. There was no explannation at all just you owe $38 in rent. I paid my rent, I was the only person in my building who paid it all when it was due every month. I am so frustrated at this point, and I do apologize for ranting on here. I feel your pain though. I thought Harold was a nice guy, but it turns out he is a jerk trying to take more money from me than he already has. Now he is threatening to take me to small claims court over it. Ridiculous! I want to know where these people get the gonads, so I can go get myself a pair. We need mor eprotection for renters!

  2. Angie: You’ll have to check your state laws. In MA, most of those charges are not allowed to be taken from the security deposit unless your landlord can prove that you caused damage.

    I wouldn’t pay him — at least until you read up on your state laws. What’s he going to do to you if you don’t?

  3. Greg,

    The rental laws vary by state, and even by county and municipality.

    However, if nothing has been signed, it is hard to make a case that you owe the money. If the landlord will not give it back, place a stop payment on the check.

    In general, I would not recommend handing over money until the time comes to sign documents.

  4. I have a question in regards to refund on the check that was written for the first month’s rent and security deposit. If the check was provided to the landlord before signing the lease, is the tenant in her/his legal rights to request for a refund if the check have been cashed in or request for the check to be voided because of a disagreement in the lease? The lease has not been signed and the tenants are not in the rental unit. Does your advice corresponds to all states?

  5. Oh, my word…we’ve had this exact same thing happen just recently…only we’re out a LOT more money. In 15 years of renting, and being stellar renters/caretakers of every property we’ve ever lived in, I might add), we’ve always gotten our deposits back.

    But this last house we rented was brand new when we moved in. BIG MISTAKE. (Never rent a brand new house from new landlords who sunk every dime of their retirement money into it. They’re going to be super nit-picky.)

    As we soon learned, the homes in that development were of shoddy construction, and made of the cheapest quality materials available (particle board cabinetry, thin discount lineoleum, nails not long enough to sufficiently hold cabinets and doors to the framework and jambs…and doorjambs made of that MFD stuff that’s basically just glorified cardboard. It was a nightmare.)

    Long story short, after over 2 years of our family of four living there, we bought our own home, and the owners gave us back only $795 of our $2,000 deposit, even though the place was immaculate when we moved out.

    Some ‘normal’ wear and tear on the lineoleum flooring cost us nearly $1,200 and was replaced out of our deposit money…including the $150 to remove the appliances from the laundry room, and another $100 to replace the base molding (all to replace a tear that occurred when a maintenance person from the property management company tore the thin linoleum while moving the washer).

    Totally sickens me. I believe it was a case of greedy guts owners gouging their faithful tenants to make up for the ones they’re bound to get on down the road whose deposits will get used up to clean up after them. Makes me so mad.

    We’ve written a letter to both the property management company and the owners, and expect to get most of that back. If not, we will take them to Small Claims court.

  6. As a landlord, I always take extensive pictures of my rental, then I make double copies, and get my tenant to initial the back of each one. He keeps a set, and I keep a set. That way there can be little about which to disagree at the end of the lease, other than the difference between damage and wear and tear.

  7. Thanks for the tips! I wish I’d read this before moving into our current place. We had to rent out our own home because it was too small for us and had no a/c, and I had (another!) baby on the way.

    Now we’re renting a 3 bd house. I asked several times for a walkthrough, but never completed one. The landlady seemed so nice, I figured it was ok. Stupid me! Hope it doesn’t come back to bite me on the behind!


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