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?


By , on Oct 1, 2008
Lynnae McCoy I'm Lynnae, wife of one and stay-at-home mom of two. I'm committed to getting out of debt by being frugal with my choices in life.


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  1. We were landlords and almost always gave the depost back (which was more around $800). (We did have a set of baseball players who made a hole in the wall though, they did not get their deposit back.) We would have for sure given you your deposit back, we loved good renters. However, I have heard horror stories of Landlords trying to sue the renters for having a homebased businss (because it says in most leases that you can’t and that is a standard thing)and they have lost $1000 deposits. So just to cheer you up, you didn’t lose out on too much money. I hope the call went well!
    ~The Bargain Shopper Lady
    p.s. I am trying to send you an email. Could you send me you email addy? Thanks!

  2. Wow. That does seem very nit picky (especially the light bulbs). My Mom and Dad almost lost a security deposit because they didn’t sweep all of the leaves out of the garage before they left (they did sweep but they must have missed a couple). This was on a house that wasn’t even ready the day they had moved in. Experiences like these really you make you bitter toward landlords.

  3. Marci:

    He should owe you something for the cleaning you did upon move in, unless it went against your rent earlier.

    The doorstop and the tension rod spot seem a bit much. He should have replaced the doorstop, and he should have caps where the tension rods are supposed to go.

    I’ve been both a renter and a landlord – I don’t know which one is worse :) Good luck with it all!

    Always have a descriptive listing of damages when you move in – signed by both parties. Always have the final walkthru when you leave. Period. I think that is why I preferred renting from a company that specialized in rental property management – they had it all down on the forms and it was just a fill in the blank process.

  4. Lynnae:

    Thanks for all your thoughts!

    Yes, he did send an itemized list within 30 days.

    And I can see him charging me for labor. However, I did a lot of things on move in that should have been his labor, and not mine, such as vacuuming and mopping the place up. (and I obviously didn’t charge him)

    As far as the lightbulbs…I guess what irritates me is that I had told him before we moved out that I was going to replace the expensive energy saving bulbs with the cheap lights, and he didn’t like that very much (even though I bought the bulbs). So instead of replacing all four bulbs in each fixture, I left the expensive bulbs (2 for each fixture) and the burnt out bulbs (2 for each fixture). So I feel like I did him a favor, and he burned me.

    As far as the little plastic thingies on the knobs, he only charged me $4 for the bathroom, but apparently the fixture was older in the kitchen, and he had to replace it, so he charged me $20 for one missing plastic cap.

    He charged me $11 for wall damage behind a door, due to a missing doorstop…that he said he was going to replace 4 years ago, before the damage took place. That ticks me off too. $20 for each screen. And $11 for the damaged area in the shower (which wasn’t a hole, it was kind of a dented imprint, which was there before we moved in). $1 for parts, $10 for labor.

  5. Laurie:

    I’m a landlord of small rental houses (12 of them) and I would absolutely charge you for those missing light bulbs — if you were supplied light bulbs to begin with. Not only do I now have to go out and purchase (or have my contractor purchase) lightbulbs, but I’m also having to take my time and effort to put them all in or pay someone else to do it – and an hour of my time is worth something. We actually have a standard clause in our leases that deal with supplies like these.

    I totally disagree with the charge for the tension rod in the bathroom though. That falls into normal wear and tear and after 5 years it isn’t like he isn’t going to have to repaint (and likely recarpet) anyway. Now if there is a hole in the wall, that is a different story!

    Those H/C caps fall off of cheap faucets all the time and are something we keep on hand. Unfortunately, if the sink is too old (more than 10 years) you sometimes can’t find the correct size which necessitates replacing the faucet. But I wouldn’t have charged you for those either. How much is he charging you for that? That is something easy to buy at Home Depot or Lowes if they are a standard size and should be well under $5.

    In general, the longer a tenant has been in a house the more forgiving the landlord should be. At 5 years repainting and recarpeting is a given, so you shouldn’t be charged for anything those will cover.

    If you don’t like the $1 charge per lightbulb, he should let you go back to the house and replace them yourself. Same with fixing the wall near the shower and replacing the h/c covers.

    I’d argue with him on the screens – if you haven’t taken them down, and it is from wind or hail that is his problem not yours.

    I know that tenants think the landlords are being a pain in the butt, but each of these things require both time, effort, money & possibly labor (at contractor rates).

  6. Nicole:

    You should really check on the laws. I’m a licensed attorney in PA, and here, if the Landlord wants to keep a deposit, they must send an itemized list of all the expenses for which they are holding the security deposit within 30 days of leaving the apartment or house. If the landlord does NOT do that, the tenant can file an action to get DOUBLE the security deposit back (tenant must give a forwarding address). A landlord cannot withhold a security deposit for normal wear and tear either. Again, I would double check the laws for your state – there’s probably a legal aid website that has housing information on it.

    Good luck!

  7. Andrea C.:

    I realize that I put “least” everytime I tried to write “lease”, sorry!

  8. Andrea C.:

    My husband lived in an apartment that was managed by a very very picky lady and he was the only 20-something among a lot of older people and families. He’s pretty clean and takes care of things. This was before we were married and I would go see him and leave about 11PM every night to back to my apartment. The first sign of trouble was when she told him that if I was going to “live” there that I needed to be added to the least! He was a minister at a local church, so the idea being implied that the we lived together could’ve really negatively affected his job, not to mention it was completely untrue! She had always struck me as very very nit picky, but my husband didn’t seem to agree, thought I was just being sensitive. Well, about 2 weeks before we were moving to another city, we got married and I did move in with him. She knew we were getting married and didn’t make a big deal about me being added to the least once she found that out (makes no sense to me). We received a piece of mail from her when we got to our new city and in it was a bill for over $100. This was a COMPLETE surprise to us, the only thing we expected to be “charged” for was a couple of holes in the wall in the living room that Kevin used to hang some guitars on hooks. They weren’t big or noticeable, but we figured we’d be charged. Those holes were included in the figure as well as her charging us for things like not cleaning the bathrooms and the oven. I scrubbed everything until it gleamed!!! To this day I’ve wanted to confront her, but my husband preferred to just pay it and go on. You have to be really careful, I think it was because we were so young and single at the time that she treated us unfairly, but she may have been like that to everyone.

  9. Kristen:

    I’ve rented several times. As a matter of fact, my husband and I just moved into our first house that we own, and we’re in the process of cleaning out the old rental place. But, our landlord is our friend, and we didn’t even have to put a deposit down. It was a pretty informal agreement.

    I had one problem with a nasty landlord in college who tried to keep an $800 deposit! The guy was full of you-know-what, and my dad called him on it. We got our money back. As an adult, I’ve always gotten my security deposits back. As a matter of fact, one landlord wanted to call my parents to tell them how clean and responsible I was. I thought that was funny. :)

  10. Pat:

    I am a landlord, and I do a walk through and take pictures, with every tenant. I document everything in writting and have the tenants sign the form and I sign and leave a copy with them.
    Some tenants leave the place so trashed, the security deposit doesn’t even begin to cover the repairs. However, cleaning, including carpets, and painting are standard in between maintenance even if the last tenants left the place spotless,and should not be charged extra. No matter how nice your landlord or tenants are, always put everything in writting.

  11. Brittany:

    I haven’t had any walkthrough problems thus far but that may be luck. I recently moved out of a place, after living there for about 3 weeks because of a bad roommate situation. (Had a month-to-month lease so it wasn’t costly.) Her parents are the landlords and seem to be jerking me around about returning my security deposit. Couldn’t do a walkthrough on moveout because they never returned my phone calls or emails until after my lease had ended and I had returned the key to them. At that point, I’d been out of the place for 1.5 weeks. I’m just hoping that my evil roommate didn’t trash the room or something since I’d be held responsible for it, even though I left the room cleaner than it was when I moved in. We’ll see what happens. It’s been 14 days so I’m sending another demand letter for the return of my security deposit today.

  12. Jess:

    Ok, so this kind of scares me. The reason being that I just signed a lease a month ago. When I moved in I just filled out big things. Little problems in the apartment I pretty much skipped over. I just hope that down the road I won’t be punished for it. They do seem very nice, or at least seemed very nice when I signed the lease.

  13. Sarah:

    I think your landlord was a being a bit unreasonable, about a couple light bulbs,especially since you left some in the rental but I can’t say I haven’t heard of it before. My mother runs an apartment complex and you would be shocked at what people take, break and don’t clean. A couple people have taken all the racks from the refrigerator (why I don’t know) and a one family took every single light bulb in the place, including the florescent rods used in the kitchen fixtures which probably wouldn’t fit any other fixtures. Those people got charged a minimal fee since they took EVERYTHING they could get their hands on. My mother typically does the walk though with the tenant and then leaves the checklist with them for a couple days in case either party missed something during the first walk though. My mother takes photos of the apartment before and after to court to prove that certain things (such as the refrigerator shelves) were really there when the tenant moved in.(Those things are expensive!) My mom got in the habit of doing that for every single apartment and every single room, especially the kitchens and the bathrooms. Good documentation is great advice for both landlords and tenants, since no one really LIKES to go to court!

  14. Brigitte:

    I hate to say it, but they supplied light bulbs for all the fixtures, and you should have left them the way you found them–with a bulb in every spot. I don’t even know that I would consider the knobs caps falling off as normal wear and tear, especially as you can glue them back on easily enough with very little effort. Of course, I didn’t consider the paint wiping off my oven knobs when I cleaned them on move-out to be normal wear and tear, and even had 5 of the 6 of them to replace, but the landlord said not to worry about it…. so maybe I have a skewed too-picky idea of normal wear and tear. Scratches on a wood floor, worn spots on the carpet, yes. Torn carpet or downright gouges in the wood floor, no.

    The thing that gets me is people getting charged for carpet cleaning. Around here, that’s a legally required cleanup that must be done between tenants, even if the outgoing tenant cleaned the carpet themselves. Similarly with certain things needing to be painted, but those laws are ambiguous with non-complex conditions. Landlords should be planning on those types of cleaning expenses and building it into the rent, because the tenants are specifically NOT responsible for them.

  15. Anne Marie:

    I agree with the comment about taking pictures. I got a bad feeling about our landlord on the day of the walk thru…and it is a good thing i trusted my gut. He was known around town, i found out later, for being a slumlord.

    But the first thing i did after the walk thru was take pictures with a disposable camera. I had them developed in duplicate, with a date stamp printed on them.

    I then sent him a letter saying, here are the issues we discussed, in picture form. I have kept a copy of these pictures for myself and the negatives.

    I never heard a peep about damages when i left, because he knew i had proof all ALL the previous problems in the old house. After talking to others later (including my husband, who i didn’t know lived across the street from me until i met him years later) my landlord had not only taken their deposits but sent them LENGTHY bills on problems that were either wear and tear of already there. The worst was the fact he would BILL you an hourly wage of $50 an hour for the hours he spent “repainting, etc” when he did the work himself!!!

  16. Susan:

    Lucky at least that your deposit was so low – here, standard deposits are first and last month’s rent. If we don’t get ours back when we move, we’re in trouble; that’s a lot of money!

    The tenant before us left the apartment in terrible condition and it was a huge pain for us to get it to a livable condition; we’re determined to leave the place nicer than we found it (though that shouldn’t be too hard, considering), since we know what it’s like to move in with work to do. That was a nasty surprise!

  17. Katie:

    I was a landlord for 5+ years, before my time as a stay at home mom. During that time, I managed well over 1100 “homes”. The key to being a renter, is NEGOTIATE. A lease is like every legal document. Read it, understand it, have someone else read it (that you trust) then negotiate on it. Go into a lease you feel confident in signing. Word doesn’t mean anything. If it’s not in writing, it’s not legal (there are a few exceptions to this case- but you will fight it out in court). Make sure you know what you are willing to pay for, and what not. Know the fine lines, and know what you are responsible for. It’s the best advice I can give. Good luck speaking to your landlord, and don’t be a pushover. You could always take him to court over it, and he/she doesn’t want that. If things start to go sour in the conversation, let them know you will be speaking to a lawyer. Anytine you mention the “L” word to a landlord- they will stick their tails between their legs.

  18. Greg:

    I have always left apartments ready for new tenants (except for fresh paint). Some landlords thank me, some have standard cleaning and prep fees built into the lease.

    While I value my money, if the deposit is in the $100-$150 range, I just considered it cost -of-doing-business.

    I do recommend a nit-picky walk-through before moving in. Not necessarily a demand for those items to be fixed, just noted. For example, if the unit was not cleaned satisfactorily, you should be able to get back cleaning a prep fees.

    Much of this depends on the disposition of the landlord.

  19. Mar:

    The ONLY time I had trouble getting my security deposit back was for my first apartment, back in 1974. The landlord kept the deposit because he said the sleeper couch needed replaced because one of the bottom wood pieces was broken. He was correct, but I think it was broken when I moved in. I don’t really remember.

    I took him to court and when I was filing the paperwork, there was a lawyer there filing paperwork in another case. The filing clerk literally rolled his eyes when he saw my landlord’s name and the lawyer asked to take the case on a contingency basis because they were all pretty tired of this guy and they wanted to see if they could get him on a case and make him refund my deposit.

    I won the first round in court because the landlord couldn’t prove that I broke the couch and I said I thought it was broken when I moved in, but wasn’t positive. He appealed. For some reason, my attorney went to my old apartment and talked to the new tenant. Guess what – the couch for which I was being charged was never replaced! He took pictures and was really, really hoping that the landlord would again say that he replaced the couch because he wanted to get him on perjury charges. Unfortunately, in the second court round, he simply said that he “instructed” his maintenance men to replace the couch. My attorney then had himself sworn in as a witness so he could present the pictures of the broken couch still in the apartment. I still remember the looks on the faces of the landlord (darn, I got CAUGHT) and the judge. Nine months after I moved out, I got my security deposit plus damages back. The judge must have pretty much figured out that the attorney and I had the standard contingency agreement because the damages amounted to the attorney’s percentage plus $4. At least I didn’t have to pay him out of my pocket!

    The attorney was very, very happy to “get” the landlord and according to an old neighbor, other people were emboldened to take on the landlord in similar cases. I don’t know if he ever cleaned up his act, though.

  20. Leann:

    I’ve rented from many places in the last ten years and I’ve had good landlords and bad landlords. The best landlords I’ve had have been people I knew personally. I have also not had too much difficulty with apartment complexes. However, the worst landlord I’ve ever had was an elderly widow who lived out of state and sent our neighbors to spy on me and my roommates. I was in college and she nit-picked every little thing when we moved out even though many things are what I would consider normal wear and tear, such as a door knob being loose or a broken piece on a set of blinds that I purchased myself. I was in college at the time and sent her a letter requesting that she explain the charges. She sent a very ugly letter back with detail including fees for cleaning supplies even though I thought we did a good job cleaning. There really wasn’t much I could do at the time, being a naive college student. But I still harbor resentment toward that lady–her house was OLD and she hadn’t taken good care of it but she expected it to be in pristine condition when we moved out.

  21. Ashley:

    The only thing I’ve ever been charged for was $50 for a broken window. We broke it while we were moving out. We broke it, there’s no getting around that. I was willing to pay the $50.

    I think your landlord is being nit picky.

  22. We always got all of our security deposits back. One thing I strongly recommend is taking before and after pictures. Before you move in, take pictures of any damage. Make two copies, one for you and one for the landlord. Keep until you move out. Then take pictures again after you get all your stuff out. Then you have proof of what was there before you came in!

  23. Wow, I would definitely talk to he landlord about the charges. Maybe it was a memory error, but it doesn’t sound like you should be charged.

  24. Stu:

    My fav charge we had on a rental in englad was 80# for not drrycleaning the couch!

    They will find ANY excuse to not give you money back.

  25. I’ve rented several times in my life and always got most, if not all, of my deposit back. More than once I’ve been told I’ve left a rental in better condition than any previous tenants.

    It sounds to me like your landlord is being petty or greedy. I’ve never known of any landlords to charge for lightbulbs, or the other types of things you mentioned. Around here anyway, deposits are general insurance against damages (like torn or stained carpeting, holes in walls, etc.) and/or tenants skipping out on the last month’s rent.

    At our last rental, the landlord took $50 of our $500 deposit for carpet cleaning. We had been renovating the home we were moving into and decided not to clean the rental carpet ourselves because we were so busy with the new place. So we weren’t surprised at that deduction.

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