Published on August 17, 2019

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esign by Emily Henderson Design | Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp

Renting is stressful enough without worrying about your security deposit. After all, there are better things to focus on, like where to hang your art, what color to paint the walls, and what pendant light should go above your dining table. But if you treat your pad like a construction zone, you may not get your good faith down payment back.

“Property damage is more than just an eyesore,” says Natalia Padilla, a broker at Citi Habitats in Manhattan. “It’s a perfectly legal reason for a landlord to keep your deposit.” Most landlords will forgive small scuffs and even the occasional nail in the wall, but here are some other bad moves that are guaranteed to make your landlord hold onto that check. 

Not Reporting Apartment Damage 

A minor scuff here, a scratch there—that’s table stakes. But not reporting the big stuff is a sure way to lose your deposit, says Jason Haber, an associate broker at Warburg Realty in New York City: “Let the landlord know, otherwise they’ll assume that you broke it.” This applies to household appliances, from the kitchen stove to the bathroom sink. You’ll also want to report any faucet leaks or water damage. “People tend to see water pool in a corner and not think it’s a big deal—and then the floors warp,” says Haber. But the cost to a landlord can be significant as they might need to rip it up and replace the floors. “Landlords want to turn an apartment around as quickly as possible,” he adds.

Being negligent about upkeep could also cost you, says Boris Fabrikant, an independent broker in New York City. Not emptying the lint tray in the dryer can cause damage, as can forgetting to swap the HVAC filter. Some fridges may also have filters that need to be routinely changed. 

Going Beyond Normal Wear and Tear 

When a tenant leaves a unit, someone always goes in with a checklist of 50 or so items they need to inspect, says Haber, whose family owns several multifamily investment properties in Manhattan and Brooklyn. “They’ll either check or write notes, like ‘doors warped’ or ‘crack in the tile,’” among other observations. With that in mind, it pays to live by Padilla’s rule: If an apartment isn’t in the condition it was rented in, you’ll likely lose your deposit (or at least part of it). 

Not Cleaning Your Mess 

Forgetting a bottle of Diet Snapple is one thing. Leaving piles of garbage or broken glass is another, says Fabrikant. “Most landlords aren’t going to quibble over $100 for a cleaning service, but they are in the right to do so.” As Haber puts it, “Make a good faith effort to clean the place as much as possible. You want to present the apartment to the owner in the best way.” 

Not Keeping Local Rent Laws in Mind 

As an example, new rent laws affecting security deposits were passed last month in New York City. But while the sweeping rules may tip the power in favor of tenants, it’s important to know how they’ll impact your landlord’s thinking. “Landlords are going to be extra careful when it comes to reimbursing,” says Haber, noting the new policy of returning a deposit in a reasonable time frame. “So it’s really important that tenants are very mindful of the things that can cost them their deposit.” 

If you want to start your new lease on the right foot, it’s also helpful to keep a few good practices for move-in day: Do a walk-through with the landlord or a building representative before you move in. Document any existing damage and share it by email so you’re all on the same page. “Take photos; if there’s damage, have it on record,” says Haber. “Disclose, disclose, disclose. Those are the biggest things.” By being upfront and respectful on both ends of the lease, you’ll save yourself a lot of hassle and even some cash.

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