Your rental security deposit represents a significant asset. Literally, it is your “money in the bank.” A little diligence and care before you move in and during your occupancy term are all you need to avoid “spending” your deposited funds.
Before You Move-In
- Read Your Lease. Your lease explains the specific expectations for a full refund of your rental security deposit. Your lease typically requires you to keep your rental unit in the same condition as it was when you moved in, except for “normal wear and tear.” Your lease also specifies some details like whether or not you should fill and/or touch up paint picture hanger holes. If it is in your lease, “I did not know” is not an excuse.
- Use Owner’s Check-In Form to Document Move-In Condition. Wisconsin rental owners must provide an information check-in sheet that the tenant may use to make comments about the condition of the premises. You should carefully inspect the premises before you start moving your stuff in. Make sure that any and all preexisting defects or damages to the unit are noted on the check-in sheet. Make a copy of the completed check-in sheet before you return it to the owner. Return the original to the owner right away.
- Photograph Move-In Condition. Document every imperfection with digital photographs and save them where you can retrieve them a few years in the future. Documentation should include: (1) Every chip, dent or stain on walls, trim, counters, cabinets, and floors; (2) Carpeting at first entry step from doors - all exterior and interior doors; (3) Stovetop and oven interior; (4) All bathroom fixtures – faucet, sink, toilet, and tub/shower; (5) Any door or cabinet door that does not easily close fully and properly.
After You Move-In
- Care for Your Rental Home Like You Own It. Stop and think. Would you walk into your parents or grandparents home with sleet, sand, and salt covered hiking boots? Then don’t even think about doing that in your rental home. Honestly, most people living in million-dollar homes have a “shoes off in the house” policy. Anytime you say to yourself, “It’s only a rental” you are spending your security deposit.
- Pay Your Rent on Time. Your lease (that you thoroughly read per item 1 above) specifies a rent due date and the late fees owed if you fail to pay pursuant to the lease. Most leases require the actual receipt of your payment by the due date. Putting your rent check in the U.S. postal system on the day it is due is generally not an “on-time” payment. If you pay your rent late without paying the late fee specified in the lease, the owner will simply deduct all the unpaid late fees from your security deposit. Also, the Wisconsin Statutes were amended in 2018 to define “rent” as “any rent and late fees” owed. Therefore, an unpaid $25 late fee on your first-month rent payment could generate 11 more late fees for $300 in accumulated late fees by the end of the year.
- Report Any Damages or Defects Immediately. A leaky drain in a sink could mushroom into a major mold problem or create a leak in the ceiling of the unit below you. A loose hinge on a closet door could eventually rip all the hinges out of the door frame. Notifying the owner (in writing) as soon as you observe a problem prevents it from getting worse and gives you a more functional and pleasant living space. Photograph it and write to your property owner.
- Clean Your Place on a Regular Schedule and Spot Basis. Dust, vacuum, mop, open the windows and air out your units on a regular schedule (weekly or monthly). Your home will feel better and smell better. Move-out cleaning will be much easier. When something spills around the stove burners or in the oven, clean it with the dishes that day. If you spill wine or food, thoroughly clean it right away before the stains set. If you do not have a “shoes off at the door” policy when your best friend walks through the living room to get a beer in their dirty ice, sand, and salt caked boots; you will need to scrub their trail before you enjoy your beer. If your pet has an accident, clean it right away with a quality pet cleaner and deodorizer; otherwise, your pet will consider that area as the household pet toilet and you will be replacing carpet or other flooring.
When You Move-Out
- Clean Your Home Before You Leave. You have photographs of the condition when you moved in (item 3 above). Be sure it looks the same when you leave. That’s the simple, logical, rational response. Unfortunately, we are human and can take an expensive emotional fall. Moving is a big task. You want to get in and unpacked at your new home. It is hard to check those desires to clean the oven, cabinets, toilet, tub, and floors; it is easy to let yourself skip these mundane tasks. STOP! Ask yourself if you really want to pay $50 to $100 per hour for someone to do these tasks for you. A professional cleaning company has an office, phone lines, reception and booking staff, supervisors, vehicle expenses, etc. Even if the person actually cleaning your dirty unit gets paid less than $15 per hour, your owner may get billed $50+ per hour by the cleaning company. Also, the owner is entitled to a reasonable hourly reimbursement from your security deposit for all the time spent to hire and supervise the cleaning company.
- Photograph Move-Out Condition. Repeat the photography session with new pictures of the shots you took when you moved in. Now you have a definitive point of comparison on the before and after condition of the unit. That comparison will be extremely useful if there is a disagreement regarding your security deposit refund. More importantly, the fact that you have this documentation will most likely keep you out of a time-consuming court hassle to obtain a satisfactory refund.