When Joe told his landlord that he and his wife were moving out of their two-bedroom apartment, he anticipated a thorough inspection. After all, their landlord had insisted on inspecting the place every six months—a condition she included in their lease.

That wasn’t the only clue. A typed addendum to the original lease included an over-the-top list of rules, including requirements to rinse dirty dishes, run the bathroom fan for 30 minutes after every shower, and never wear shoes indoors. Houseplants needed two drip trays each, plus a cork mat. Spilled liquids should be wiped up immediately. The couple carefully followed the rules and cleaned everything listed in their lease.

After they moved out, they were surprised to receive a typed, three-page letter that described in narrative detail what wasn’t clean. It’s not uncommon for renters and landlords to dispute the level of cleanliness after moving out. After all, there are many ways to interpret “clean” and normal wear-and-tear, but this letter seemed extraordinary.

The stove needed three hours of cleaning, the landlord wrote, which involved two doses of oven cleaner. “I started calling it ‘The Beast,’” she said. She said she found nuts and seeds in the dishwasher filter tray, and there was lint on the bathroom fan cover. Not to mention the dryer duct held bobby pins, a guitar pick, and two one-dollar bills.

The letter ended with a proclamation: she and her husband spent 16.5 hours cleaning the apartment after they’d had professional cleaners clean the place, plus they spent 14 hours cleaning the storm windows (a process she described as “grueling”). She said she needed $587.50 to cover her time, a calculation that probably wouldn’t hold up in court, because landlords can’t typically charge for their time. At that point, Joe says, he wasn’t expecting to get his full security deposit back, even though he was sure he’d met her requirements.

“We lived in the apartment for five years,” he says, “and she was trying to charge us for normal wear and tear. She said things should be better in better condition than when we moved in, but she was talking about things that get used every day.”

While you may never receive this type of detailed letter from your landlord, there’s a chance you may need to argue to get some or all of your deposit back because of the ambiguity of “what’s clean.”

But there’s some good news: you have a better chance of getting your deposit back if you take a few precautions, starting with documenting the move-in condition with pictures and videos.

What to do when you move in

Be part of the move-in inspection
Ask your landlord if you can perform the move-in inspection yourself, or at least contribute to what’s documented. Sometimes it takes a day or so to test all the appliances and see what’s working and what’s not. Take your time. Slow down and take a look at every part of your new place. Look for flaws or damage.

Create a move-in checklist
As you inspect the place with your landlord, write down all of your concerns, from cracks in walls to scratches on the floors. Even if the flaw seems obvious, write them down anyway. Organize your checklist by room, making sure to make a note about everything from walls and ceilings to hardware, lighting, and floors. Make sure all the appliances and fixtures are working as they should.

Make a walk-through video
Use your move-in checklist as a guide to record all the flaws you wrote down during the initial walk-through.

What to do when you move out

Be out by the right date
Read your lease and give proper notice in writing. If you didn’t give your landlord proper notice, you could owe extra rent, which your landlord could take out of your security deposit.

Follow the landlord’s move-out cleaning checklist
It might be tempting to ignore things like “clean lint out of the dryer ducts,” but if it’s important to your landlord, they’ll probably check and keep some of your deposit for not doing it.

Take a move-out video
It’s a good idea to document just how clean you’re leaving the place with videos or photos. If the landlord left you a move out cleaning checklist, be sure to document those spots in particular.

Ask to be present at the final inspection
You have the right to be there when the landlord looks at the place, and in some states, like California, the landlord is required to do a preliminary walk-through with the renter to point out what could be subject to any deposit withholding, so renters have a chance to fix it before the final walkthrough. If you can’t be at the final inspection, or choose not to, your landlord should give you a full, itemized list of any damages or items that needed to be cleaned.

Give your landlord your new address
Be sure to give them your forwarding address, which you can change with the USPS, so they can send you your deposit if they’re sending it by mail.

After you move out, don’t plan to get your deposit right away. In most states, the landlord has between 15 and 45 days to return your deposit after your move-out date. So even though it’s nice to think about moving your deposit from landlord to landlord, that’s not a realistic way to think about the money.

Reasons your landlord might keep your deposit

There are legal reasons your landlord could legally keep some of your deposit.

  • If you didn’t pay all your rent, they could deduct that amount. Or if you didn’t pay all your utilities, they may deduct that money.
  • If the rental had damage and repairs need beyond “normal wear and tear,” the standard, and sometimes difficult to define, term included in most leases. Normal wear and tear isn’t your responsibility, but if you made major changes to your place, such as installing shelves or painting the walls a bright color when they started out as beige, the landlord can deduct the costs of returning the rental to its original condition.
  • If cleaning was needed, the landlord can deduct the cost to clean from your deposit, which is what happened to Joe.

No matter what, your landlord must itemize all deductions and send you the information in writing. If your landlord makes some claims you know aren’t true, it becomes one person’s word against another.

What to do if your landlord keeps your deposit unfairly

  • A landlord can be held liable for “wrongful withholding,” which means holding money for something that’s not true or not allowed. In many counties, renters can sue a landlord for two to three times the amount that was wrongfully withheld. You’ll need proof, which is why it’s important to document everything. Put everything in writing, especially if you’re itemizing what you disagree with. Be civil and respectful in your communication.
  • If you haven’t received your security deposit by the agreed upon date, or if the landlord is making allegations to keep from refunding your money, send a demand letter. This letter is necessary in many states to go to small claims court. The demand letter should contain all pertinent facts. Include copies of your notice to move out and any other relevant documents, including your state’s security deposit statute. Make your demand for a deposit clear, and include a timeframe, such as 10 to 14 business days. Let the landlord know that if the money doesn’t arrive by then, you’ll take them to small claims court.
  • Then you’ll be prepared to take them to small claims court, if it comes to that. Don’t plan to hire an attorney, since the legal fees will probably cost more than the security deposit refund. Do your own thorough research beforehand to make sure you have the right to get your security deposit back. Each state has a time limit in which to file a security deposit claim, so investigate the statute of limitations. Check your state’s laws.

In the end, Joe chose not to take his case to small claims court, but he did dispute her claims in writing. “We were disappointed to receive your letter containing many nonfactual assumptions,” he wrote. “An itemized receipt of withholdings would have been sufficient, and is all the law requires.”

Even though he thought he was in the right, and that the judge would rule in his favor, he decided it wasn’t worth the time and stress to go to court.

Hopefully you’ll never need to decide if small claims court is the only way to get your security deposit back, but if you do, you’ll have enough info to make the right decision.