​One or two months’ rent at move-in can be a large amount of money to save up, and getting that money back can be crucial.

When tenants leave a residence for a new one, their landlord is required to return their security deposit or inform them the amount they are receiving within 21 days of vacating the property, per the ATCP 134.06(2). Tenants are required to leave a forwarding address with their landlord, or have their mail forwarded with USPS to ensure they get the letter.

To avoid unwanted charges or withholdings from a security deposit, here are five tips to follow to ensure a maximum return.

Tip 1: Review the Lease or Rental Agreement Before Signing

To ensure a full security deposit return, tenants should review the lease or rental agreement before signing. They should understand what terms they are agreeing to before signing.

There may be “nonstandard rental provisions” that allow for more detailed requirements for cleaning by the landlord. Some leases require professional carpet cleaning when tenants vacate, while others may require specific areas or common spaces to be deep cleaned at the tenant’s expense.

There should be provisions that outline who and how to contact maintenance or management for repairs or damages that occur. No matter the lease or rental agreement, tenants should read it to know what they are signing up for.

While ATCP 134.08 contains provisions that are strictly prohibited by landlords, there is a lot of gray area for nonstandard rental provisions to require tenants to upkeep and clean the property during a tenancy. If tenants agree to these, they will be responsible for ensuring that they comply with all of the provisions. Tenants should know what they are getting into.

Tip 2: Complete a Check-in Sheet

Most landlords have a check-in sheet with a list of rooms, appliances, and accessories that a tenant can mark with the condition. The ATCP 134.06(1) requires a landlord to provide written notice to tenants that they have seven days to inspect the property for any preexisting damages, conditions, or issues prior to moving in.

Tenants should take notes of all the existing damage or wear in the property before they move in: they should really mark up that sheet. Anything left off the check-in sheet will be considered to have been done by a new tenant. The ATCP 134.06(2) gives tenants the right to request from the landlord a list of preexisting damages and conditions that were charged to the previous tenant. This can help show what was done before and what could be an issue in the future. This check-in sheet will be proof of any issue preexisting to the tenancy and help ensure that tenants are not charged later for issues not a result of their tenancy. If tenants are not provided with a check-in sheet, make sure to request the list of preexisting damages and conditions.

Tip 3: Take Pictures

Pictures are worth a thousand words and sometimes there just isn’t space on a check-in sheet for a thousand words. Just as tenants should note everything they can on the check-in sheet, they should take pictures of the entire property before moving in.

Pictures show the exact condition of the property and will be proof in the event a landlord improperly withholds part or all of a security deposit. In most cases, pictures alone show a landlord why they need to return your security deposit, but in other cases, it will be the best evidence to recover a security deposit through small claims.

Pictures should be clear and should show the room, the damage or condition, and be easily identifiable to the property.

I recommend taking general pictures of the whole room from multiple angles for reference, then getting closer to each of the specific issues. This way tenants can narrow down where the issue is located at the property. I recommend saving these pictures to a cloud or external device.

Tip 4: Give Proper Notice for Terminating Tenancy or When Not Renewing

Life happens and things take unexpected turns that a tenant may want to terminate a tenancy early.

Tenants should make sure to check their lease or rental agreement to ensure that terminating the lease is possible. If not, tenants should comply with the terms of their lease to avoid breaches that could result in additional liability.

If a lease or rental agreement allows early termination, tenants should follow the terms of their termination provision. Many leases and rental agreements will offer early termination with written notice to the landlord, and usually come with a cost to the tenant. Tenants should give adequate notice according to the provisions of their lease or rental agreement. This notice should be in writing either by hand or by email (check the lease to confirm that email is accepted).

Once notice is given and any cost paid, tenants can begin the clean and move out process. Failing to comply with the early termination provision properly could leave tenants liable for the rent due during the full term of the lease, even if they are no longer living there.

Tip 5: Communicate with the Landlord When Things Go Wrong

Lastly, tenants should talk with their landlord. Communicating to the landlord when minor things happen can prevent larger issues later.

Small scuffs and snags can be attributed to normal wear and tear at the end of a tenancy and should not be charged against a security deposit. Over time though, those small things can become worse or even create actual damage that will leave tenants liable for repair outside of normal wear and tear.

Communicating with a landlord when small issues arise can help tenants prevent larger issues from forming later on. Tenants should make sure to report these issues to their landlord through the proper methods per the lease or rental agreement. Using an online maintenance portal, emails to a property manager, or a written letter to their office goes a long way to creating a paper trial.

Tenants should keep copies of these communications. When things happen, tenants should let their landlord know, and work with them to solve the problem.

Prevention Is Best

Protecting a security deposit starts before a tenant moves in or signs a lease, so tenants should start these practices before move-in to ensure a full return later. There may be a long time between move-in and move-out, but tenants need protect themselves from the start.

There are no guarantees to ensure that the landlord will not charge a tenant, but these tips can help protect tenants and even provide the evidence needed to get back a security deposit. When in doubt, tenants should seek legal advice for specific issues or concerns.

This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.