It’s summer in New York and it’s that time of year when there are tons of moving vans, empty boxes and perfectly fine furniture taking up space on city streets. There’s always a lot of advice on how to find an apartment in the Big Apple, but little advice on how to leave that apartment. One of the biggest questions that comes up is about the security deposit: how do I get it back?

Well, the answer varies from state to state, but there are some simple steps everyone should take to make sure that money gets back out of the hands of greedy landlords. For a list of how long your landlord has to get you back your money, see this list. Be sure to note that in places like Los Angeles, landlords are required to pay you interest for the time they have held onto your deposit. New Yorkers, your first stop should be at the Web site of The Met Council. They’ve saved me -for free – countless times.

In the meantime, the first thing you should do is memorialize all conversations you have with your landlord about the return of your security deposit. That means sending him/her a letter, stating what you discussed and making sure he/she signs for the letter upon its delivery. The only way to do that is to send all correspondence via Certified mail.

Details to clear with the landlord should include when to expect the money, how much, and possible deductions he/she will take off for cleaning. Obviously, your apartment is not going to look the same as when you first came in, and it’s up to the landlord to determine if the current condition of the apartment justifies any additional cleaning/repair out of his/her pocket. Be sure to clarify with your landlord, and then include in your letter, what is acceptable wear-and-tear.

The best way to make sure the landlord does not pull a fast one on you is to take photos of your apartment. In this digital age, no spot, crack or stain should get left up for question: take a photo of it! These photos can be used in small claims court, should you need to challenge your landlord if he/she does not give you back your money.

Now I don’t mean to demonize all landlords. In fact, we here at Queercents know of a few good ones.

Still, you have to be on guard. The ideal situation is to convince the landlord to do a walk-through with you. Now, New Yorkers laugh at this, since most of us never actually meet our landlords, but the best way for a landlord to ensure his/her property is taken care of is to see it before a tenant leaves. The landlord should see the apartment after all the furniture is out of the apartment – that way he/she can’t accuse you of hiding any damage with, say, a couch. At the end of the walk through, have the landlord sign an agreement that you have left the apartment in fair condition. This sounds very demanding and takes a lot of effort, but it’s worth it! You have to protect yourself and your rights.

Some states actually require landlords to give you move-in or move-out checklist where you can document the condition of the apartment. Keep a copy of all these documents and fill them out while you do the walk through. If you want to hire professionals for repairs, make sure you have the documented approval of your landlord. Then, keep any invoices and mail your landlord a copy to verify that you’re taking care of the problems and expect to receive your full deposit back.

Note: If your landlord is avoiding your mail, somehow, you still have recourse. You can send your letter again, but this time with a certificate of mailing, showing you sent him/her a certified letter. This will hold up in court, should a landlord claim he/she never received anything.

If a landlord tries to hold on to your money, demand an itemized list explaining where the money’s going. Bottom line here is don’t assume that a super-nice landlord means you’ll get a returned security deposit.

When all else fails, you’re only left with small claims court. These courts handle lesser disputes, usually those under $10,000. Many courts have online resource centers, so be sure to check yours out before you show up. Here is California’s, for example.

On the day of your hearing, remember to bring all documentation, including pictures, cleaning and repair records. Also bring the letters you sent to your landlord. With any luck, a decision on your security deposit will be rendered on the spot. If not, there’s always Judge Judy!

Photo credit: Flickr Commons