How to ensure the safe return of a security deposit

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Security deposits are a financial headache for students when moving into a new apartment, and a blessing when moving out.

That “blessing” can be interrupted by the unexpected.

If tenants don’t do what they need to and landlords don’t honor their arrangements, hundreds of dollars can be witheld in security deposits. Photo illustration by Sarah Hill

Ariel Hamilton, a junior from Hawaii studying media arts, said she made sure her apartment was “sparkling” clean before she moved out and was disappointed by the letter she received a few months later.

“Expecting it to be my deposit refund, I opened it up excitedly only to find not a check, but an invoice. I was shocked as I saw that not only did my landlord keep 75 percent of my deposit for no reason, but also charged me multiple fees,” Hamilton said.

Forest Hansen, a member of the Salt Lake Apartment Association, expressed his frustration about landlords not being honest with security deposits as well. Being a landlord in Salt Lake and Utah County for more than 50 years, he has heard many stories similar to Hamilton’s. Hansen has always treated his tenants fairly, and for a good reason.

“If the landlord does not refund the deposit within the 30 days described above, the tenant is entitled to a $100 civil fee and can sue for up to $10,000,” Hansen said.

Security deposits are intended to be used when tenants may not keep their apartments as well as they should. The BYU off-campus housing guide states: “A security deposit may be used by the landlord to recover payment for damage to the premises beyond normal wear and tear, accrued rent, cleaning of the unit or other costs provided for in the contract.”

The guide also notes there are many discrepancies between tenants and landlords as to what might need additional fees to be ready for following tenants. It also gives advice to students who do not want to lose hundreds of dollars.

Some of these tips for securing the deposit are completing a cleaning and damage evaluation within five days of moving in, keeping the property clean, promptly paying bills, reporting problems and leaving a forwarding address to where the landlord can send the deposit.

Hamilton also gives a few tips from personal experience to prospective off-campus housing renters. “As annoying as this sounds, read the fine print when you’re signing a housing contract. Make sure you know how much of your security deposit will be non-refundable, so you won’t get ripped off or be shocked when you get basically nothing back in the end.”

Normal wear and tear is to be expected whenever a tenant moves out. However, some landlords do not make a full effort to return all the money due or fine print prevents a full return.

“Next time you are looking to sign a new contract, make sure you know all of the details in the writing, or else you could find yourself in this situation,” Hansen said. “Students are virtually always required to be careful with their limited financial resources; landlords should obey the law.”

This problem is generally rare, and most landlords do their best to provide a safe environment for tenants. Garry Briggs, general manager of off-campus housing, said this issue is not very common.

“Considering the amount of students we have living off campus and who contacts us, the numbers who experience a problem is small. I would guess it at less than one percent for an academic year, which by law is too many. It should be zero,” Briggs said.

Briggs noted tenants can also be at fault when they do not receive their deposit back in full. When tenants sign a contract they take on just as much responsibility as the landlord. It may seem like a tedious task to read every word, but reading rights and responsibilities as a tenant will pay off, literally.

Briggs said if tenants do not receive their security deposit after 30 days and the landlord continues to avoid the situation, they can call or email the Off-Campus Housing Office at 801-422-1513 or och.byu.edu and file a complaint.

Both parties must be honest and trustworthy and uphold contractual promises. When that does not happen, it should be reported for future renters and landlords.

“If landlords respect their tenants, tenants will respect their landlords,” Hamilton said. “It’s as simple as that.”

“It’s a matter of the students taking the time to be informed and know their rights,” Briggs said. “Students are very busy, but take a breath and read your contract in the start so when winter semester rolls around you will have done all you can do to get your deposit back.”

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