So you’ve moved out of your old place, signed a new lease, put down first, last and deposit, and now you’re left with a sad and empty bank account. Then you remember, you’re about to get your last security deposit back! Cha-ching!

Here’s the catch, though. 1 in 4 renters have lost all or part of their security deposit!

So here are 5 tips to ensure you avoid any surprises and get your full security deposit back.

1. Take photos

A picture is worth a thousand words. Before moving in, you should always document the condition of the apartment. Snap quick picture of any damage or wear and tear – scratches, nail holes, cracked windows, etc.  You may even want to email these photos to your landlord, so you have a written and dated record.

Do the same after you move out, to ensure you don’t foot the bill for damage caused by new tenants moving in.  This will ensure you don’t be charged for any damage that wasn’t yours – simple as that.

2. Go over your lease

Remember the lease you were so quick to sign when you moved in? That legal contract not only states what kind of damage you will be responsible for, but also what your landlord is responsible for. Most likely, it specifies when your landlord must send the deposit check back and exactly how he can spend your deposit. In some states, it is illegal for landlords to use a security deposit to missing rent payments.

3. Talk to your landlord

It’s an easy conversation to have, and one that will be appreciated by your landlord.  Simply ask them to clarify what their expectations are for when you move out. Do you need to replace dead light bulbs? Broken door knobs? Does the place need to be spotlessly cleaned, or just swept up? You may also want to have this conversation over email, so it is documented.

We asked a landlord with multiple properties in the northeast what he expects from his tenants before handing over a security deposit:

I expect the place to be completely empty and broom-clean. I don’t rent apartments with visible grime and filth on the floor and walls, and I don’t expect them to be that way when you move out.

4. Know your rights

Rent laws differ from state to state. Take a look at this guide for a complete breakdown on state-specific landlord tenant laws. Knowing your rights as a renter (and you have many), will give you the power to not be taken advantage of, and the tools to be proactive.

5. Fix what you can

For minor damages and repairs, do it yourself.

  • Holes from nails? Scratches in walls? Insert Elmer’s glue or a bit of caulk into the holes and cover with touch-up paint.
  • Lost a set of keys? Make a copy for $5 at your local hardware store instead of getting charged $25 by your landlord.
  • Loose door, cabinet handles, broken shower door handle? Give everything a quick tune-up with a screwdriver.
  • Scratched Wood Floor? Get some wood filler and sand paper and repair it yourself.

Bonus: Know what things cost!

If you got charged for a cleaning bill, ask to see the receipt. If you are asked to replace an old carpet, know the the value of the carpet decreases every year based on the expected life of the carpet.  A $1000 carpet is really only worth about $200 after 8 years.

Still having trouble?

If you’ve done all the above and your landlord is still holding out on you, let him/her know that you mean business. Write a clear, notarized letter asking for deposit within 30 days of moving out (In some states, like California and Massachusetts, landlords are required to pay an interest fee when delivery of security deposit return is delayed) and a receipt for any fees taken out of the deposit.

If there is still a problem, your last resort is to take the dispute to small claims court – sans lawyer, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.