Avoiding Fights Over Deposits

Most deposit hassles involve disputes over “How clean is clean?” or “What’s wear and tear?” Disputes over back rent or replacements are more rare. Unfortunately, no statute or court opinion will give you a universally accepted standard for cleanliness or “normal” wear and tear. Smart landlords announce their own definitions, usually in a set of rules and regulations or in a letter that follows the receipt or sending of a termination notice. These are perfectly legal as long as they are reasonable. Examples include:

  • floors washed, stripped, and waxed (broom-clean won’t do)

  • carpets professionally steam-cleaned (more than just a thorough vacuuming)

  • windows and mirrors washed 

  • kitchen appliances emptied of food and cleaned, and

  • all trash and personal belongings removed (don’t expect the landlord to dispose of your castoffs).

If your landlord hasn’t clarified his expectations, take control and do it for him. When your departure date nears, send him a letter explaining what you intend to do to ensure the return of your entire deposit (there’s a sample below). You’ll be on solid footing if you set your goals to correspond to the condition of the place when you moved in—after all, the law requires no more.

What’s the advantage of this procedure? If you’ve stayed with us since Chapter 2, and you remember the value of a letter of understanding, you’ll recognize how nicely you’ve just prepared your landlord. If he doesn’t object in writing he’ll be locked in, legally speaking, to your plans. Assuming your plans are fair and you do a decent job (you should take photos or video, or have a witness willing to testify about the condition of the unit when you left), it will be hard for the landlord to argue in court that you didn’t do what he expected or did it poorly.

Sample Letter Explaining Tenant’s Cleaning Plans

May 15, 20xx

Mr. Rusty Shaque
5 Leisure Lane
Lakeport, Illinois 60600

Dear Mr. Shaque,

As you know, I gave notice on April 30, 20xx, that I intend to terminate my tenancy effective May 30, 20xx. I intend to leave the apartment clean and undamaged, in the same condition it was in when I moved in a year ago, minus normal wear and tear. In particular, I intend to:

I believe that thoroughly accomplishing these tasks will satisfy my obligations under Illinois law to leave my rental unit clean. And since my apartment has not been damaged and I owe no back rent, I expect a full and prompt refund of my $750 security deposit. Please let me know in writing within five days of your receipt of this letter if my cleaning plan is not acceptable to you. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume that you agree with it.

Yours truly,

P.T. Smart
11256 Seventh Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60600

In most cases, your landlord will be so delighted that you intend to put some elbow grease into cleaning your unit that he wouldn’t dream of objecting.

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