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Guest column: Protecting yourself as a renter

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CARA STRIKE, Guest Column

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Editor’s note: Iowa Legal Aid is a statewide nonprofit organization that provides legal help to low-income, elderly and disabled Iowans. Cara Strike, of Iowa Legal Aid, pens a column explaining how students can protect their rental deposits.

As seniors are all too aware, the final days of the school year are quickly upon us. For the soon to be graduates, that means the wonderful push into the “adult-world” as you are perusing the help-wanted ads.

For students returning next year, this means solidifying your summer plans. No one wants to go through the stress of being told that on top of everything, their security deposit is not being refunded.

Let’s face it, sometimes inevitable damage to a rental property occurs. However, there are many simple steps that you can take to help protect your rental deposit. Some of these ideas may seem a bit excessive.

For most of you, they will be unnecessary. But in the event that an incident does occur, going through these steps may save you a lot of time, energy and, most importantly, money!

Move-in tips:

•Rather than being assigned the culprit of any damage, make a list of any issues with the property that are already there when you move in.

•This list should be made as you are moving in, or before. Problems can be more than a ding in the wall or a broken window blind. They can also include stains in the carpet or a door that will not close properly. If possible, your landlord should help you make the list. It is also a good idea to bring a friend along and snap a few pictures.

•After your list is finalized, you and your landlord should each sign it. Each of you should keep a copy.

•When you pay your security deposit, be sure to keep the receipt. The receipt should indicate that it is for a rental deposit, and it should say the amount and date of when it was received.

What if something happens while you’re living there?

•Take a deep breath. Then tell the landlord about the damage right away — in writing! The cause of the damages should be explained. Remember that the tenant is responsible only if the tenant or the tenant’s guest is somehow at fault.

Move-out day:

•Give the proper notice when you want to move out and keep a copy of it for your records.

•Put the place back in shape. This means removing trash and leaving the property in the same or better condition than when you moved in.

•Arrange a meeting with your landlord when you move out. Go through the checklist that you made when you moved into the property. Try to determine what expenses (if any) you will be charged for (this may include cleaning fees or damage repair). Asking these questions may put you in a position to fix the damage before moving out — ultimately saving you some cash.

• If your landlord can state no reason for keeping part or all of your deposit, ask to get your deposit back during this meeting.

•Take pictures of the unit before you leave. In most cases, a picture is worth 1,000 words.

•When you move out, give your landlord an updated mailing address — in writing! Keep a dated copy of your notice of address change. If no mailing address is given to the landlord within one year, the tenant loses the right to get any of their deposit back.

•Keep in mind that the landlord must return the tenant’s security deposit and/or give an itemization of damages within 30-days after the tenant has moved out and given a forwarding address.

The steps that you can take to best protect yourself are often the most simple. Document everything that you do in writing. This can be by email, text or letter (however, please be aware that official notices such as a notice terminating tenancy must be delivered properly).

Having more proof than “my landlord told me…” holds much more weight if any issues come up in the future. Communicate clearly, calmly and kindly with your landlord if any issues do arise. And try to be a good neighbor! We’re all in this together.

Anyone with landlord/tenant law questions should seek an attorney for advice. The laws about security deposits in the residential landlord/tenant context are found at Section 562A.12, Code of Iowa.

— Cara Strike is an AmeriCorps Member with the Waterloo Regional Office of Iowa Legal Aid at 607 Sycamore St, Suite 206 in Waterloo. If you have any questions, please feel free to stop by our office, call our intake line 1-800-532-1275 or complete an online application which can be accessed on our website. You also may find useful articles about landlord/tenant law and other civil legal matters on Iowa Legal Aid’s website at www.iowalegalaid.org.

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Guest column: Protecting yourself as a renter