How to Get Your Security Deposit Back: Clean Your Filthy Apartment

I might wish the family business had been millinery or artisanal cheese production, but (grumble, grumble) I know growing up with landlords was good for me. At the very least, my early acquaintance with wet paint, crusty stovetops, and grout taught me useful skills and cured me early of any princess-y squeamishness I might have been disposed to.

My mother bought her first rental property—a duplex we occupied half of—when I was in elementary school. She taught me, and then my younger brother, that helping out with “turnovers” and renovations was part of our responsibility to the family. I took pride in my early specialization in wallpaper removal. Later, I was allowed to paint, grout, pull up carpets, and even refinish hardwood floors.

Cleaning was the most consistent part of the work—it was a rare tenant who left their apartment ready for the next. When I was 19, I became the live-in manager of my mother’s 20-unit converted Victorian fixer-upper, perfecting my apartment-cleaning skills and only occasionally abusing my power with parties that spilled out onto non-code parts of the roof and shook the ceilings below (it helped that I had moved my then best friend into that apartment).

Having evaluated the cleanliness of many an apartment and done the dirty work required to get it into shape for a new resident I know how to ensure nothing gets overlooked.

In 12 years of renting (from people other than myself), I have been refunded every penny of every security deposit. I’ve also frequently volunteered knowledge and labor to help friends with their end-of-the-month cleaning sprees, and through this, have discovered that a lot of people find cleaning a whole home overwhelming and don’t know where to start.

The single most important part of getting your deposit back is not cleaning, but paperwork. Before you move in to a new place—when you can still see things like stains in the corner of the carpet or a broken curtain rod—you need to fill out a comprehensive “move-in report.” If your landlord doesn’t offer one, you can find a template online. Some landlords will do a “walk-in” with you, others will let you fill out the form on your own. Just make sure you get their signature as soon as possible so you can protect yourself from paying for pre-existing damage later.

Be thorough in your assessment—is there a dent in the wall from where a door handle keeps hitting it? Is the oven clean? Are there scratches in the wood floor or stains in the carpet? Take your time, take pictures, and retain copies. It will pay off if you ever need proof that you weren’t responsible for that weird stain in the tub. On to the cleaning!

You will need these tools, at minimum:
• Rags
• Old toothbrush
• Sponge with green scrubby
• Abrasive powder like Bon Ami or Comet
• All-purpose cleaner
• Windex (or white vinegar)
• Paper towels
• Rubber gloves
• Oven cleaner
• Broom, dustpan
• Mop and/or vacuum, depending on your flooring situation
• Bitchin tunes to get you in the cleaning mood

Also useful: This cleaning checklist

Let’s assume we’re cleaning a two-bedroom, two-bath house or apartment. Order is vital if you don’t want to have to retrace your steps; you should always proceed from high to low and from low-traffic spaces like bedrooms and private bathrooms to high-traffic spaces like living spaces and kitchens. I’ve seen too many people sweep dust bunnies from ceiling fans onto already-swept floors and clean sinks they then dirty again wringing out sponges and mops.

Maybe this all sounds like a drag, but I promise you an efficient and thorough cleaning can be deeply satisfying—and if not the post-clean beer and pizza will be.


FIRST: Bedrooms

Start high: Wipe down ceiling fans, closet shelves, and the tops of door and window frames. Ninety-five percent of the time I check these on a move-out inspection my finger accrues a thick layer of dust—on the rare occasion it doesn’t, I know the whole place was cleaned thoroughly. I like to use rags because they have more surface area but a sponge works fine too. Check for cobwebs in ceiling corners and on walls and sweep them away.

Now go vertical. You can use a wet rag/sponge on semi-gloss surfaces like windows, doors, and baseboard trim. Any other painted surfaces can be wiped down lightly with a damp rag. Wipe down any fingerprints on doors or plastic bits like light switch and outlet covers.

Open up the windows and clean the tracks. If they’re filthy, you’ll want to first spritz them generously with all-purpose cleaner and mop it up with a sponge (better for getting into crevices). Close and Windex/vinegar. Once your paper towel comes back clean go over once again with a clean towel to get a streak-free finish. If you have dirty/dusty mini-blinds DO NOT waste your time cleaning them by hand. Pull those babies down and soak them for an hour or two in a tub filled with warm, soapy (dish soap is fine) water. Drain, rinse, hang to dry and you’re good.

Finally, down low, wipe the baseboards and sweep and/or vacuum the floor. Do not proceed to this final step if you are still using the room. After I do the floors I close the door to a room and take a few seconds to bask in completion. The closed door also serves as a “do not enter” sign for any fellow cleaners.

If you have a spare bathroom clean it now using the directions below – just make sure not to use it again. Otherwise wait till the end.


NEXT: Common Areas (living room, hallways, hall closets)

High –> low: Proceed from ceilings (cobwebs?) trim (dust over the doors?), to vertical surfaces (dirty little fingerprints on light switch plates?), then finally to baseboards and flooring. Wait until later to do the floor if you expect more foot traffic.

Closets provide the most satisfaction for the littlest labor: Sweep the ceiling and walls, wipe down any shelves, sweep/mop, and you’re done. Shut that door good.


AFTER THAT: The Kitchen

Order isn’t too important here so long as you leave the floors and sink for last and defrost the fridge several hours before you plan to clean it. Make sure to at least glance at the oven early on. If the gunk is thick and really cooked on you’ll need time to allow the oven to work through it or to treat it 2x. Follow the directions on the oven cleaner, making sure to put a layer or two of newspaper or plastic under the oven door to catch any leaks. That shit is caustic and can damage linoleum or wood floors. Don’t forget gloves and ventilation.

For the rest of the oven: if you have drip pans or other removable parts likely to have accumulated grease take them out and soak them in hot water with dish soap (it breaks down oils!) before scrubbing and replacing them. A scrubby and some abrasive cleaner is usually enough for the stovetop. For stubborn gunk spray a bit of oven cleaner and let it sit for a while. Make sure to look high (oily goobers on the range top?) and low (nasty broiler?) before you check the stove off your list.

Cabinets and drawers should be cleared of crumbly bits and wiped down with all-purpose cleaner. If you have a dishwasher open that up and do a thorough inspection—if you haven’t been attending to it there may be mold that needs cleaning.

The fridge. Is. One of. My favorite. Parts. No other part of the job gives me such a sense of satisfaction and completion. Start on the outside, wiping or scrubbing down the exterior as needed. Depending on how close the fridge is to the stove it may have accumulated a layer of grime that will need a light abrasive scrubbing—just be careful not to scrub off the paint. Don’t forget the top!

The freezer is easy. There may be some sticky stuff but a little soapy water will take care of that. The door gasket (the rubber stuff on the inside of the door) should be attacked with a toothbrush and a bowl of soapy water. For the final go over use a clean rag or paper towel.

Now get into that fridge and gut it. Pull out all the shelves and drawers, wash them with soap and water, and set them out to dry. Grab your toothbrush again for the door gasket then wipe down the sides and shelves of the fridge door. Now go nuts on the inside of the fridge, working from top to bottom. Wipe it all down with a clean rag or paper towel before replacing all the bits and pieces. Holy Carp what a beautiful fridge.

Finally, wipe down the counters and wash the floors. You can clean the sink now if you promise not to use it again, otherwise save it till after you’ve done the bathroom.


LAST: The Bathroom

Starting from the top can be a bit nasty here—bathroom ceilings are popular places for mold to grow and spread. A wipe-down with some all-purpose cleaner should do the trick, and you can always use a mop if you’re squeamish and/or want to work your triceps. Scrub down the shower/tub surround, starting high and moving down. I like to use Bon Ami and elbow grease; you may prefer to let one of those spray-on cleaners start the job for you—just know this is rarely enough. If you have tile you’ll have an easier time with the surfaces, but you’ll want a toothbrush and maybe a cream cleaner with some stick-itude to get into the grout. Finally, scrub down the faucets and the tub/shower floor.

Open up any cupboards or drawers and wipe them down well. A vacuum cleaner hose is useful if you have a lot of bits and pieces of mystery grit.

Move to the walls and windows. Bathroom paint should be semi-gloss so you can get it wet (but do not scrub it or use any abrasive cleaners or scrubbers). Clean the mirrors.

Clean the toilet from top to bottom. I find the base of the toilet to be the most disgusting part of all so I like to hose it down with all-purpose cleaner, wipe the wet grime up with paper towels, then go over it again with sponge or rag attending to the nooks and crannies.

If the bathroom is small I recommend cleaning the baseboards and floors by hand (it’s not worth getting the mop out), just make sure you leave yourself a path out. Let the floors dry then go back in for the countertops and lastly, the sink. Close that door! Bar any and all from re-entering! YOU’RE DONE!

Now back out slowly, surveying your handiwork. If you have reason to distrust your landlord (or if you know folks will be coming in to paint, make repairs, etc., and may make new messes), it’s not a terrible idea to take some pictures. Revel. Enjoy a beverage or two.

A final word about landlords and their bad reputations: Some landlords are dicks, no doubt, but even the jerks don’t want to clean your toilet/oven/fridge any more than you do. It’s a hassle and expense to organize cleaning and repair crews. The vast majority of landlords will be delighted to enter an apartment ready for a new tenant and happy to refund all your money. If you’re unlucky enough to have one that isn’t, you have my permission to paper the walls with The Communist Manifesto, leave the grime untouched, and start afresh somewhere new. Just make sure you fill in the move-in report.


Erika Kuever just signed a lease for a one-bedroom in Odense, Denmark.


22 Comments / Post A Comment

norawallis (#999)

The move-in report is KEY. A few years back I replaced a roommate in an apartment that had been rented by the same string of folks for a few years, and I was the last one to move out. I only got a third of my deposit back because the landlady insisted I was responsible for a lot of crap that had been there when I moved in. (She was worse, though, because she also charged me for “steam cleaning the carpet” and then a few months later when I saw the apartment for sale, she’d put in hardwood floors.) The point is, though, that if I’d taken photos and filled out a report when I moved in, I’d have had a leg to stand on when I explained that there was water damage before I got there.

Any recommendations on dealing with scratched wood floors? My landlord redid our floors before we moved in and now there are some big ol’ scratches from the wonky closet doors, but also a couple gouges in the middle of the floor from when I was putting together some furniture. All the stuff Google tells me is not super encouraging….

lemons! (#384)

@stuffisthings Yeah, but I’d practice on some scrap would first to feel out if you’re comfortable with it. Oil paint- Raw umber, burnt sienna, maybe yellow ochre. Mix for a color match or go straight out of the tube. Lay down the paint along the scratch and let stand for about 10min. Wipe off excess (a rag should do it, but some paint thinner should be on hand just in case) the paint will stay in the crack. Let sit overnight before you walk on the scratch (I put a chair over it). This and some life lessons is the only thing I got out of working for this shady character learning a furniture repair trade.

lemons! (#384)

@lemons! scrap wood, that is

KPeeps (#1,140)

Oh this hits home for me this week…

Catface (#1,106)

I am recently minus one of the dick variety of landlords. He kept our entire $1000 deposit because we neglected to keep up with the “landscaping” — this on a sub-2500-square-foot lot with a large paved patio. As for cleaning the place, we should have won a medal, it looked much better when we left than the day we moved in. So along the same lines as the move-in report, I would advise anyone to get in writing, as specifically as possible, what the landlord expects in terms of foliage maintenance and outdoor appearances — whatever he wanted I’m sure we could have made happen, shortly before moving out, for much less than a THOUSAND DOLLARS. Is hedge trimming the same thing as landscaping? Maybe, if you charge enough for it. (The new place is a dream but, yes, I am still bitter.)

garli (#4,150)

Yeah this advice is well and good assuming you live in a town without consistently evil landlords and management companies. The last 2 places I lived I had to either take the dude to small claims court OR get a lawyer to write a threatening letter. All cash was returned but bitter feelings remain.

Although to be fair, incredibly detailed filling out of the move in report are a big part of what got our money back. That plus cleaning out the place really well.

dham (#2,271)

This pisses me off a bit, because I have never had a landlord sufficiently clean the apartment before I move in (and yes, they should clean it whether or not the prior tenants failed to). I cannot take $1000 dollars off of my rent for their fuck-up, but they can on my end.

It’s a good a idea to clean an apartment on move-out, but it’s also within landlord’s power to fuck you over no matter what you do.

Mockingbird (#4,524)

@dham Yes! Same thing happened to me. When i first moved in, the apartment was disgusting. Like, beard hair shavings on the wall of the bathroom from the previous tenant disgusting. Not only did I repaint all the walls with colors the landlord had approved(they were chipped and stained with dirty handprints), I hired a maid to come in 2x a month. Still did not get my deposit back.

shannowhamo (#845)

Does any one have any advice about very, very stained carpet? We have two pukey cats that have just made the carpets disgusting in our apartment. We’re moving out in a month my husband thinks it will be worth our while to hire carpet cleaners. I just feel like a) the cleaners will be very expensive b) they won’t get enough of the stains out that we won’t still be on the hook for replacing the carpet. We’ve lived in the place for 3 years and we’re terrible hosue keepers so it’s accumulated plenty of other issues but none as jacked as the carpet. We also did some kind of thing where we paid a very low deposit and are assuming we’re going to owe them money but it’s just a matter of how much.

EM (#1,012)

@shannowhamo Having the carpets professionally cleaned might be the most reasonable option, honestly– if you have a little lead time, sign up for all those Groupon-esque mailing lists, because I’m always getting ones for carpet cleaning services. Or look into renting a carpet steamer, which might be cheaper and then you could try and do it yourself. My sympathies– I have had pukey cats too!

loren smith (#2,300)

@shannowhamo try renting a carpet cleaner (at like Safeway or whever) and fill that sucka full of HOT water and use the cleaner shampoo stuff and give yourself plenty of time. You’ll want to go over the carpet super slowly and many times. I’ve helped my husband do it when we were dating and he was moving out of a fussy landlord place. I don’t think the rental was more than one hundred dollars. It is time consuming and it does help if you have a great vacuum for the pre wash clean.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@shannowhamo no matter whether you hire a machine and DIY or get people in to do it for you – KEEP THE RECEIPT. This is proof you had someone come through and if you have to go to small claims court it could save your butt. Also, another measure you can take is getting your landlord or estate agent’s recommendation for a cleaner. This means that if you use someone they recommended, they can’t say that the cleaner was unsatisfactory – the blame is not on you. Get this recommendation via email, if possible.

I have had a lot of shitty landlords, and aside from a thorough cleaning, the best advice I can give is legal. For those if us in PA (South Philly!!), by law your landlord has 30 days after the day you vacate the property to provide you with an itemized list of damages and the remainder of your deposit. If they fail to do this you are entitled to a full refund of your deposit. Do not take a landlord keeping your entire deposit without proof of repairs lying down! Landlords never follow this law, so this is what I end up doing every. Single. Time: Wait for 30 days to pass. When I have not recieved and itemized list and remainder or my entire deposit, I send a registered letter to my landlord directly citing the law and requesting my deposit back within, say, a two week period. If this fails, I send another letter informing them that I will be filing a claim for my deposit in small claims court. If THIS is not effective, I go to court and I win. Don’t be scared of the justice system! It’s really easy to file in small claims court!

sunflowernut (#1,638)

@Erika Bronson@facebook You are awesome.

The vast majority of landlords will be delighted to enter an apartment ready for a new tenant and happy to refund all your money.

I have never rented from somewhere that did not clean after tenants left (but, being in CA, we have pretty tenant-friendly laws so landlords may be required to disinfect or something?). I do most of the steps above to clean and leave the place neat, for sure, but knowing someone is going to come in after me no matter what doesn’t really motivate me to defrost the fridge. Actually I think in a few places I’ve rented they’ve explicitly said to never unplug the fridge??

Are there really landlords who will refuse to give back a security deposit if their tenants don’t do a deep professional-level clean!?

I’ve always heard “broom clean,” plus charges for anything above ordinary wear and tear (that’s what’s in the lease for our tenant). In fact, it seems vaguely unfair to require otherwise- one of the expenses of being a landlord is repairs and maintenance, and you can’t exactly threaten you tenants with losing their security deposits if they aren’t also willing to be your free handymen, landscapers, painters, floor-refinishers, and cleaners…

What about the walls though? Do you clean the walls? My walls are all smudgy. I think it’s mildew, but still.

Beck (#2,269)

I NEVER bother to clean anymore. Took me awhile to figure it out, but over the years (I’ve moved a lot for grad and post-grad studies) I finally noticed that it never made a difference. They’re gonna charge you no matter what. It was especially bad when I lived in Southern California where I would get charged for a full 8 hour day (!) of cleaning after leaving the place in pristine condition. That plus routine carpet cleaning meant that the security deposit was gone; I’d worked my butt off for nothing. Documenting is great, but only if you’re prepared to go to small claims court to get that deposit back. And if, as is often the case, you are leaving the city and/or the state that is not really a practical option. So I’m a huge proponent of NOT CLEANING. Ha ha, my husband is a property manager so he hates when I say things like this but will admit that it is true.

cat party (#4,713)

my moving cleaning leaves much to be desired, but i vacuum, dust, clean sinks/appliances and all the obvious spots.

my last apartment was a disaster though. unbeknownst to me, my roommate allowed the next renters to start moving their stuff in while i was still in the apartment (she moved out two weeks before the lease was up.) so, for the last two weeks, i had the landlord/tenants pestering me to move out early so the tenants could move in, and i had to defend my right to stay in the apartment and not allow these new tenants to come and go as they pleased every freaking day until my lease was up. cleaning was out of the question, because their crap was everywhere from the day my roommate let them move stuff in. the last day (which according to the lease, i had the apt until the next morning)i had allotted for cleaning/moving the last of my stuff out, i get a call from the landlord saying they are in the driveway with a truck and i have to give up the keys right now… i was like, ‘you know what, eff it, i will let you move in, but because you have forced me out before my lease is up, you are getting a dirty apartment.’ and the landlord was a professional realtor!

thomas (#6,849)

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Danny s (#7,674)

Reminds me of the time I spent half a day cleaning a holiday house that me and a couple of friends had booked for a week and they still took the bond because of overfilling the bins. Good I had a laugh at it but you really got to watch out.

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