4 ways to make sure you get your house deposit back

Uni House Deposit

Updated 5th February 2014.

This article appeared in it's original form in the Daily Telegraph, on 3rd May 2013. The Telegraph retain all rights to it. We didn't just steal it... it was my work there too!

A few weeks back, I received an email which really made me worry about the state of things for students dealing with landlords. It went as so:

“Last June, I moved out of a place and the landlord gave us back about half our deposit, saying the rest was to cover damage and to clean the kitchen, so I rang the agency to ask about what needed doing. They said we left some stuff there. We had: a bottle of wine we had spare. Literally couldn’t believe it.”

While I couldn’t help a brief admiring thought for the gall of a landlord who charged when he received gifts, stories of reprobate landlords treating deposit money as an entitlement are disquieting – and sadly familiar. For those with the misfortune of moving this summer, it will pay (literally, in sterling) to get prepared for the annual deposit scandal well in advance, and to know what to do if things unravel.

1. It pays to play nice and clear up

clear up house

Skipping swiftly over the obvious: do everything to avoid a dispute. Scrub up your house like it’s trying to impress that cute bungalow across the road, pay off all your bills and settle the rent. Hand back your keys when required. Sometimes wrong-headed advice is given about withholding the last month’s rent to make your landlord play ball; it won’t work… and it’s illegal.

Remember, if things sour, you’ll only get your money via the small claims court – in which case do everything you can to strengthen your position as a decent, sweet, wholesome tenant whose money has been wrongfully stolen by a charmless landlord incarnate of John Dillinger.

2. Do a walk-through

english awkwardness

Asking for the deposit is difficult, especially on moving out day when you’re tremendously rushed and overwhelmed by a crippling sense of English awkwardness because you have to talk about money. Prepare all you like but an uncertain, stuttering tongue will let you down on the day; instead, organise a pre-checkout a month in advance.

Walk around with your landlord, see what they’re unhappy with and gauge an idea of what you’ll be getting back. If items are damaged and will come out of the deposit, instead offer to source and replace them (this invariably is cheaper) and if anything needs a little work, you’ll have time to do it now rather than on leaving day.

It also gives you a month while you’re in the house to discuss matters, which is much easier than playing email-swapsies from a hundred miles away. When it comes down to the real walkout, cancel all plans and make absolutely sure you’re there; if you’re charged for something, you’ll want to know it’s justified.

3. Make sure your deposit is protected

deposit protection

If your landlord is a little too attached to your money, it will be under one of two circumstances: either they’ve registered your deposit or not. The former is much preferable, so check immediately to see if it’s been done – you can do this by looking over your Tenancy Agreement (usually detailed early on and also at the bottom, underneath the signatures) or by searching at Shelter’s website. Doing this leaves no footprint – your landlord will not know you’re checking up on him, so it won’t cause any thorniness or embarrassment.

If your deposit is protected under one of the three schemes (either the Deposit Protection Service, MyDeposits and The Dispute Service), then your next steps are relatively simple. Each scheme will have its own process and adjudicators, which will see the evidence and judge accordingly. This process is free. You’ll receive all your money back, apart from the disputed amount, which shall be withheld from either party until a decision is reached.

The decision will factor things like reasonable wear and tear, damage, rent paid and aims for an appropriately fair settlement. Details can be found online. Both parties are bound to follow the ruling, unless you’re willing to challenge it through the courts.

4. Use the law

rent deposit law

Should your landlord have taken the unwise and illegal decision not to register your deposit, and you can’t come to an agreement, legal action is inevitable. Say so, preferably in a letter (keep a copy for yourself) – the slightest whiff of leather-bound legal tombs and horsehair wigs is enough to convince many to settle without fuss. Your university may be able to help you draw a case together, though it requires a hefty time commitment.

If you’re willing to sacrifice a little of the final payout, which can be as much as three times the original deposit, consider using a private deposit-reclaim service, who will spend a couple of hours having a face-to-face chat with you, put together a case and hire a third party solicitor to act on your behalf.

These companies often seem a bit suspect even when they’re not, owing largely to terrible marketing, so thoroughly research a few and have a decent chat so you know exactly what service you’ll get and exactly how much it will cost you (most don’t charge an upfront fee but take a slice from what you get back). Via this route, the minimum you should expect is one-and-a-half times your deposit, even with their cut accounted for.