Tidy, clean, paint – do what it takes
A cleaning disagreement could be more likely than you think, even if you trust your landlord.
Often the problem is simply that tenants haven't cleaned properly, and I think that's probably because many don't even realise it's still dirty.
To take a bizarre analogy, when I started learning German, my brain twisted what I was hearing to sound English. With some of the Germanic vowels, it wasn't until I'd heard the same noise a thousand times before I began to hear how people were really pronouncing it. It suddenly sounded different, but the only thing that had changed was in my head.
I wonder if some of us have the same problem with cleanliness. When I was a young man (a lot younger than I look in that small, carefully chosen and thankfully non-ageing photo, above) I thought I was clean. I was certainly conscious of mess, dust and germs, but it took someone beating it into me before I learned to see the water stains on shiny kitchen and bathroom surfaces. Before then, they just didn't exist.
If you want all your deposit back, you had better make sure you leave the flat in the same state of cleanliness as you got it. If it was sparkling, you need to learn what that means and how to make it glow like that yourself. Scrub hard with the right cleaning aids and don't be too shy to ask one of your most meticulous friends to glance over it afterwards to ensure you've not missed anything.
You might learn something about cleaning!
Your contract should specifically state you will not pay for normal wear-and-tear. Make sure that it does.
Landlords can deduct damages you cause from your deposit, but not for gradual damage to the property and contents through normal daily use. Unfortunately, there is no specific legal definition of fair wear-and-tear by item and incident, but you can seek answers to specific queries in some online discussion forums, such as lovemoney.com's Q&A section. For example, don't expect cigarette burns to be classed as wear-and-tear.
This journalist has some interesting ideas about defining wear-and-tear more specifically. Property Hawk also defines it, but bear in mind the definition has been written by the landlord association ARLA. For example, if the dispute goes to court or to another party to resolve, you might have to pay for the entire costs of cleaning curtains, floors or something else, but you certainly don't automatically have to.
An easy way to protect yourself from future disputes is to ensure the inventory is completely accurate and thoroughly detailed about any marks, stains, scratches and other damage. Write any additions or amendments you need. Take your time.
Take photos showing the age, condition, working condition, and state of cleanliness of the entire property and contents. On the inventory, write and label the photos you have taken. Take a photocopy of the signed inventory with your amendments, and return it to the landlord with copies of the photos.
Note that some tenancy agreements state that you should return the property in perfect condition. You should ask to amend this to “return the property to the state it was in at the beginning of the agreement”, just in case it was not pristine to start with.
Landlords might want to pay for professional-cleaning services or bill you for something else.
To avoid this, it's best to get the landlord or agent in to look at the property after you have cleaned it, but before the contract is over, so you can agree what still needs to be done. Get them in again and ask them to sign something saying it's in the right condition, and that you will get your full deposit back.
Take lots of close-up photos on leaving the property, as evidence that you have cleaned up properly.
Disputing deposit disagreements
If you signed the tenancy agreement after 6 April 2007, the landlord no longer has total power and control over your deposit.
In the event of a dispute, the deposit might be paid back to you by a third party, usually a tenancy deposit protection (TDP) scheme. The TDP will try to resolve the dispute and will make a ruling that determines how much you'll get, although you should get the non-disputed amount back immediately.
We write more about how TDP schemes work and what happens if a landlord doesn't comply with one in Keep that landlord off your cash! You can also see examples of how tenancy deposit schemes have ruled in different cases here.
Surprisingly, not all my landlords have carried out inventories. If the landlord does not do an inventory and present it to you to sign, a lawyer told me that the landlord has absolutely no leg to stand on – in court. However, tenancy deposit schemes don't work within the court system and so you might not agree with their decisions.
If you disagree with the TDS and you're not happy with the decision, it's not the end of the road. It is relatively cheap and easy to sue in the small claims court, and it's normally an informal affair in the judge's office in a suit rather than court finery. The Consumer Action Group provides suggested letters and steps for making a court claim for a refund of your deposit. Be sure you're in the right, though.
Always tell the landlord or agent when he needs to fix something immediately and, likewise, let him know straight away if you damage something. These sorts of courtesies show you're not trying to hide anything and can help keep to your relationship smooth.
Don't make or pay for repairs yourself without written consent from the landlord and keep copies of receipts. Keep notes of all conversations, including times and dates, but try to communicate in writing where possible.
Build a deposit with a savings account and earn some money!