It's not cheap to move into a rental apartment or home. Often you have to pay the first and last month's rent plus a security deposit before getting the keys to the home. Not having to pay the last month's rent will feel liberating, but there's still the matter of the security deposit. The goal is to get the entire security deposit back at the end of your lease, but that isn't always easy. How do you ensure you get back the full amount? Here's how.

SEE: Renters' Guide

Move in

When you move in, you'll likely be asked to document any pre-existing damage. If you're not asked, do it yourself. Go through each room of the home or apartment and write down and take pictures of any damage you see. Nothing is too small or insignificant to include on the list. This will take some time to complete, but it will save you from potential problems later. Also, document any damage on the exterior of the home. Once you're done, have the landlord sign the report that includes all pictures and keep a copy of the report for yourself.

Normal Wear and Tear
This is the vague concept that states that some damage will occur just from a home or apartment being occupied. Examples may include matting of the carpet, small nail holes in the walls and fading of paint. Small scratches in appliances may also qualify. Because this concept isn't well defined legally, don't rely on normal wear and tear to rationalize damages. Carpet stains usually are not considered normal.

Be Defensive
You don't own the place, but in many respects you need to act as if you do. If your pet soils the carpet, clean it up right away. If something breaks that the landlord is required to repair, report it in writing immediately. Keep doors and windows locked and keep the house clean so bugs and other pests aren't attracted to the interior. In short, solve all problems immediately.

Minimize Your Footprint
Of course you want your home to feel homey, but hanging heavy mirrors, repainting the walls and other decorative modifications will only cause problems when it's time to move out. If you paint, you may have to return the walls to their original color. Big holes in the walls will require patch work. Find creative ways to decorate without making large changes. Since most rentals will come with neutral colored walls, it's easy to complement the walls with color in other ways.

Repair Damage Yourself
If you're a skilled handyman, fix damage yourself prior to the move-out inspection. If you're not that handy, hire somebody. This allows you to control the cost of the repair instead of the landlord taking a portion of your deposit based on one estimate or no estimate at all.

Know Your Rights
Each state has slightly different requirements for the return of the security deposit, but most require the landlord to notify you of his or her intent to keep a portion within a certain time frame. Landlords are also required to return the deposit within a certain amount of time. Most states have easy to read brochures that detail your rights as a tenant.

SEE: Are You A Good Tenant?

The Bottom Line
Getting your full security deposit returned to you is surprisingly easy if you're reasonable with how you live in the home or apartment. Return the place to its original condition. If that involves paying for repairs prior to the inspection, that's not unreasonable. If you have kids or large pets, you're likely going to have some repairs to complete. The key is to control all of those costs instead of putting them into the hands of the landlord.