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Security Deposit vs. Move-in Fee
Moving costs money – there's no way around it. In some cases you can ultimately get that money back, and in others you just have to bite the bullet and part with your money. Traditionally, when you rent an apartment, the landlord will require that you fork over a security deposit (amounts vary, but two months – first and last month – of rent is common in Chicago) to protect the landlord against damage and to keep tenants from fleeing without paying rent.
Although the landlord holds onto that money for the duration of the lease, that money is still technically yours, and the landlord is required to give it back to you after you move out, provided that you haven't damaged the apartment beyond what is considered "reasonable wear and tear." In Chicago, the landlord must give you your security deposit back within 45 days of vacating the apartment. If have caused damage, the landlord must notify you and provide an estimate for repairs within 30 days.
In some buildings, especially downtown high-rises, landlords have chosen to forego the security deposit and instead charge renters a one-time "move-in" fee. The only benefit of this, for renters, is that one-time fees are usually much lower than security deposits, so you'll have to part with less money up-front. The downside, of course, is that you'll never get that money back. As @properties agent Robert Darrow explained in a blog post a while back, move-in fees are pretty standard in condo buildings, and they've been spreading to apartment buildings in recent years. "The fee usually covers the maintenance man locking off the elevator, and perhaps a security guard to watch the back door during the move," Darrow wrote.
Hidden Apartment Rental Fees
Think move-in fees are bad? Try paying a security deposit and a move-in fee. Yep, you read that right. One does not necessarily preclude the other, and many Chicago buildings have started charging move-in fees for the privilege of living in their buildings. Be sure to ask about hidden fees before signing a lease, because each landlord has a different (but equally inventive) way of separating you from your money. Although they're pretty uncommon, renters will encounter "lease initiation fees" (which is basically similar to Ticketmaster charging you a "convenience fee" for buying tickets at the box office). Others will be slapped with a "lock change fee" or a "key fee," which are expenses that you'd normally expect a landlord to handle.
Why do they charge separately for these services? It's pretty similar to a condo developer charging for parking separately: By listing them separately landlords can make the rent appear to be cheaper than it actually is, even though "lock change fees" should probably be included in your rent. "One way of thinking about the fees is to consider them as additional rent spread across the life of, say, a one-year lease," wrote a columnist for Inman News. "If the resulting monthly rent is still comfortably within market rates (and you have the cash to fork out), you may decide to rent there; but if not, look elsewhere."
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