Hey renters, want to get your security deposit back? Start reading - it pays to know what's in the lease.

"Ask questions, take notes, be familiar with it. Read that document," said David Nolle, who fought in small-claims court to get his deposit back. "You learn a lot if you sit down and educate yourself."

It also pays to know what the laws are. The state Attorney General's Office puts out a brochure detailing the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. And unlike lease agreements, which are dense with legalese, it's a fairly user-friendly document.

"There are lots of protections out there for tenants they don't realize," said Barbara Montee, head of the Duluth Landlords Association. "It's knowing what your landlord expects and how to document that."

Generally, the law says landlords can recoup costs for damages that rise above "ordinary wear and tear," in addition to unpaid bills. They have three weeks to return all or part of a deposit along with an explanation for why any of the money is not being returned. Tenants, meanwhile, can't use their deposit in lieu of rent and should remember that painting walls without permission is not considered ordinary wear and tear.

Documenting a property's condition at move-in and move-out is the key to avoiding headaches when that check - or an explanation of its absence - comes in the mail. That can include written checklists, photos and even video - all admissible as evidence if a dispute reaches court.

There's no data on how often Duluthians lose their deposits, though a Rent.com study in 2013 said a quarter of U.S. renters have lost their deposits at one time. Certainly there are those tenants who don't deserve their money back after seriously damaging or failing to clean a property, but many others will fight to prove otherwise.

"Landlord-tenant disputes over security deposit returns are certainly one of the more commonly contested cases in conciliation (small claims) court hearings in Duluth and elsewhere," John B. Schulte, 6th Judicial District Court Referee, said in an email. "The best practice for landlords and tenants is to do both a thorough move-in inspection and a move-out inspection so it can be easily determined what aspects of the property may or may not be in the same condition."

When it comes to disputes, Duluth renters have resources like Legal Aid Service and the Volunteer Attorney Program. One Roof Community Housing also offers a Tenant Landlord Connection program that helps both sides.

"We offer free mediation between tenants and landlords," said Jackie Kemp, education and counseling director at One Roof. "We have worked on a few cases like this in the past and have had success helping the two parties resolve that issue."

Failing that, it's off to conciliation court, which handles smaller legal disputes. There, tenants can sue for their deposit back and up to $500 in damages.

"It is the landlord, by statute, who has the burden of justifying any withholding from the deposit," Schulte explained. "Often the cases center on what is damage that can legally come out of any deposit vs. "ordinary wear and tear" that cannot. ... These cases are highly fact-specific and both landlords and tenants sometimes prevail depending on said facts."

David Nolle thought he had the facts on his side following a deposit dispute a few years ago, and a judge agreed after he took his landlord to conciliation court.

"That was the first time I'd been involved in any real court effort," Nolle said, and in the end it came down to principle. "It was a whole lot more than $600 worth of my time."

While some disputes are inevitable, whether it's over the deposit or other issues, Montee said communication is key to avoiding them nonetheless.

"There isn't a landlord out there who wants their place trashed or the rent not paid or for their tenant to have a bad life," Montee said. "It's understanding that both sides are human. In order to protect yourself, you do need to say, how are we doing this?"

Rental help

Renters and landlords can call the Tenant Landlord Connection at One Roof Community Housing if they have questions about rights and responsibilities or could use a mediator to help settle a dispute. Call (218) 727-5372 or email tcarlson@1roofhousing.org.

The group also offers Ready-to-Rent classes and landlord workshops; learn more at www.1roofhousing.org.

To read about tenant rights and responsibilities as explained by the state Attorney General's Office, visit tinyurl.com/MNRental.