What to do if your landlord wrongfully kept your security deposit

Written on January 24, 2018 by , updated on February 26, 2018

communicationYou just moved out of your rental, and you expect to get your full security deposit back. But your landlord returns only a portion of it, if anything, insisting you damaged the space. Meanwhile, you’re sure you repaired and cleaned everything thoroughly before moving out.

Don’t be like me with my first apartment rentals and just brush it off, believing you’ll never get your security deposit back. Instead, reach out to the landlord and try to get it back. If that doesn’t work, small claims court can potentially help you get your deposit returned, and then some.

Prevention is the best cure

Before you move into a unit, conduct a walkthrough with the landlord so you both can note potential problems. Jot down all the existing issues such as water damage, nail holes, or patches missing from the carpet. Take photos of the issues—or better yet—document them with videos in which you mention the date. These support your cause if the landlord keeps part of your security deposit after you move out.

The same inspection process holds true when moving out. Both parties should conduct a move-out inspection so you can agree on the condition of the unit. Even if the issue existed before you moved in, it’s worth photographing again. This way, a small nail hole or water mark won’t—or at least shouldn’t—result in a hefty repair charge deducted from your security deposit.

Related: How to get your security deposit back

Check your state laws

State laws can help support your cause if you think the landlord deducted too much from your security deposit. Repairs for tenant-damaged items are generally considered a reasonable charge; deducting for normal wear and tear is not. Likewise, if you paint the walls orange without telling the landlord, they can charge a fee for repainting them the original color.

Your best recourse when you think you’ve been unfairly charged is checking the landlord/tenant laws in your state. This way, you’ll know what’s legal where you live.

Ask for a breakdown of fees

If your landlord keeps a large chunk—or even all—your security deposit, you have a right to know why. Ask for a breakdown of the charges and copies of receipts. The landlord should  provide a cost analysis of the fees charged against your security deposit. If not, it’s time to reach out to the landlord again.

Write a letter of intent to sue

If your landlord does not respond to your request for a breakdown of charges, or overcharges for basic repairs, write the landlord a letter.

  1. Send it via certified or priority mail to track its delivery.
  2. Write the current date, as well as your former unit number or address.
  3. Note that you have either not received your full security deposit back or that you dispute charges against it, and that you have full rights under your state’s laws to receive all or some of those funds back, depending on your situation.
  4. State that you expect a return of said funds within two weeks or you will exercise your right to file a suit in small claims court for the amount withheld plus potential punitive damages as allowed by law. (In some states, the amount could even be triple the amount of your initial security deposit.)
  5. Check the state laws to determine what’s legal in your region.

Go to small claims court

If unable to reach an agreement within the time specified in your letter, file a case in small claims court. Look up the filing process for your region, then file a claim noting the reasons for the concern. While awaiting the court date, gather as much evidence as possible to help your cause, such as photos of the unit taken during inspections. If your main complaint is the landlord overcharging for inexpensive items, visit a local home improvement store, and take photos of a comparable item, including its price. This helps prove the reasonable price to replace the item in question.

Related: How to file a small claims lawsuit against your landlord or renter

Attend a few small-claims cases beforehand, if possible, to get a better understanding of the process.

If your landlord attempts to settle out of court, by all means, be open-minded about it. A compromise may be better in the long run, as you won’t have to deal with the stress of going to court. You also won’t have to take time off for your court date. If you do reach an agreement, get it in writing, and make sure both you and your landlord sign it. Good luck!

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