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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19 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Akan Addire

    My lease was to end on June 30th. My landlord said I can move on or before that date. On June 15th my landlord conducted a move out walk through, and accepted the keys. He did not point out any repairs that we needed to make. On July 3rd my landlord mailed me a letter that there damanges, and he repaired it and I should pay for them or he is going to take me to court and put it on my credit report. I wrote him back and said he took the keys and did not informed us of any repairs. We were not given the opportunity to make repairs – so I won’t pay. Is he allowed to do this? I live in Los Angeles county, CA

    • Julian

      I’m in the exact same situation. what was the outcome with your case?

    • PirateDave

      The answer would be a resounding NO, if h(landlord) was inside with you and accepted the Keys, and or accepted them at the property in general. Most states say 30 days to send refund.

  • Bobbie Smith

    I moved and the landlord kept my $1000 deposit, most on a shower door that is corroded and fell on me. I have pics, she ignores me, I have no money, she and her property management friend did the walk without me, its past 21 days and all I have is a text. No other billing. I need some help, I am 64, cannot do this alone.

    • Darren Sudberry

      My firm helps collect money that is due you and we only get paid when we are successful at collecting your money.

      Email me back and I can go over what my rate would be to get your deposit back.

      Thank you,
      Darren Sudberry

      • Bobbie McCluskey

        I’m 64 year old, rented a house before I was evicted for 2 months for no reason at all. I took pictures one of them is a corroded shower door that she charged me over $700 for . Her Property management friend bullied me did the walk-through without me I still have the keys and garage door opener. I sent her a letter that I wanted to take her to court, and I would be willing to talk to her if she wanted to discuss the deposit she wouldn’t give me the rental agreement she wouldn’t give me anything. Long story short I can’t take all this time off work to take these classes and I don’t know what I’m doing somebody please help me. I don’t have any money I’m low income and I’m single supporting working in a doctor’s office.

      • chris

        Same thing happening to me. Did a walk through, turned in keys, then coming at me with charges. Attorney in Mississippi that can help?

      • Shelia

        need help, is there any Arizona lawyers that take payment after the case?
        My landlord went past the 14 days and when I got the itemized list, she took all of deposit and said I owe her.
        5yrs I lived there.
        She contracts with section 8 houseing as a landlord, long story short I left there expecting my deposit back! house was immaculate,I was looking over her invoices for charges of service and could not locate these business as she only left addresses, but no business at address, the big one is she had an invoice of services from a carpet co, spoke to owner and she verified no service done, she forged the invoice, the owner said the invoice was an old one. She said she will go to court to testify. Police or section 8 are doing n

  • Sabine De Winter

    I turned on electricity and paid the deposit in preparation for a lease. My situation changed the next day, and I let the landlord know. A new tenant was found within 24 hours, and they moved in within a week. I never signed the lease, and while promises were made for the next 3 months, my deposit was never returned. I spent another year and a half and $600+ in legal fees and service costs and acquired a lein against the landlord’s own home. I will have to refile my lein at an additional cost every year. The landlord’s bank account cannot be touched because the account receives benefits that are protected by the federal government.


  • Steve

    The landlord is not giving back my deposit because i misplaced my receipt even tho he has a copy of it and even showed me the copy can he do this

    • Jim

      How did you pay him in the first place ? If by check go to your bank and pull up the cancelled check it is as good as a receipt, same is true with a certified check. If you put it on a credit card you can use those records about the only way you are out is if you paid them in cash.

    • Yvette Johnson

      You don’t need the receipt. You can still sue, every judge knows that a landlord isn’t going to a non related tenant move in w/o paying 1st month rent and security.

  • Anthony Soto

    Can a landlord minus a fine they dont have proof for and minus it from ur deposit $1000 fine said my kid rode motorized vehicle on grass it was a battery operated mini bike and was on other building supposedly “The Association ” no ass. On lease no numbers even asked for it they as in landlord and manager wont give it.,also just lodtvin conciliation court Dec.5 because of this judge wouldn’t look at evidence either Wash. Co. MN thanx

  • Andrea

    My deposit is $800 my landlord took $600 without me agreeing to it to tow a van that DOES NOT belong to me, i have the bill of sale 2 months before he evicted me because of it and the property owner charged him 600 to tow the van anyways and he took it off my deposit. I even spoke to the sheriff department and they said they cant do that and they did it anyways. I got evicted and my money taken away now im living in my car with 2 dogs with no money and no were to go.

  • Unname

    Just know even if you do take them out to small claims court, they can hire a lawyer to appeal. I’m in the process of hiring a lawyer right now.

  • Jay D.

    It’s 5 months and no return of my $700.00 security deposit or an explanation of why. I mailed a demand letter 3 weeks ago requesting my deposit or proof of why they are withholding it. Former landlord has responded to me in writing; If prefer to pursue this in court, they will provide the court a copy of charges for garabge that iv’e left behind and accused me of sending a fake demand letter. I have photos to prove it was left garbage free. I also saved the text message sent to them with my forwarding address. What are my rights to punitive damages caused by intent to withhold my deposit? I live on a limited amount of money from being perm. disabled as well a minor child. I was depending on this deposit for a new home but never got it.

  • Brandi

    2,590 is what my deposit was. Rented for five years vacated the place end of April yet paid rent until July 1
    Told landlord he can have people come to fix update or whatever if he liked.
    I maintained grass until last week of June.

    He charged me for lawn maintenance on a day June 5. Per lease I was to maintain lawn until end of lease. Which I did
    He charged for prof cleaning. She did exactly what I did in April. But they were doing wood,carpet And other things so window seals became dusty and toilets sinks were dirty from the workers using them. I’m not cleaning again after his people.

    He has charged me over 5,000 to replace all carpet, kitchen and two bathroom flooring.
    Wood and trim the floor was outdated but nothing wrong!!!

  • Toni webber

    My realtor never informed me, my landlord lived in Turkey (I rented in TX) the landlord said she’d return next week. ( always next wk) which turned into 7 months. Shes trying to say I moved in KNOWING theAppliances didn’t work. The realtor refused to allow me to pay 3k prior to final walkthrough Sure enough, I paid everything up front and the day of move in I had no water at all! It was a Thursday and the water co. was unable to service for 5 days and I was unable to even stay there, let alone, confirm whether the dishwasher or ice maker worked. They did not rekey my front door for 10 days. My garage door opener never worked. Keep in mind, this was a very nice area. My list goes on. My lease over.pd in full. Paper trail of all! Help!

  • Amanda Salas

    My 24 yr old daughter paid a 700$ deposit on an apartment. (She paid double because of something on her rental history) she hasn’t signed a lease yet but got a job in another city and the apartment complex doesn’t want to give back any of her $700. This just doesn’t seem fair in Texas. What can be done about this?

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