Disputes over security deposits are very common between tenants and landlords at the end of a lease. A security deposit is usually linked to the month's rent paid by the renter. Landlords typically must return security deposits at the end of a lease, minus the cost of specific repairs and cleaning. As with any legal issue, if you believe that your landlord is withholding or misusing your security deposit in bad faith, it is important to check your state's laws before taking action.
States have landlord-tenant laws that address what happens to a tenant's security deposit, including:
The rules concerning security deposits can differ slightly from state to state, so it’s important to look at the laws for your state before deciding how to proceed. As a first step, read FindLaw’s guide to Security Deposit Limits and Security Deposit Return Timelines.
The easiest way to get your security deposit back is to maintain a good relationship with your landlord after you move in to the apartment. If you get along well with your landlord, misunderstandings don’t have to escalate into major disagreements.
Even if you have a good relationship with your landlord, it is a good idea to take photos of the apartment before you move in and after you move out. This will be a great help to you if you need to dispute a landlord’s claims that funds from the security deposit were necessary to repair damage or clean the apartment. Remember, the landlord can't charge you for normal wear and tear of the rental property.
You can also ask the landlord to do a move-out inspection of the rental unit before you move out. After the inspection, request an itemized statement of anything that the landlord believes you need to fix before you vacate the apartment. This will give you a chance to solve problems, or even challenge the landlord’s claims (if the damage was already there before you moved in, for example).
You should first contact the landlord (or his/her agent) if one of the following happens:
You should clearly state the problem and request an immediate refund. Follow this conversation with a demand letter sent by certified mail, and be sure to keep a copy. A demand letter is simply a letter you can draft demanding your security deposit back. You may even want to consider hand-delivering the letter and having the landlord sign and date your copy as proof that they received the letter.
If discussing the issue with your landlord fails to solve the problem, try to compromise. You may end up with less than the full amount of the security deposit, but less is better than nothing, and it could save you a lot of time and energy in the long run.
You can also suggest mediation. A mediator can help ease tension and bring both sides to an agreement. Some state and local agencies offer mediation services for landlord-tenant issues, so be sure to ask to see if that might be an option.
It’s also a good idea to file a report with those same state and local agencies if you believe that your landlord isn’t following the rules for security deposits. An investigation by those agencies into the dispute could motivate your landlord to respond to your concerns.
If all else fails, you may have to file a lawsuit get your security deposit back. A lawsuit over a security deposit will typically go before a small-claims court, which means that you may not need to hire an attorney (though it can be helpful). If the amount of your security deposit exceeds the maximum claim amount for small-claims courts in your jurisdiction and you end up hiring an attorney to represent you in civil court, you may be able to recover attorney’s fees and court costs if you win your suit.
Filing a lawsuit can result in a recovery greater than the amount of your actual security deposit if the court finds that your landlord has acted in bad faith. In such cases, the award could be two or three times the amount of your security deposit. The downside to filing a lawsuit is that your landlord can file counterclaims for damage to the apartment, violations of the lease, unpaid rent, or other claims that could cause you headaches trying to defend.
Most landlords follow the rules for returning security deposits, but sometimes getting a security deposit back from your landlord after you move out can turn into a real hassle. If it does, follow the suggestions above and then seek out the help of an experienced landlord-tenant lawyer to give you legal advice and guide you through the laws in your state.