Lacking Security: What to Do if Your Landlord Wrongly Keeps Your Security Deposit

What to Do if Your Landlord Wrongly Keeps Your Security Deposit

It happens time and time again and is something that renters almost expect as a loss: landlords keeping the security deposit when it’s time to move on to a new home. 

However, as a renter, you have responsibilities and rights that enable you to receive your security deposit back in full, and in the following steps you’ll receive all the information you need in order to get your full deposit back, and what to do if you landlord wrongly keeps it! 

How to Get Your Security Deposit Back

First, you should know the steps in order to not fall into this situation in the first place. 

Ensure that review your rental agreement and keep a copy so you know ahead of time what the agreements you are signing off to are. Here are 3 things you should review on your contract: 

Notice Required for Moving Out

While the 30-day notice is standard in most contracts, some have a 60-day written notice and others have as long as a 90-day written notice requirement. If you don’t give the proper notice, your landlord has the right to charge you rent to cover the period. 

Non-Refundable Rental Deposit

In most contracts, what you are required to do to receive a full refund is usually written out, and this is also the place where it tells you what portion of your deposit is non-refundable. 

Keep in mind that no landlord has the right to keep your deposit without charging it to something – whether that be a non-refundable pet fee, damages, cleaning, past due fees and more. 

Difference Between Pet Deposits vs Security Deposits

These are not the same! An upfront pet fee is typically non-refundable and is the fee for allowing you to have a pet – a pet deposit is partially refundable. However, you are still liable for any cleaning or damage that your pet causes.

After reviewing your contract and ensuring you know the requirements for moving out as well as what the fees and refundable deposits are, ask for a move-out checklist. Even if they have no list, listed below are the general rules for moving out.

  1. All light bulbs must be working
  2. Batteries need to be replaced in smoke detectors
  3. Carpets and tile cleaned, along with the oven, microwave, sinks, fridge, toilets and etc. 
  4. Everything broken or damaged needs to be replaced, including plastic blinds
  5. Ensure everything is dusted and swept – dirt isn’t considered normal wear and tear
  6. Move everything out of your apartment
  7. Take all large trash, such as furniture or mattresses, to a local dumpster – many complexes can charge people for using the apartment dumpsters

In other words, everything needs to be as clean as when you first moved in, or “move in ready” for the next tenant.

What to Do if Your Landlord Wrongly Keeps Your Security Deposit

Let’s say you did all of the above. You kept a copy of your contract and knew what to expect when the move out day came. You cleaned till the apartment was spotless, and ensured all of your belongings were out of the apartment before the official move out day. What do you do? First, this situation probably occurred in one of two ways. 

You Don’t Agree With the Move Out Statement Charges

If you have some kind of proof to back up your belief that your landlord is charging you for normal wear and tear, or for things that were damaged when you first rented the apartment, then you have the ability to file a dispute. 

As quickly as you can, gather all your documented proof and write a description of why you believe the charge is wrong. Then, send the letter by certified, return-receipt mail to both the local and corporate office if there is one. Typically, you have to wait 30 days for a response. 

You Didn’t Receive a Refund or Statement From Your Landlord

Your landlord is legally obligated to send you a written statement as to why you received a partial refund and the charges that your deposit was applied to, and must be postmarked before or on the 30th day you have left the premises.

Before doing anything, ensure you’ve waited the allotted time the landlord has to send their written statement, which varies depending on the state you live in. Once the date has passed, contact your landlord by phone and verify they have the right address.

While on the phone, make a note of who you’re speaking with, the time and the exchange.

If you can’t get in touch with your landlord or aren’t receiving any answers as to why a written statement hasn’t been sent – or they’re not being clear on whether they even sent it – you have legal rights.

Before pursuing legal action, send a demand letter to your landlord, many of which are available for free online. If your landlord hasn’t responded to the demand letter, the statement is late or the landlord hasn’t sent it, they are considered to have acted in bad faith and you are free to pursue damages. 

Suing Your Landlord

The good news is that if you win in court, your landlord is required to pay reasonable attorney fees and court costs back to you. However, you do have to pay those expenses up front.

Be sure you hire an attorney to ensure that you don’t lose, and have witnesses, documentation and large color photographs of evidence ready to present to the judge and defendant (your landlord). Read through your lease carefully and highlight passages that apply to your situation – make copies for both the judge and defendant as well. 

In court, be concise and professional and keep all emotion – especially angry yelling – out of the chamber. This will go far for you. 

Pursuing your rights can pay off in the end because the law states you can be awarded $100 plus any amount equal to three times the portion of the deposit that was withheld, along with attorney’s fees and court costs.

How Landlords Can Avoid Legal Pitfalls

Know that your tenants have as many legal rights as you do, and it’s important that your lease agreements are clear, concise and everything you expect from your tenants is clearly outlined. Although lease agreements can be highly customizable, they should all include the length of time (term), type of deposit (security or pet, or both), and the amount payable per month. 

The lease is non-negotiable and ensures that everyone is on the same page in terms of their specific responsibilities and rights according to the state they live in. 

Also included are reasons for breaking the lease without penalty. These include:

  • The health of the tenant or an immediate family member requires relocation
  • Military or Government associated leave
  • Relocation because of a tenant’s current or new job 

If you are confident that your lease agreement is clear and all expectations are outlined, the next way to avoid legal action is to screen your tenants via the credit check, employment & income verification and references. 

While the credit check and employment and income verification are straight forward ways of screening your tenants, asking for references is a great way to find tenants with a positive history with other landlords and keeping the apartment well cared for. 

Below are a few questions you can ask the references that the potential tenant provides: 

  • Would you rent to this person again, and if not, why wouldn’t you?
  • Was there any concerning behavior during their stay, such as noise complaints or broken furniture?
  • Did you find the apartment in good condition when they moved out? 
  • Was rent paid on time and were they ever late with their rent? If they were late, did they communicate this beforehand, and how long did it take for them to pay back their rent?

It is good practice to reach out to at least three references. This is worth the time and effort because if the references are difficult to get ahold of, then this in itself can be revealing. 

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict just how good a tenant will be and whether they will move out from an apartment in the same condition they moved in. But if you do your due diligence and screen them appropriately, you will have fewer surprises and a far more positive time than if you do not.

Much of being a landlord is mitigating these surprises!  

Wrapping it All Up

It’s important for both parties to remember that if everyone is acting in good faith, things should be fine. Everyone has rights and it’s important that expectations are clearly written out so that both tenant and landlord are on the same page. When that doesn’t happen and there is no good faith effort to make things right, legal action comes into play, and the security deposit can be the least of your issues.