What to do When a Landlord Will Not Return a Security Deposit

You paid your rent on time each month.  You took good care of the apartment.  You did your best to thoroughly clean the apartment before you moved out.  You caused no damage.  You paid all associated bills.  And yet here you are anyway, months later still waiting for the return of your security deposit.  What are your options when a landlord will not return your security deposit?

Please note that this post is very general in nature.  If appropriate, you should seek out a lawyer or other appropriate professional to determine what the laws are where you live.  This post will provide an overview of some options a tenant has when a landlord will not return a security deposit.

Return of the Security Deposit – Timing

Some jurisdictions are more “pro-tenant” and others are more “pro-landlord.”  Most jurisdictions, however, have laws protecting the return of your security deposit.  Some research or a meeting with an attorney should provide information as to how long a landlord has to return a security deposit.  If more than a month has passed, then it may be time to start questioning the status of the return of your security deposit.  As with any possible legal matter, it is a good idea to learn about the statute of limitations.

Contacting the Landlord

One preliminary action is to reach out to your landlord or their representative to check on the status of the security deposit.  Perhaps there has simply been an oversight on their part.  Make sure you have provided your former landlord with your new address so the security deposit can be mailed to your new home.

Once you contact the landlord, you should have a general idea of the landlord's position.   If more time passes by without the return of the security deposit, then it may be a good idea to write a letter addressing the issue.  This will put the issue “in writing”, which may be useful later on.

“Treble Damages”

Some jurisdictions have statutes providing for “treble damages” should a landlord not return a security deposit within a specific amount of time.  This generally means that a landlord may be required by law to reimburse you 2x or 3x the amount of the  outstanding security deposit if they fail to return the security deposit in a timely fashion.  Again, the laws of just about every jurisdiction are different.

Security Deposit Has Been Returned But You Disagree With the Deductions

If the security deposit has been returned but you disagree with certain deductions, then you may want to research the statutory standards in your jurisdiction.  For instance, some jurisdictions state that “normal wear and tear” cannot be deducted from a security deposit.

Return of Security Deposit – Legal Action

If it becomes clear your landlord has no intention of reimbursing you the outstanding security deposit monies, then you may need to consider whether to pursue legal action.  A complaint for the return of a security deposit will, in many instances, be filed in your jurisdiction's version of a “small claims” or “civil court.”  You will also have to determine whether to hire an attorney or to pursue the action “pro se.”  (Without an attorney).

Security Deposit Return – Additional Considerations

  • Even if you win a case, it can sometimes be difficult to collect what a Court orders.
  • It will likely cost money to file a complaint, even if you do not hire an attorney.
  • Sometimes the filing of a court action may be sufficient to scare your former landlord into returning the outstanding security deposit monies.
  • Google may provide some basic information on the landlord-tenant laws of your state.  Again, you should determine whether to retain a lawyer or other appropriate professional.

Conclusion

As with any possible legal action, you will have to personally weigh the factors to determine the proper course of action for you.  This may be done with or without legal representation.  The security deposit money is meant to be your money held in escrow by a landlord.  If you are entitled to the return of that money, then it is understandable that you would wish to pursue its return.

If you are in a state that awards treble damages and the landlord's attorney contacts you, then you may consider negotiating with that attorney.  If they guarantee a payment within the next two weeks you may consider waiving some of the “treble” damages due in order to insure there will be no collection issues.  The “bird in hand” principle is a consideration.

Have you ever had problems with a landlord not returning a security deposit?  What steps did you take to effectuate the return of the outstanding monies?

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