How I Fought My Landlord and Got My Money Back

A house for rent sign hanging

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We all move from time to time. And moving is a pretty big expense; renting trucks and maybe movers, disposal costs, buying new furniture – it all adds up fast. Perhaps the biggest expenses, and some of the least-understood and most frustrating, are the fees and deposits required to secure a new unit.

Unless you’re purchasing a home, you’re invariably going to end up forking over hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to your landlord in deposits and fees. It’s what makes a simple move from one apartment to another a monumental expense, and a process that is rife with paperwork and legal jargon that most people rush through. After all, when you’re moving, you need to move couches and patch up holes, not carefully read through indecipherable rental agreements.

With my most recent move, however, I became fixated on the fact that my landlord – the management company of the building I was moving out of – was seemingly stealing my money. I had lived there for three years, and when I had moved in, I had paid more than $1,000 in “move-in fees,” “deposits,” and “non-refundable deposits,” some due to my having a dog. It was all pretty standard; I have moved before, and didn’t think much of it upon moving in.

But upon moving out, and subsequently receiving my “deposit” money back, I felt shortchanged.

I received less than half of the money I had handed over during my move-in. This is a situation a lot of people find themselves in, and it’s frustrating and anger-inducing – but most of us get over it, and move on. Who has time to argue with these people, and let the process drag out for weeks, or even months?

Before I invested that kind of time, I did some research. And what I found ultimately helped me win my money back.

As for the invoice I was provided regarding my deposits and fees, here’s the breakdown: I had paid a few hundred dollars as a “move-in fee,” a security deposit of several hundred dollars, and a “non-refundable pet deposit” of a few hundred dollars as well – totaling well over $1,000. Upon move-out, I was sent a check for roughly 30% of that.

For starters, I knew the “move-in fee” was gone. It was a fee, after all, and I had paid it. And as for my security deposit, a chunk of money was retained to pay for cleaning to the unit – understandable, as there were some dings and scrapes. The repair costs (as they were listed on the statement) were high, but not completely unreasonable.

But that “non-refundable pet deposit”? What the hell is that, and why is it “non-refundable,” exactly? To scratch that itch, I started investigating.

I live in Seattle, Washington, and given the current levels of discussion about things like inequality and gentrification, a lot of resources were available to me to read up on my rights. And this is important – you need to keep in mind that laws surrounding tenancy and rental contracts, etc., vary from city to city, and state to state. So what worked for me might not work in another situation.

The best resource I could find was the Tenant’s Union of Washington State, a treasure trove of information for people looking to see what their rights are as renters (other organizations exist in other cities and states, but this is where I turned for my particular situation). I found a page addressing questions about deposits, which pointed me to the important chunk of state law I was looking for.

Thar she blows, RCW 59.18.285 from the Washington State Legislature:

No moneys paid to the landlord which are nonrefundable may be designated as a deposit or as part of any deposit. If any moneys are paid to the landlord as a nonrefundable fee, the rental agreement shall be in writing and shall clearly specify that the fee is nonrefundable. If the landlord fails to provide a written rental agreement, the landlord is liable to the tenant for the amount of any fees collected as nonrefundable fees. If the written rental agreement fails to specify that the fee is nonrefundable, the fee must be treated as a refundable deposit under RCW 59.18.260, 59.18.270, and 59.18.280.

Or, as the Tenant’s Union puts it, “fees must be specifically designated as non-refundable and cannot be considered deposits. Under the law, deposits are by nature refundable. If your landlord declares a portion of the deposit as nonrefundable upon move-in, or does not specifically designate a fee as non-refundable in the rental agreement, the fee is to be treated as a refundable deposit.”

So, that “non-refundable deposit” isn’t a deposit at all. It’s a fee. And that makes sense when you actually think about it for a second – how is it a “deposit,” if you don’t get it back? With this knowledge in hand, I went back to the landlord to argue my case that a “non-refundable pet deposit” was actually a fee, and since it hadn’t been identified as such in my lease, that I deserved it back. Naturally, they didn’t like that, but ultimately caved. I was pleasantly surprised.

If you want to do the same, just follow those steps. Look up your local laws, or use your local Tenant’s Union (or similar organization) as a resource. This is why these groups exist. See what terms and verbage are used in your lease, and look for the incorrect use of “non-refundable deposit.” Know that this is a flawed term, and see if you’re protected by law.

Then, armed with what you’ve learned, approach your landlord or management company to see what can be done. Of course, there are a lot of potential pitfalls, and your landlord will probably fight back. It’s up to you to decide how far you want to go with it, but for some people, it’s a battle of principle.

Look into additional resources as well – folks in California should be protected like I was, at least according to the L.A. Times. Nolo also has a bit of information, saying “most state security deposit statutes are silent on the subject of nonrefundable fees or allow them for specific purposes such as cleaning.”

Nolo’s advice continues, “if you’re being charged a nonrefundable fee, check your state security deposit law to see whether it’s legal in your state and, if so, whether the nonrefundable fee counts towards your state’s limit, if any. Even if nonrefundable fees are allowed, be sure you’re clear on what the fee covers.”

There are a lot of variables to take into account, but you should definitely take the time to see if you’re entitled to your money back, as a renter. It’s your money, after all, and it shouldn’t be siphoned off under the guise of legally dubious terminology.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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