If you’ve been engaged in an arduous battle with your landlord over your security deposit, know that you have options. If you think your landlord has been holding onto your deposit without good reason, your first step should be to check your state’s laws to see what your rights are. Each state has its own rules for recovering a security deposit, but there are some general guidelines that apply to most situations.
The following 7 tips will help steer you in the right direction.
1. Learn your state’s rules for security deposit returns
First, check with your state to see if your landlord is still within the allowable timeframe for returning a security deposit. This timeline will vary by state, but it is generally anywhere from 14 to 60 days. In addition, a landlord is generally required to provide you with a statement showing how your deposit was used for expenses such as repairs and how much of your deposit remains.
2. Know what you’re required to pay
A tenant is usually not held responsible for costs related to normal wear that occurs to an apartment. So be on the lookout for deductions made for costs you’re not required to pay. Know that in most states a landlord can deduct money from your deposit to clean your apartment so that it’s move-in ready for the next tenant.
3. Work out an agreement, and get it in writing
If your landlord makes unfair deductions from your security deposit or did not honor your state’s laws for security deposits, try your best to work things out one-on-one.
“Most landlord-tenant disputes, and I’ve literally handled thousands of them in court, can be resolved through a simple, open conversation. You just have to do it calmly and remember that to the landlord, it is just business, not personal, even though to you it may be very personal,” says J.W. Malka, an attorney, certified financial planner, and former judge.
Once you do reach an agreement, make sure to get it in writing. This will serve as evidence if you decide later on to file a lawsuit.
4. Submit a demand letter
If you still cannot get your landlord to cooperate, your next step would be to present him or her with a demand letter. The letter should include information such as why you should get your deposit back as well as how your landlord has not complied with your state’s security deposit laws.
5. Consider mediation
Some states provide mediation services for disputes involving landlords and tenants. Malka suggests looking at your lease to see if it contains a mediation clause. Check with your state attorney general’s office for advice on mediation.
6. Proceed with a lawsuit
Once you’ve run out of tooth-pulling maneuvers, it’s time to put your tools down and take your landlord to court. Sometimes a landlord just won’t budge. If you’ve done all you can, you may want to go ahead and file a lawsuit.
“Don’t be afraid to go there, if necessary,” says Malka. “But if you have to go that route, be very prepared to present your side, and do it professionally, politely and succinctly.”
If you can show that your landlord did not follow state laws, you might have a strong case for recovering your deposit. You may also be able to sue for additional damages. Each court has a limit for how much you are allowed to recover, but it is usually anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000. Gather supporting documents to help your case. For example, if your landlord claims your deposit is being held because of neglect or property damage, it will help your case if you have pictures showing the condition of the apartment before and after you moved.
7. Weigh your options
Don’t forget to take into account the stress involved in pursuing a claim in court. You might win your deposit, but depending on the situation, it might be more trouble than it’s worth.
Malka puts it best:
The last thing to consider is whether going that far is even worth it or not. That’s the part most people forget to consider. The time, the effort, and the stress in going that route can easily outweigh any judgment you may receive after all is said and done. Sometimes you cannot put a price on a good night’s sleep, and by heading into court you can lose a whole bunch of them!
More from Personal Finance Cheat Sheet:
- 10 Rental Markets Where Landlords Make a Killing
- 5 Ways Renters Set Themselves Up for Failure
- Risk and Responsibility: Should You Cosign a Loan?
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