What You Can Do If Your Landlord Refuses to Return Your Deposit

One of the most stressful parts of renting property is when you move out and have to worry about how much of your security deposit will be returned. Some property owners are very reasonable and will work with you to return most, if not all, of what you are owed. Some landlords, though, are not very reasonable and will try to keep as much of your deposit as possible, so let’s go through some general tips that will hopefully better ensure that you’ll get most of your money back at move out.

First of all, document, document, and document. The best way to increase your chances of getting your security deposit back is to take steps before and during your tenancy to document any property issues that arise, so that you'll have a record of them at move out. If the property was dirty, and there were items broken or stained carpets when you moved in, you need to keep a record of that. You should also email the landlord with the items and issues so he or she can repair them, or at least know that you are keeping records. And if issues arise during your tenancy, like malfunctioning appliances, document those too and alert the owner. This way, when you move out, if the landlord wants to charge you for a carpet stain, broken appliances, etc., you can show him or her the pictures and documentation, proving to them that the issue was the owner’s responsibility to correct, not yours!

Note: In most states, laws are very friendly to tenants, not landlords. This means if you get in a dispute with a landlord and have to take them to small claims court, you’ll probably win. This is especially true if you keep good records and have proof and evidence to support your side of the case. That being said, some owners might have all the time in the world to fight you, and they may even enjoy doing it, so make sure it’s worth the fight because going to court is time consuming.

You also should get a lot more out of your landlord/tenant relationship by being a good part of that relationship. Pay your rent on time, alert the landlord to issues so they can correct them, and do your best to take care of their property. Then, give them adequate notice when you are moving out and schedule a pre-move out inspection with them. This is the chance to do a walk-through and get a list, per your request, in writing, of what they believe you should put in order before you leave, such as cleaning up the yard or repairing and painting a wall that was clearly impacted by your use during your tenancy.

Then, you can get everything cleaned up to their satisfaction, and you'll have a record of what they wanted repaired. This again will help you if you ultimately have to fight them over your deposit.

Realize that landlords get stressed out too about finding a new tenant so they can continue collecting rent to pay their bills, so you want to make it easy, within reason, for them to showcase the unit to prospective tenants. You can help by keeping the unit tidy and agreeing to reasonable accommodations for them to show the apartment. Hopefully, they’ll remember this when they are calculating and deducting from your security deposit.

But let’s say they don’t remember your helpfulness and want to keep a big chunk of your deposit. In most states, they are going to have to give you an itemized list of what they are deducting from your deposit. Google state laws to find out what applies where you live! Then, you can reply, in a professional manner, with your thoughts and opinion as to what they should pay you. With all your documentation, hopefully they’ll give in and/or come to a fair amount as a resolution. This should handle most of the situations and hopefully, that will be the end for all parties. Remember that you might need them as a reference in the future, so keep that in mind when dealing with them.

If they just won’t act fairly, review your thoughts and claims with a friend or two and make sure you are being reasonable. If you are, you can always take them to small claims court. The threat of this will probably make them cave in and just give in to your demands. If it doesn’t, and you take them to court, you’ll probably win if you support your case, but at the end of the whole process, you’ll probably realize that going to court wasted a lot more of your time (and time is money) than if you just negotiated. In the future, you’ll have a little additional knowledge from this time around and each time you move out of a rented apartment.