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Updated on Monday, September 30, 2019
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Here’s how I almost lost $900 — and my sanity — to a malicious New York City landlord. Without warning or reason, he refused to return my security deposit. It’s not a completely unique story, however.
“Calls about landlords and security deposits are one of the most common calls we get,” said Andrea Shapiro, Program Manager at Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenants’ rights membership organization and hotline in New York City. “Mainly the landlord is just refusing to return it, but often people call because they are concerned it’s going to happen to them.”
In the end, I was able to get my security deposit back thanks to a lot of research and hard work. So if you find yourself in this same tricky situation, I hope that my story below, plus a walk through the steps you can take and some attorney tips, can help smooth the road ahead for you.
How I got my security deposit back from my landlord
It was my first time moving apartments, and I was new to the world of renting in New York. When I moved in, I had been told I would get my security deposit back 45 days after the end of the lease. Knowing that I had left my room in pristine condition, I naively believed that with processes seemingly already in place, my deposit would be returned to me promptly and smoothly.
But 45 days passed me by without a word from my landlord, and all my emails had gone unanswered. After 90 days, I started to get anxious. Finally I received an email from someone at the management company with whom I had never spoken. They did not know I had contacted them before, which apartment I’d lived in, my move out date, or the deposit amount. They were clearly grasping at straws trying to find a reason to not return the deposit.
Fed up, I visited the office in person to demand my deposit back. I still believed that the issue could be resolved civilly and smoothly. After a few phone calls and much shuffling of paperwork, the management company’s representative told me it was because I had moved out early (I hadn’t). She added that it was also because the current tenants hadn’t given their deposit (they had). I left the office, desperately wishing I had yelled “I’ll see you in court!” on my way out.
Left with no other choice, I filed a claim in small claims court and proceeded to gather all the documents related to my lease and apartment.
Then one afternoon, I received an email from the management company: “The landlord has instructed me to write you a check for your deposit amount and he would like for you to end the court case immediately.”
I knew I hadn’t won yet — I would wait until that check was deposited and cleared to celebrate. But after one two-hour-long office visit, six emails and several incompetent mix-ups later, I finally had my security deposit check in my hand, 10 months after I originally moved out of the apartment.
If you’re going through a similar ordeal, know that you’re not alone. There are plenty of resources available to help you get your security deposit back, too.
Here’s how to get your security deposit back from your landlord, from the innocent start to the tired finish.
How to get your security deposit back from your landlord
Confirm the legal deadline
State laws dictate how long landlords have to return a security deposit. For example, in New York, a landlord has 14 days after a tenant vacates the property, while Maryland landlords have 45 days after the lease ends.
To streamline the process, ask your landlord how they’ll return your deposit and give them a return address at the same time you tell them you’re moving out. Hopefully, that will prevent any further delays when it comes time to return the deposit.
Note, however, that in order to receive the full deposit back, there must not be any additional damage to the property, other than normal wear and tear. Otherwise, your landlord may choose to return only a portion of the deposit, if at all.
Communicate with your landlord directly
Contact your landlord directly to discuss the matter, especially if you disagree with their decision regarding your deposit.
“Written correspondence, either by mail or email, is almost always best,” said Ann O’Connell, attorney and Legal Editor at Nolo. “If you have pictures or video of the rental’s condition at move-in and move-out, or if you filled out a walk-through checklist, consider sending those to support your argument.” Start collecting receipts, invoices and pictures around now; they’ll be crucial evidence throughout this process.
O’Connell also recommended reminding landlords of the consequences they could face for wrongfully withholding a deposit such as severe fines, damages and/or court costs.
File a complaint with the attorney general
If you can’t reach an agreement or if your landlord stops responding, but don’t want to take it to court, try filing a complaint with your state’s attorney general first. The AG’s office can review the case and intervene on your behalf if your landlord has violated state law.
What you’ll need to get your security deposit back
Unfortunately, landlords can be tricky and may try to keep that deposit no matter what. This is where your evidence — receipts, pictures, emails — comes in handy. Collect any documentation that shows the deposit amount and that you paid the deposit, like a bank statement, invoice or receipt. O’Connell also suggested bringing a few copies of your lease or rental agreement to court, too. Print out all your correspondence with the landlord, especially relating to the security deposit. Make sure the print outs show the date and who sent the message.
In my case, I also had a letter of recommendation from the management company to my new landlord. It stated that I had made every rent payment on time and had left the apartment in good shape.
You may have the chance to bring witnesses to court. This isn’t always necessary, but if you have witnesses willing and ready to help you out, this could be a valuable asset. For example, if someone helped you move in and move out, they can testify to the property’s condition on both ends. Be sure to notify witnesses beforehand, so they’re not surprised by a court subpoena.
How to get your security deposit back from your landlord in small claims court
Typically, small claims court is the place to take your security deposit dispute, as it’s often for claims around $5,000 to $10,000.
File your claim
Small claims forms are either online or at your county’s small claims offices (see an example of New York City’s form here). You’ll typically need to provide your own information, including your name and full address, as well as the landlord’s full and correct name and address on the form, which you should confirm with the county clerk or your state’s secretary of state website before submitting. You’ll also indicate on the form the amount you’re suing for and the nature of the claim (your security deposit). You can either mail in your form or drop it off in person to the appropriate offices.
Once you file your claim, the court will serve the landlord with court documents. If your landlord is like mine, he’ll be scared of having a court case on his record and will hopefully pay up before you even make it to court.
“Most landlords don’t want to end up in court,” O’Connell agreed. “If you’ve been a good tenant and have at least a plausible argument, it’s likely you’ll be able to reach a compromise outside of court. Many times all it takes is a formal demand.”
Some states require you to serve the papers yourself or get someone to serve them for you. If you’re organizing it, make sure you follow all the court’s rules carefully.
“Serving the landlord with the correct documents and in the correct manner is very important,” O’Connell cautioned. “Failure to follow proper procedure can result in the court dismissing your case.”
You can serve papers through the U.S. Postal Service, courier service or a process server. A process server can be a proper officer, like a sheriff or marshal, or anyone not related to the case who is 18 years or older. Always obtain confirmation of delivery, especially if you’re using the post office or courier service.
Prepare for court
In addition to gathering evidence, O’Connell suggests sitting in the audience of a few small claims court trials, which are often open to the public. Observing a trial or two can give you an idea of what to expect.
If you plan to bring a witness or two, make sure you know what they’re going to say. You don’t want to be surprised by anything they say in court, especially if it weakens your argument.
Finally, you have one chance to sue your landlord, so know the facts of your situation inside and out. Perhaps create notecards with your main points for clarity and conciseness for when you speak to the judge. Organize your papers in order of how you’ll present them and make sure there are enough copies to go around.
Do I need a lawyer for small claims court?
Small claims courts are designed to be affordable with relaxed rules, making it easier for the everyday person to present their own case.
“Lawyers are rarely the right approach when it comes to small claims court,” said Michael Vraa, managing attorney and hotline director for HOME Line, a free tenant hotline in Minnesota. “They’re really designed for people, not attorneys.”
Some courts even make it hard for a lawyer to appear on someone’s behalf. So unless you have access to a free or low-cost lawyer, it’s probably not worth your time or money to hire a lawyer.
If you require a lawyer or extra legal help, several housing advocacy groups provide free or low-cost services to tenants, like HOME Line, Housing Rights Center (Los Angeles) and The Legal Aid Society (New York City).
Present your case in court
Show up to your court date prepared and on time. Check the posted schedule and wait for your case to be called. Once it’s your turn, you (as the plaintiff) will present your case first. Start with the basics of the case: the amount being pursued and the reason for the case. For example, start with something like, “This case is about the landlord’s failure to return my $900 security deposit without reason.” That way, the judge knows up front exactly what the case is about.
The judge will question you, the landlord and any witnesses. During your case, both you and the landlord will have time to speak. It’s best to not interrupt when someone else is speaking, even if they say something false or outrageous. Your case is stronger when you’re cool, calm and collected and presented with facts and evidence.
What happens if you win your case?
Congrats! Now what? “If you do end up in court and you win, as long as the landlord is reasonably professional (or cares about his or her reputation), they will most likely return the deposit as directed by the court order,” O’Connell said.
If the landlord still does not return the deposit, you might have to pursue collection efforts. This can get pretty involved, O’Connell said, and opens up another whole can of worms.
What happens if you lose?
You can usually appeal the decision, but it will depend on the law where you live. “You’ll have to do some serious evaluation about whether it’s worth your time and money to appeal or otherwise continue to pursue the matter,” O’Connell said. You may need to rework your argument, or perhaps you were in the wrong. Plus, as O’Connell added, “the chances of being successful on appeal are usually low.”
How to get your security deposit back from your landlord in mediation
Mediation is a lower-level alternative to presenting your case in court, especially if emotions or an informal agreement are involved. You can choose mediation ahead of your court date, or even sometimes day-of. Small claims court may automatically send some cases to mediation, as well. It requires both parties to sign a consent form and acknowledge that it is confidential and voluntary.
Instead of presenting your evidence to an unbiased party, like a judge, mediation focuses on hearing both sides and coming to a decision together. “Often, the people we see in mediation are just looking for more time to be heard,” said Samantha Adler, Program Manager for Civil Court Diversion, Community & Lemon Law at the New York Peace Institute. “We make sure there’s never a power imbalance in a room to even the playing field.”
Both sides get ample, uninterrupted time to provide their perspective. Throughout, the mediator doesn’t tell either side what to do, and often they don’t even make a decision. “Our model is to try to get parties to make a decision for themselves,” said Nick Schmitt, who also serves as a program manager at the New York Peace Institute.
If you reach a mutual decision, both parties sign a settlement agreement. If not, the case goes back to small claims. If you missed your scheduled court time, you’ll adjourn that date (which might have happened anyway if the court ran out of time, Schmitt said). Your mediator can provide further legal referrals and resources if you ask. Usually, though, “people end up leaving pretty content with what happened,” both Adler and Schmitt noted. Mediation allows both parties for more room to find areas for some give and take.