It's common practice to hand over a security deposit when you move into a rental. The purpose of that money is to protect your landlord in the event you fail to pay rent or damage your rental during your time living there.
But what happens when you play by the rules, make all of your rent payments, and leave your home in good condition when you move out, only to have your landlord withhold your security deposit for a bogus reason? Unfortunately, it's known to happen, but the good news is that you don't have to resign yourself to losing that money. Rather, you can fight back.
1. Demand an explanation
If your landlord insists that you damaged your rental unit, and is using that as a reason to keep your security deposit, then you have every right to request a detailed explanation of the damage you supposedly caused and the costs associated with fixing it.
Imagine you gave a $1,500 security deposit, which your landlord hangs onto on the basis that you damaged your walls and they need to be repainted and spackled. If your landlord can't produce an estimate or bill from a contractor showing that fixing the problem costs $1,500, you have a solid leg to stand on in demanding that money back.
2. Inform your landlord that you're prepared to sue
If your landlord refuses to give you a breakdown of the expenses your security deposit is being withheld to address, or if you believe your landlord is unjustly keeping your money, make it very clear that you're not going to back down.
Rather, send a certified letter to your landlord stating that if you don't receive your security deposit in return, you'll be suing to recoup that money. Give your landlord an outside date by which to return your money to you as well. That way, you have a timeline for taking legal action.
3. Sue your landlord in small claims court
If your landlord refuses to return your security deposit even after receiving the aforementioned letter, you may have no choice but to sue for your deposit back in small claims court. The process of doing so varies from state to state, but generally, you'll pay a modest filing fee of under $100 that you'll be entitled to recoup if you win your case.
You'll also need to present your case to a judge, so to that end, get ready to gather evidence in your favor. If you have pictures of your home from when you moved out, you may be able to prove that you did not, in fact, damage that home the way your landlord claims.
You can also gather evidence in support of the fact that fixing the problem at hand isn't as expensive as your landlord claims it will be. For example, if your landlord is telling you it'll cost $1,500 to make up for some minor wall damage, and you get statements from other contractors estimating that job at $500, you could win a portion of your money back.
Of course, the best way to avoid a scenario where your landlord withholds your security deposit is to take pictures of your rental the day you move in, and then take photos the day you move out. In addition, complete a move-in/move-out checklist, where you review the details of your home, such as the condition of each room as well as its flooring and walls. Some landlords provide this checklist when you first sign a lease, but if yours doesn't, create your own. That way, you'll have a record of what your home looked like before you moved in and what it looks like afterward.
Now if that ship has sailed, and you've already vacated your home without having taken photos or recorded its condition, then you may have a harder time getting your withheld security deposit back. But if you're convinced your landlord is hanging onto it unjustly, you shouldn't hesitate to make every effort to reclaim the money that's yours.