Now that I'm out, she's keeping the cash!
September 12, 2007 10:47 AM   Subscribe

My landlord won't give me my deposit back. Is there anything I can do?

I'll try and keep this as short as possible.

I had to leave my apartment due to the owner deciding to redevelop the property. The lease was terminated legally, and though I wasn't happy about moving out, things never escalated beyond a few impassioned phone calls to the landlord and owner.

Prior to moving I asked my landlord about inspecting the unit and getting the deposit ($585) back. She told me that the building maintenance man would come by and do a walk-through and that I didn't have to worry about it. I told her that was fine. A week later we chatted on the phone and I asked how it went (as I was not home when the man came by). She told me that everything looked fine, that any problems were just, "normal wear and tear on the apartment." I explained to her that the floors were still a bit dirty, and she responded by saying, "Oh, honey, that's no problem, it's normal wear and tear and we're going to steam clean them anyway."

She asked for my new address and told me she would be sending over the check after I had moved out on the 31st.

Well, an envelope came yesterday, sans check. Instead, there was a letter inside that stated aside from taking my belongings with me, I had not completed all of the tasks on the "moveout checklist," and as such would not be getting my deposit back. This checklist was attached to the initial form that had terminated my lease. She included the list with her letter and wrote that all unchecked items had not been taken care of. She also said she had digital pictures of the entire unit if I had any questions.

Now then. My deposit was for $585, and I know that I did not do that much damage to the apartment. The dirtiest part was the carpet--and I admit that it was indeed dirty. Her maintenance man, however, had come through and gave me the all clear on it. She also had said that it was fine and, in her words, "normal wear and tear." I also know for a fact that other tenants received free steam cleanings of their carpets from her, and I had brought up the quality of the carpet numerous times with her. Not all of the damage to it took place during my lease anyway.

The rest of the apartment was just fine. There was no damage to walls, appliances or windows. Aside from one broken light fixture (maybe $10), there was literally nothing wrong. I did not leave the apartment sparkling clean, but it was completely empty, vacuumed and wiped down.

As for the moveout checklist she had attached, it contained menial cleaning duties like "wipe down the counters" and "clean out the refrigerator." All of the items were unchecked, even though I had completed nearly 90 percent of them. For example, "mop the kitchen floor" was unchecked, even though I had mopped it. The few items that I actually hadn't completed were along the same lines: "dust the blinds," "clean out the bathtub," and "remove the shower curtain." (Which I might add was there when I rented the apartment to begin with! That's why I left it!)

I am livid about this situation, because I took good care of the apartment, and I feel as though my landlord is simply trying to screw me out of money. She hasn't answered or returned my phone calls yet, and even if she were to get a hold of me, I am unsure what to do! I'm in Nebraska, if that makes any difference.

Is there anything I can do to get my money back? What is the best way to proceed with this? Help!
posted by dead_ to Law & Government (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Send a letter requesting your security deposit via certified mail. Wait 45 days or whatever your state requires, file a small claims suit.
posted by electroboy at 10:51 AM on September 12, 2007

Best answer: Here's the relevant statute for Nebraska (Section 76-1416). The immediately relevant subsections state:
(2) Upon termination of the tenancy, property or money held by the landlord as prepaid rent and security may be applied to the payment of rent and the amount of damages which the landlord has suffered by reason of the tenant's noncompliance with the rental agreement or section 76-1421. The balance, if any, and a written itemization shall be delivered or mailed to the tenant within fourteen days after demand and designation of the location where payment may be made or mailed.

(3) If the landlord fails to comply with subsection (2) of this section, the tenant may recover the property and money due him or her and reasonable attorney's fees.
So write a formal letter to your landlord (and send it by certified mail!), quoting the relevant statute. Then ask for the itemized list of expenses, plus the remainder of your deposit, within the 14 days allowed by law. Don't make any threats; just make it clear you know what your rights are.
posted by scody at 10:55 AM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, if the moveout checklist wasn't part of your lease, it's meaningless. Reread your lease, make sure you're covered.

In your letter, don't try to disprove her claims, just state that you left the premises reasonably clean and that you feel you are entitled to your full security deposit. Can't hurt to mention that you will consider filing a small claims lawsuit if "the deposit is not returned in X days, as required by state law."
posted by electroboy at 10:57 AM on September 12, 2007

There is probably a local tenants' rights organization that can advise you.
posted by winston at 10:57 AM on September 12, 2007

Write a letter first and see what happens. Use the letter to memorialize all of your conversations where you were told you would get your full deposit back -- be specific and include all dates, names, and details. Ask to see the photos and ask them to identify the violations. Explain what you did before moving out. Make clear that you're not going to back down. Litigation is an option, but you'd be much better off reaching an agreed resolution (e.g., they deduct the cost of a floor cleaning but pay the remainder).
posted by brain_drain at 11:08 AM on September 12, 2007

I had that experience and it changed how I view the security deposit. I don't expect to get it back. I view it as money I'm paying so that I don't have to clean the place or fix anything when I move out. When I leave, I just leave. If the floors are dirty, well, that's what the security deposit was for (and so on). Since then, I have gotten partial returns on a couple of deposits but have had zero stress about move-out. No calls, no "is this ok."

I've also been a landlord and can say that the expenses of fixing a place typically end up larger than the deposit so the temptation to not return it is big even if the things to be fixed are not the tenant's fault.
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 11:21 AM on September 12, 2007

From personal experience I also just consider "security deposits" a non-refundable fee. Even if you stress out about it and do everything you're supposed to, your landlord will find SOME reason to keep it for SOMETHING. I mean, if they think they can justify it it's basically free money/repairs for them so why wouldn't they milk it for all it's worth?
posted by bradbane at 11:31 AM on September 12, 2007

Best answer: Seconding scody (I don't see where you defined your location as Nebraska, though). If the "checklist" wasn't part of your original lease, then it's completely meaningless.

In WA state, and I suspect most others, the rule is that deposits must be returned in full, period, provided the condition of the apartment is no more than "normal wear and tear" (certainly, basic clean up like counters needing a wipe down count as "normal wear and tear" and can't be costed- it's expected the landlord will have to do a basic cleaning to prepare the unit for the next tenant). Usually a proper landlord will do a walk through with the tenant at move-in, and checklist broken items/ non-working elements in the original lease so that you aren't held responsible for a malfunctioning stove that was like that when you moved in.

The landlord is required to return the deposit within a set period of time; 14 days seems to be standard. If the landlord withholds any part of the deposit (outside of that designated as non-refundable; it's not uncommon for there to be a set of money set aside for the costs of things like steam-cleaning, etc), they are typically required to produce an itemized list of the costs. If you disagree with the costs (i.e., if they spent 3 hours cleaning it themselves and then "billed" you at $100/hr), you can usually file suit.

The recommendation to formally request your money back via certified mail sounds valid; however, if you live in any urban or near-urban area, there will likely be a free tenant's union that will be up to speed on your local laws and tell you the best way to proceed.

Also, a quick google search turns up, which on the surface seems to be a decent state-by-state repository. For example, here's the section on "normal wear and tear", and the section on getting your security deposit back; seems if the maintenance man gave you an all-clear, you're golden and your landlord is going to have to give you back every penny.
posted by hincandenza at 11:36 AM on September 12, 2007

Your profile says you are in Norway. No one can really help you if you don't list your country and state, as laws can vary considerably from state to state.
posted by ND¢ at 12:03 PM on September 12, 2007

I'm in Nebraska, if that makes any difference.
Second-to-last paragraph.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:08 PM on September 12, 2007

Sorry I missed that. Thanks MrMoonPie. This might be helpful.
posted by ND¢ at 12:12 PM on September 12, 2007

1) Check your state statutes regarding the return of security deposits (it looks like somebody has found it for you already).

2) Read your lease carefully for the security deposit disposition.

3) Prepare a letter to landlord quoting the relevant bits from steps one and two (be very specific: "Paragraph 42 of my lease says..." and "State statute xxx.xxxx says....") . A lawyer could probably put this together for $100, and would certainly get the landlord's attention, but you can just say that if she does not act before a certain date you'll be lawyering up (I would use language like "I expect a revised move-out inventory and a check by September 30, 2007, which is 30 days after my move-out date, and the date by which you are required under lease paragraph X and state statute Y to return my deposit. If you fail to comply, I will have no choice but to consult an attorney. Any attempt to put this matter on my credit report will be considered harassment.") Be sure you send this letter return receipt requested.

4) As a former apartment manager, I could see docking you $10 for the shower curtain, and maybe another $25 for additional cleaning, but unless she has an inventory of $585 worth of stuff she has to fix, I fail to see how she can possibly keep the whole thing. If she coughs up a check for something less than your whole deposit, be delighted and deposit it right away.
posted by ilsa at 12:34 PM on September 12, 2007

I don't understand how she can justify some of these charges if the apartment is going to be "redeveloped". At any rate, dusty blinds and dirty carpet are generally considered "normal wear and tear". Unless you broke a bunch of things, 585 dollars is still more money than it would take to clean those things. Definitely demand an itemized list.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:06 PM on September 12, 2007

Even if you stress out about it and do everything you're supposed to, your landlord will find SOME reason to keep it for SOMETHING. I mean, if they think they can justify it it's basically free money/repairs for them so why wouldn't they milk it for all it's worth?

Mostly because most jurisdictions have passed laws against that kind of wholesale thievery. Here in California, the landlord has to itemize every deduction from the deposit, and they can't deduct just anything. Things like carpet cleaning and counter-wiping (for crying out loud) are not usually deductible since they are a part of natural wear and tear that is not the responsibility of the renter.
posted by rhizome at 1:22 PM on September 12, 2007

Best answer: While I agree with others that your first step should be a certified letter to the landlord, the second step should not be a lawsuit. Instead, file a complaint with the state Department of Real Estate. I don't know what the situation is like in Nebraska, but in California, the DRE is required to investigate every consumer complaint. Usually, the threat of an action from them will have the desired effect, since the penalty from them will range from a stiff fine to possibly the revocation of their license - and thus the end of their business - if they discovered a pattern of this kind of stuff. Unlike a lawsuit, it won't cost you anything. If it turns out that they can't get your deposit back, then you can go to court. This will also show that you tried everything in reason before filing a suit, which small claims judges like to see if it does end up going that route.

For the record, I agree with others here that it saves a lot of time and energy to just surrender your deposit instead of bothering to clean the apartment when you leave. That doesn't help you now, but it is something to keep in mind for your next apartment.
posted by robhuddles at 2:25 PM on September 12, 2007

I agree with others here that it saves a lot of time and energy to just surrender your deposit instead of bothering to clean the apartment when you leave.

Depends where you live. My security deposits in L.A have ranged from $575 to $1800. No way is it worth it to surrender that much money to avoid mopping some floors and scrubbing the tub.
posted by scody at 3:39 PM on September 12, 2007

Yeah if we were talking about a $50 or $100 deposit maybe it would be worth writing off. I don't know many people who can afford to write off a $500 or more deposit. The other risk of "Bah, why bother cleaning" is that there might be enough wrong to warrant getting a *bill* from the old apartment complex. Not only could such a situation negatively impact your ability to get an apartment (or mortgage) in the future, it could result in nasty bill collectors sniffing around. I only bothered with such things if I was owed quite a bit of money (say, bigger than what a month's rent would have been); other managers weren't so nice.
posted by ilsa at 3:51 PM on September 12, 2007

I had a similar situation with a rental house in California. The landlord sent a letter claiming his costs to get the house in acceptable condition for new tenants equaled the same amount of our security deposit (the fact that his itemized list of repair/cleaning costs just happened to add up to the exact amount of our security deposit set off my BS detectors immediately).

Here's what I did (some of which has already been recommended by scody) that helped me get the lion's share of my security deposit back:

1. I did a google search (sorry, don't remember the exact search terms I used) that brought me to the relevant portions of the California Civil Code (CCC) having to with tenant rights in regards to security deposits. In doing a close reading of this portion of the CCC I discovered I was indeed in the right due to a few factors in my favor:

a) In CA at least (your state may vary) a landlord can deduct up to $125 from a security deposit no questions asked. Anything over and above that, at the request of the tenant, the landlord must provide actual receipts from vendors who performed the cleaning/repairs. Or,if the landlord performed the work him or herself, he or she must provide a list of hours worked, describe what work was performed and bill those at a reasonable hourly rate. In other words, your landlord can't just say "Mopping the Floor = $200", "Vacuuming = $300" which was more or less how he itemized things in his initial letter.

b) This seemed a little open to interpretation to me, but essentially, your landlord cannot bill for normal wear and tear. So, for example, it is within reason that an apartment lived in over a certain period of time would have a carpet that is no longer as clean or in as good of shape as when it was first laid out.

2. I drafted a polite (but firm), formal letter to my landlord disputing his decision to withhold our security deposit. I quoted heavily from the appropriate sections of the CCC in the letter so the landlord could understand this wasn't a "my word" vs. "his word" issue, but a "THE LAW" vs. "What he was trying to pull on me" issue. I indicated in the letter than I was more than willing to take this to small claims court if required. I sent the letter certified mail, signature required.

3. After the landlord received the letter he contacted me by phone, apologized for his initial tactics, and offered what in my mind was a fair settlement which I accepted.

This was what worked for me. If CA law is anywhere similar to where you are, the law should be on your side, so this is worth fighting. Good luck!
posted by The Gooch at 4:07 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Our old landlord was being a shithead about our deposit a few years ago. Writing letters that reference the relevant statute work. Follow scody's advice.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:16 PM on September 12, 2007

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