If you're having trouble getting your landlord to refund your security deposit, you always have the option to take them to small claims court.
Landlord must return security deeposits
Every state's law is different, but most states require landlords to return your security deposit within 30 days. Some states require compliance in as few as 14 days, while others allow landlords 60 days to return your deposit. Even if only a few weeks have passed since you've moved out, send another written request for your security deposit if you haven't yet heard from your landlord.
Most states require landlords to send you an itemized list of anything they're deducting from the security deposit.
Landlords cannot charge you for normal wear and tear, which generally means changes due to aging, such as carpeting becoming threadbare or paint getting dingy. However, they can charge you for unusual damage, such as holes in the wall, chips in a porcelain sink, or damage from a pet.
How to file a claim in small claims court
Most states prevent attorneys from appearing for you in small claims court. That doesn't mean attorneys can't help you behind the scenes, such as by calling the landlord for you, writing a letter, or preparing you for court.
Before you proceed to small claims court, try to resolve your claim with the landlord. Sometimes a simple letter from an attorney requesting your security deposit back is all it takes for the landlord to comply.
If you decide to proceed, take the following steps:
- Find out which small claims court to use. If you don't want to consult an attorney, ask the court clerk for help. While clerks aren't attorneys and can't give legal advice, they can help with procedural issues, and they're often valuable sources of information. In most cases, you'd file the case in the county where the property is located. On the other hand, you may file it in a county where the landlord does business or where the landlord lives.
- Fill out the complaint or petition. Describe your case in the complaint. Be sure you have the correct address for the landlord. Write in plain English, and make your complaint read like a simple story. Explain what happened and what you're seeking—for example, the return of a $3,000 security deposit, plus punitive damages (extra damages for the landlord's failure to return the deposit). In many cases, punitive damages won't be granted, but it's best to ask for them anyway in the event the judge agrees with you. Explain that you gave the landlord proper notice to vacate and that you returned the apartment in excellent condition.
- Go to the court to file your complaint, and pay the filing fee. Ask the clerk any questions you may have when you file.
- Make copies of the complaint, keeping one for yourself. Give the original to the clerk, who will instruct you to serve the papers to the landlord.
- Serve the papers. You can't serve the papers yourself, so you'll need to get a sheriff or a process server for that. In most states, you can also have someone older than 18 years old serve the papers, but if you do, they'll have to file certification of service with the court.
- Wait for the defendant to serve you with an answer. The defendant, in many states, has 20 to 30 days to serve and file their answer. The defendant may also try to negotiate with you at that point. If you agree to settle the case, you can withdraw your complaint. If the defendant doesn't answer your complaint, you can ask the court at the hearing for a default judgment against the defendant.
- Wait for the court to notify you of your hearing date. While your appearance in small claims court may take no more than 15 minutes, you may have to wait several months to get on the calendar. Generally, you can have your case heard within a few months, but it may take up to six months in larger cities.
How to win in small claims court
The key to winning in small claims court is thorough preparation. Hopefully, you have photos with a date stamp showing how the apartment looked when you moved in and when you moved out. Get the landlord's inventory or report of the move-out inspection. Gather photos, receipts, canceled checks, the lease, inventories, letters to vacate, letters for return of the deposit, an itemized list of deductions, and anything else that shows:
- You had a lease with the landlord.
- The landlord holds your security deposit in a specific amount.
- You asked for your security deposit but failed to get it.
- You have proof of the apartment's condition upon moving in and moving out.
Make copies of your evidence. If you want to bring a witness, you can usually do so. Check with the clerk to see if they can give you a subpoena to serve upon your witness unless you're confident your witness will show up.
Your court date
When you go to small claims court, bring all the evidence you gathered (plus copies), even if you're not sure you'll need it. Keep your evidence organized so you can retrieve it quickly.
Tell the judge in a respectful manner that you didn't get your deposit back, why you're entitled to it, that you gave the landlord proper notice to vacate, and that you left the apartment in excellent condition. Offer to show the court the lease and photos to prove the apartment's condition.
State your case similar to what's in your complaint, in short, easy-to-understand sentences, and in an audible voice. Ask for your security deposit back and for punitive damages.
Sometimes the judge will render a decision at the hearing, and sometimes you'll receive the decision in the mail.
If your case is good, you should get a judgment for at least some, if not all, of your security deposit. Sometimes a judge will determine that some damages are beyond normal wear and tear. Still, if you are owed a substantial amount of money, small claims court is the best way to get back your security deposit, or at least part of it.