Tenants can sue their landlords for the returning their deposit, depending on factors such as deductions were taken. State security deposit laws usually allow landlords to deduct the following from a tenant’s deposit:
- unpaid rent (for example, if you leave without paying last month’s rent)
- repairing damage you (or a guest or pet caused), such as a broken window, and
- cleaning a dirty rental.
But there are limits to how a landlord may use a tenant’s security deposit. While there are no hard and fast rules, and every move-out is different, the following landlord actions may justify a tenant suing the landlord in small claims court for improper deductions:
- using the deposit to cover ordinary wear and tear, such as chipped paint on your apartment door (especially if you’ve lived in the rental for more than a year or so)
- setting unreasonable standards for cleaning, or using the deposit to cover filth or damage that were present when you first moved in
- charging for replacing an expensive item, such as a refrigerator or stove, when a repair would be sufficient
- replacing an inexpensive item (such as linoleum floors) with a high-priced one (such as parquet wood floors), or
- charging for cleaning if you paid a nonrefundable cleaning fee.
If you’ve been unsuccessful in working out an agreement with your landlord regarding what you consider are illegal deductions, you may sue your landlord in small claims court. For state rules and procedures on suing your landlord, see Nolo’ s Filing a Security Deposit Lawsuit Against the Landlord articles.
For practical information on handling disputes with landlords, from move in to move out, see Every Tenant’s Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).