Tenant lawsuits against their landlord for the return of the deposit are common. Here are the basics of doing so, with some background on how to handle security deposit disputes before suing your landlord in court.
Most landlords require tenants to pay a security deposit, typically a month or two of rent, to cover any damages or excessive filth you cause to the rental unit, as well as to provide a financial cushion should you move out owing rent. Most states set a security deposit limit (the maximum amount a landlord may charge), and specify when and how a landlord must return tenant deposits. See Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines in Your State for details.
Legally, landlords may charge for any cleaning or repairs necessary to restore the rental unit to its condition when you moved in. So, if your dog stained the living room carpet, you broke a hanging light fixture, or you left a filthy bathtub or stove top, you can expect the landlord to deduct the costs of cleaning and repair of these items from your deposit. But if the carpet, bathtub, and stove in your apartment were dirty and stained when you moved in, your landlord does not have the legal right to use your deposit to hire a professional cleaning crew to clean them after you move out. If you broke a light fixture, however, you can expect your landlord to use your deposit to cover the cost of replacing the fixture.
Landlords may not use tenant security deposits to cover ordinary wear and tear in the rental unit, such as a few spots on the carpet or missing or bent mini-blind slats. And the longer you’ve lived in your apartment or rental (assuming you took reasonable care of the place), the more wear and tear can be expected, especially on carpets, floors, and walls.
To avoid disputes concerning cleaning and repairs, find out your landlord's cleaning standards and (if they’re reasonable), try to follow these standards before moving out. Assuming you’ve done a good job cleaning and left your rental in the same condition it was when you moved in, you should reasonably expect your landlord to return your deposit in full. If the landlord uses your security deposit to buy an expensive new rug , replacing one that was of fairly low quality and already threadbare when you moved in a few years earlier, you shouldn’t expect to pay for the new rug. (This assumes that the old rug simply got a little worse, and wasn’t completely destroyed by you or your pet.) This example of a worn rug appears to be one of ordinary wear and tear that does not justify the landlord using your deposit to upgrade the apartment furnishings (in this case, the rug).
So what are you options if your landlord uses your deposit to cover ordinary wear and tear in the rental? Start by contacting the landlord and discussing the problem. If you’re not satisfied with the landlord’s response, put your concerns in writing and explain your legal rights as to the use and return of your deposit. If there is no reasonable prospect of compromise, considering suing your landlord in small claims court. It’s relatively inexpensive to file a case, you don’t need a lawyer, and disputes usually go before a judge within a month or two. Take your time preparing your evidence (ideally, you will have before and after photos of the rental unit that back up your claim that the landlord was illegally using your deposit to cover ordinary wear and tear).
For advice on preparing for, filing , and winning a case against your landlord, check Nolo’ s Filing a Security Deposit Lawsuit Against the Landlord articles. Here you’ll find details on your state rules for returning deposits, including:
Also, see the Nolo article How to Sue Your Landlord for more advice for handling deposit disputes with your landlord in small claims court. If you want to consult a lawyer, check out the landlord-tenant lawyers in your state (listed in Nolo’s Lawyer Directory).