How Should a Landlord Prepare For Court?

As a landlord, you will need to convince the judge that the damage was not there when the tenant moved in, that you have spent reasonably for needed repairs, and that you followed your state's procedures for itemizing deductions and refunding the balance of the security deposit.

Question

A previous tenant is suing us in small claims court, saying we returned too little of his security deposit. But we gave him an itemized list of the much-needed repairs. The tenant is asking for payment of the security deposit, money compensation for grief and time, and reimbursement of gas and miles. Can he get all of that? Also, what would you suggest we prepare for the judge to mount a strong defense? We already have pictures of the damage, receipts for some of the work, and estimates for materials costs.

Answer

What matters in small claims court is not so much what you say, but the evidence you bring with you to the courtroom. And you seem to have done a pretty good job of preparing already.

When you do land in court, you will need to convince the judge that the damage was not there when the irate tenant moved in, that you have spent reasonably for needed repairs, and that you followed your state's procedures for itemizing deductions and refunding the balance of the deposit.

Bring your receipts, pictures, and any helpful witnesses. If the witnesses are not able to appear in person, a signed declaration explaining what they saw or did (such as cleaning or repairs) will probably be sufficient.

You sound like a reasonable soul—and you will want to impress the judge with this, too, right down to your sensible shoes. Be calm, factual, and as succinct as possible when making your presentation.

Small claims courts have limits on how much money and what types of claims a tenant can sue for. A tenant can sue only for money in small claims court, not for court orders. In other words, the tenant cannot ask the judge to order the landlord to do something or stop doing something.

The tenant's claim must also fall below the legal limit allowed in small claims court. For example, in California, a tenant can only sue for up to $10,000 in small claims court. The tenant also has to be able to prove all of the money damages in the lawsuit. It is difficult to prove money damages for grief and time, so it is unlikely the tenant will be awarded this part of the demand. It is also unlikely that a judge would award the tenant compensation for transportation costs, even if the tenant wins.

Small claims court rules vary from state to state, so be sure to check the rules in the state you live in.

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