Renters Tips:

Don’t let security deposits wear you down
By: Gary Petty

Once a landlord kept $20 of my security deposit for dusty blinds.

20 bucks isn’t much, but I was furious. It was the principle of it.

You see, I’d spent hours cleaning my apartment from top to bottom. The landlord even complimented me on the condition of the apartment when he signed off on my perfect walk-through form.

So when I got my security deposit back minus my $20, I was really surprised. Thinking back, I realized I never thought about cleaning the blinds. That just seemed like something the landlord should do.

I actually contemplated going to court over it. But it didn’t take me long to come to my senses. The Small Claims Court fee was $25. It didn’t make much sense to spend $25 and a lot of time and energy to get $20 back. And I’m sure my landlord knew that as well.

When I thought about it, I realized when a renter gets a full security deposit back; it’s got to be a miracle. It must be very tempting for landlords to deduct a small amount — just enough that it’s not worth suing over. And knowing this, I just want to teach these landlords a lesson.

But then I look at it from the landlord’s point of view. It’s probably pretty rare when an apartment is left in exactly the same condition that it was rented in — minus any “normal wear and tear.”

Worn out

Ah! There’s the crux of the whole security deposit matter. Wear and tear.

Anyone who’s ever cracked open a tenant’s rights book or read my column over the past few years knows this phrase. That’s because landlords aren’t allowed to deduct the cost of normal wear and tear from security deposits.

Unfortunately everyone disagrees on what constitutes normal wear and tear.

Let’s take rugs for example. It doesn’t take long for a new rug to look used. Obviously if you spill grape juice over a new white rug, it stands to reason you should pay to get the stain removed. But if the rug’s stains are the kind that normally happen over several years of use, then what?

Many landlords and tenants end up in court over this issue. Landlords try to get tenants to pay for new rugs when old rugs are ready to be thrown out. But tenants legally shouldn’t pay for replacing an old rug, unless they damage it beyond normal wear and tear.

Since evaluating wear and tear vs. damage is often quite subjective, judges and mediators are often asked to resolve these conflicts between tenants and landlords.

It’s a problem that will exist as long as the landlords collect security deposits.

Stay clear

Knowing that even the nicest landlords will often try to keep security deposits, you need to stay clear about what’s important.

  1. First of all, you should protect yourself from the start by taking pictures of your apartment both when you move in and move out. You and your landlord should also conduct a walk-through and sign a statement of the apartment’s condition.
  2. When you damage the apartment, contact your landlord immediately. Don’t wait until you move out because the landlord will likely deduct more after you’re gone.
  3. Have your apartment professionally cleaned or do it yourself like a pro would. It should be as clean as the day you moved in.
  4. If your landlord keeps part of your deposit, try to remain level-headed about the matter. Does your landlord have the right to keep that money? Perhaps you overlooked something when you cleaned. Talk to someone who understands landlord-tenant law if you’re not sure.
  5. When you are sure your landlord was in the wrong, consider the time and energy it will take to fight the landlord in court. Weigh the cost of going to court against the money the landlord kept. If the landlord kept a huge amount of money, then going to court with a good case is worth your time. But no matter how great your case, going to court for a small amount of money is not worth your time or the judge’s time. In the end, the judge may even be annoyed that you wasted valuable court time on such a trivial issue.

It’s hard to stand by and let landlords get away with keeping security deposits illegally. At the same time, you need to be practical and choose your battles wisely.