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“Recourse when landlord keeps your deposit?”

by Prince Of Petworth May 18, 2017 at 1:15 pm 30 Comments

Photo by PoPville flickr user Erin

“Dear PoPville,

Is there a recourse when your landlord keeps your deposit?

Background: We’re a professional couple in our mid forties who’ve rented a Mt Pleasant row house for three years. We’ve treated it like our own, have made small upgrades (with the permission of the landlord) and have had no incidents during our time here.

Now that we’ve finished our lease to move back overseas, the landlord has kept half of our deposit (and this is Mt Pleasant, so that’s a lot). She’s given no explaination other than this is for repainting and cleaning.

We had the house deep cleaned before we left. There is no structural or cosmetic damage to the house other than what would constitute normal wear and tear (we have no kids, no pets and frankly the house is in better shape than when we rented it). But as all this is subjective. Do we have any avenues to challenge her to get our deposit back?”

  • Hill Denizen

    Isn’t this what small claims court is for?

    • Carey

      Half a month’s lease on an entire rowhouse in Mt. Pleasant almost certainly exceeds the limits of small claims court.

      • JoDa

        The limit is $10K (recently up from $5K, but still). The house surely didn’t rent for $20K/month or more…

      • Anonymous

        Small claims court is up to $10,000. I don’t think MtP is that expensive yet, is it?

  • Mug of Glop

    If your lease contract was within the realm of normal, your security deposit can only be used for damage beyond normal wear and tear. And the nominal need for regular repainting and especially cleaning is certainly within the category of normal wear and tear. You can site the terms of your contract to your former landlord, but the only recourse you really have is the threat of small claims court followed by an actual filing. I’ve heard that simply getting a lawyer to write a strongly worded letter on their firm’s letterhead is often enough to induce landlords to act properly, but your mileage will of course vary.
    (I am not a lawyer, but I am a serial renter.)

  • Admo_Anon

    It’s my understanding that landlords can keep partial deposits if wear and tear on the apartment is beyond what would be considered “normal wear”. I would go over your lease carefully, I have found a lot of times repainting the apartment is just a normal thing that usually the landlord just does after move out. Small claims court is probably your best option, but I would also immediately file a complaint with DC so that it’s on record that you’re contesting. This website has all the legalese information for DC, so it probably has a list of what can legally be pulled for your deposit. https://www.landlordology.com/district-of-columbia-landlord-tenant-laws/

    Also, if they do keep it, they are required to send you an itemized list of costs for any repairs they made with your deposit.

  • OldinAM

    Frpm DC landlord-tenant regs at http://www.dcregs.dc.gov/Gateway/ChapterHome.aspx?ChapterNumber=14-3

    “Any housing provider violating the provisions of this section by failing to return a security deposit rightfully owed to a tenant in accordance with the requirements of this section shall be liable for the amount of the deposit withheld or, in the event of bad faith, for treble damages.”

    The regs seem pretty clear. A security deposit is not intended for normal wear and tear. If there are specific repairs required you must be officially notified and such repairs documented.

  • Jennifer

    What your landlord is doing is patently illegal. Under DC law she is required to provide a detailed list of what repairs will be made and how much each will cost. Cleaning, unless the place is left funkified or that was specified in the lease, and normal wear and tear (ie, needing to repaint after 3 years) is not covered.

    You may want to contact your council member for guidance on how to proceed. There is also an Office of Tenant Advocate: https://ota.dc.gov/ As a former landlord I had to register my property with the city as a rental. If your landlord did not do that she is subject to all sorts of fines, up to having to return your rental payments. You have rights that she is violating.

    • Elvis’s Mom

      +1000 Please do file a complaint against this landlord, because that’s ridiculous. We’ve all seen lots of property owners here complain about the difficulties of renting in DC because of pro-tenant laws, but this is why, because of shady landlords who do stuff like this.

    • Anonymous

      Definitely check to see if your landlord registered this property. She should have a basic business license, which is searchable through one of the city databases (just google it). On a personal note, my accountant warned me that the landlord of an unlicensed, unregistered property has no legal standing in landlord-tenant disputes.

  • not a lawyer

    Your landlord has 45 days to either return your deposit or send you an itemized list of the repairs being made out of the funds from your deposit (and another 30 days after that date to return the rest of those funds to you.) If they don’t get you that refund or notification of withholding within 45 days, they’re not allowed to withhold anything and must refund the entire amount. When landlords have exceeded that in the past I’ve had to threaten small claims court to get my deposit back, but that seems like enough to scare them off into just giving you your money back. Sounds like the courts are tenant-friendly and they’re unlikely to win if they’ve violated any of these terms.

  • kallie

    My former landlord tried to do something similar to me a few years ago. I went to small claims court, and served him with a notice to appear in court. He tried to countersue and when he saw he had no case, and I wouldn’t back down – he relented. If a landlord decides to go to court with you and the court rules in your favor that you fully deserved the the deposit, the landlord might have to pay double back to you (from what I read at the time in the DC Tenant Laws.) If you are serious about getting your money back, going through this process is worth it.

    • Tenant too

      Similar here. Took landlord to small claims court. Judge made her write me a check in open court. I cashed it same day. Otherwise the judgement is 3x penalty. I had photos when I moved out. I paid a small fee to have the notice served. It took the man many days to serve her (dodgy).

  • Steph

    They need to provide an itemized list of expenses to justify the amount they are retaining (and they have to do that within a 45-day window from when you move out, I believe). Call or go to the Office of the Tenant Advocate: https://ota.dc.gov/.

    I also highly recommend the DC Tenant Survival Guide (created/maintained by Georgetown Law folks): https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/95427853/CNHED%20Reports%20%26%20Papers%20%26%20Testimony/Tenant%20Survival%20Guide%202013.pdf

    Make sure that INTEREST accrued on your deposit is also accounted for (either used to defray repairs, or is returned to you).

    If they don’t cooperate, you can file a complaint with the Rental Accommodations Division and it may go on to an administrative hearing.

    (not a lawyer but going through some stuff right now with our former landlord)

  • eva

    Small claims court. I did this the last time I rented and received the full deposit back (with interest).

    • bruno

      What are the rules on a landlord having to, or not having to, keep the deposit in an interest bearing account? My current landlord has not done this….. he’s flighty and I just have not pushed it.

      • Cleo42

        The DC Tenant Bill of Rights includes the following:

        SECURITY DEPOSIT: The landlord must place your security deposit in an interest-bearing account. The landlord must post notices stating where the security deposit is held and the prevailing interest rate. Within 45 days after you vacate the apartment, the landlord must either return your security deposit with interest, or provide you with written notice that the security deposit will be used to defray legitimate expenses. The landlord must notify you of the date and time of the “move-out” inspection. (14 D.C.M.R. §§ 308-311)

        • anoNE

          Every time I moved out of a rental, I made it a point to be there for the move out inspection. Sometimes it meant taking vacation hours. I think it’s been part of the reason I’ve never had any issue getting backy security deposit in full. (That and not causing damage, doing a deep clean and having relatively good luck with landlords. Sounds like OP had 2/3 here.)

      • Anonymous

        The last time I checked, the landlord is required to put the deposit in an interest-bearing account within 30 days of receiving it, and is required to tell you where the account is; further they are supposed to tell you what the interest rate is every so often (6 months or a year, I think). I get the impression that most landlords don’t exactly follow these rules closely, although many do repay the deposit with interest which is really the important part. Having said that, interest rates have been so low for so long that the interest accrual is usually not very significant.

        • bruno

          Good to know. Thanks! When I moved to my current place, I was just glad to get out of my old one and was not paying attention :^)

      • Tsar of Truxton

        I am pretty sure it is required to be interest bearing, but check the regs.

      • anon

        I’m a landlord and when I went to a DC bank branch (PNC) and told them I needed an account for the purpose of keeping a tenant’s security deposit, they knew exactly what to do.

  • It’s just me

    What I did – I got the DC regs (cited above by someone else) and wrote a polite but strongly worded letter saying what the LL did wrong and citing the DC code they violated. Then I pointed out the damages they would have to pay (where I lived it was 3x the deposit + court fees) and cite to the code for that. Also cite any pertinent parts of your lease and say when you want this resolved by (usually, they have some specific amount of time to pay your deposit back). Many LLs will just give your deposit back if you show a basic knowledge of the law. If they don’t, take them to small claims court.

  • petworthette

    my LL never paid me back, but i over out about 7 years ago. is it too late to try to get my deposit back?

    • Anon Spock

      I believe small claims has a 3 year limit from the injury, so you’re probably SOL, but maybe landlord-tenant extends this time frame.

  • JoDa

    After 3 years, painting would be normal wear and tear, unless additional work was needed (significant repairs to the walls for damage; specialty paints to cover up intense odors (usually smoke), extreme scuffing (usually rub-off from cheap, dark-colored furniture), or “kid stuff” (paint/marker/crayon on walls)) and even then, you should be billed for the extra work/expense, not the whole boat because *general* painting would be a normal thing after 3 years.
    You’re really only required to leave the property “broom clean.” I usually expect to have a cleaning service come in and do some of the things tenants miss (really dirty light switches (a serious pet peeve of mine…how do people not see how crusty their light switches are???), dirt on doors from them being handled (more noticeable since most interior doors are painted white), dusty baseboards, cabinets with crumbs inside, grease/splatters on the front of cabinets, etc.). It doesn’t cost much to take it from broom clean to sparkling, so that’s a minor expense most of the time ($75-100/1-bedroom, $100-125/2-bedroom…most of the cost is in the kitchen and bath(s), so the cost doesn’t escalate in a linear fashion by number of bedrooms). I would never think of trying to go after a tenant unless the place were FILTHY.
    As others have noted, I’d start with a sternly worded letter citing the DC regs. If that doesn’t work, file in small claims. Unless you actually busted up the walls or left the place filthy (you have pictures, right?) your case is a winner and the LL will likely pay up promptly.

    • JoDa

      Also, to clear up the “I guess” and “I’ve heard” on this thread:
      *The landlord must provide a written estimate of any repair expenses that are being deducted from the security deposit within 45 days after the tenants vacate.
      *If nothing is being deducted from the security deposit, the landlord must return the full security deposit, with interest, in that same 45 days.
      *If repair expenses are being deducted, the landlord must provide an itemized statement to the tenant 30 days after the estimated expenses are provided (so maximum of 75 days) and return any excess funds from the security deposit at that same time, with interest.
      *Interest is at the “prevailing rate” offered on savings accounts. These days, unfortunately, that probably means .01-.05% interest. If the bank pays more than the prevailing rate, the landlord may keep up to 30% of the accrued interest to cover “administrative costs” (that usually means taxes the landlord paid on the interest while the deposit was in their possession).
      *Treble damages only apply if the landlord withholds the security deposit in “bad faith.” That’s a higher hurdle to jump than just withholding funds they shouldn’t have, so don’t count on getting 3x what was withheld back just because what the LL withheld for wasn’t something you should have to pay for. “Bad faith” doesn’t usually include withholding for things that should be considered normal wear and tear, returning a security deposit/excess late (within reason…if they provided no statement or return until you filed, you might have a case for damages), or not providing detailed receipts of work done, but, rather, when funds are withheld for repairs/replacements not actually performed, not providing a statement of deductions AT ALL, etc. The courts here may side with tenants more often than not, but to get treble damages requires truly egregious behavior on the LL’s part.

  • Vered

    This is such a common area of abuse. I once had a landlord withhold the entire security deposit because, she said, of dirt trapped behind the stove.

    A landlord should not charge tenants for normal turnover expenses, such as painting and small maintenance (like cleaning in hard-to-reach areas). They have to repaint and repair, regardless of how beautifully the tenant took care of it, so it is refreshed and new for new tenants. The landlord should be putting aside funds from the rent to cover this normal business expense.

    I know of some (good) landlords who take pictures of the unit before move-in to document the condition prior to occupation by a resident, so when the resident moves out they should be able to justify a deduction from the security deposit.

    Tenants, to protect themselves, should pleasantly and politely take their own pictures before moving in, preferably with the landlord present, but at least with the landlord’s knowledge. Then email them the pictures and keep a copy of the email. Just the act of taking pictures may impress the landlord that you are knowledgeable are therefore less vulnerable to this common abuse.

    It’s a pain in the neck, but may save a lot of trouble, not to mention your time and funds, later.

  • textdoc

    Contact the Office of the Tenant Advocate — they should be able to help.
    There’s some discussion in this thread about what constitutes normal wear and tear vs. damage for which the landlord would be within his/her rights to deduct from the security deposit:

  • KB

    I’d reiterate what others have already said here. As a landlord of a Columbia Heights rowhome, I know it is my responsibility to provide an itemized receipt to tenants detailing any repairs or costs that resulted in a partially returned security deposit. I have luckily had good renters so far and have not needed to withhold security deposit except one time for a broken window (which the tenant admitted to breaking and offered to pay to fix). I consider painting and cleaning to be the cost of doing business and don’t charge my outgoing tenants for that (so long as its within the realm of reasonable as per others statements and what is noted in the lease, i.e. “normal wear and tear”).

    Once, when I was a tenant myself, a landlord charged me a few hundred bucks for replacing part of the carpet when I moved out, which was totally reasonable because I had three dogs (they didn’t go to the bathroom on the floor, but 3 dogs walking around all day will result in more than normal wear and tear). The landlord was cool with me having three dogs so I wasn’t going to argue when he kept part of the deposit to replace the carpet.


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