My Landlord Kept My Security Deposit – What Do I Do?

I get a lot of inquiries from people whose landlords simply decided to keep their security deposits.  I wish this wasn’t so common, but it is.  Landlords know there is no real penalty for their behavior, and the worst case scenario is that they’ll have to give back the money they were supposed to give back anyway, so why not give it a shot to just keep the money and see if the tenant really bothers to follow through?  (Obviously the solution to this is laws with teeth that penalize landlords in this scenario, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

There is no strict time-frame during which the landlord is required to return a security deposit.  The time-frame must be “reasonable”.  Not helpful.

So what to do?  Hiring an attorney is not a cost-effective solution in these cases since the amount in controversy tends to be only a couple thousand dollars.  Here is what I recommend:

  1. Send the landlord a letter via certified mail, and also by email if you have an email address.  Succinctly describe all communications that have transpired thus far regarding the deposit.  (For example: “I emailed you about the deposit on July 3rd, and you responded that day that you would get back to me shortly.  You never did, so I wrote again on July 10.  To date I have not received any response.”  Or whatever.)
  2. Include photographs of the apartment upon move-out, if you have them; even if you don’t, describe the condition of the apartment, how clean you left it, how it was vacant, to preempt any excuse by the landlord that it had some basis to withhold all or some of the deposit.
  3. Include a deadline by which to respond and say “If my deposit is not received by X date, I will pursue all available remedies, including but not limited to commencement of a small claims proceeding and/or a complaint with the New York State Attorney General’s office”.  Make the deadline 10-14 days away.
  4. Once the deadline passes, file this complaint.  If you have the time and inclination, file a small claims case as well.
  5. Get involved with tenant advocacy groups who work tirelessly to pass tenant-friendly legislation that helps stop landlords from getting away with these types of shenanigans!  Check out our friends at the Real Rent Reform CampaignMetropolitan Council on HousingTenants Political Action Committee, to start.

Good Luck!

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