Coming across a solid apartment to rent in New York City is hard enough without also having to deal with getting your security deposit back from the apartment you’re moving out of. Unfortunately once in a while you run into a landlord who somehow “forgets” to send your security deposit back. Some people see this as part of the cost of New York apartment rental life and simply move out without paying their last month of rent, but others pay that last month and spend months trying to get their security deposit back without much success.
If this sounds familiar, you may want to read on. First off, it’s important to know that landlords can deduct from your security deposit in two instances: (1) as reimbursement for the reasonable cost of repairs beyond what’s known as “normal wear and tear” of the apartment, or (2) as reimbursement for unpaid rent. Keep in mind that “normal wear and tear” is a really vague term and your landlord may get creative with the concept. One suggestion (and we realize this isn’t very helpful if you’re already moving out) is to take pictures of the apartment on your move-in date and make a move-in day checklist. This can prove useless with certain landlords, but it’s still worth the effort.
Okay, so assuming you’re getting the deposit back you also have to keep in mind that your landlord doesn’t have to return the deposit on the day you move out. In fact, he/she only has to return the deposit within a “reasonable time” after the end of your lease. A reasonable amount of time, as you would imagine, is a vague term and usually falls somewhere within 30-60 days after you move out. So you need to sit still for the first 3-4 weeks, but make sure to call and preferably email your landlord asking about the deposit during this time. If you’re still waiting for the money a month after moving out, send your landlord a formal letter demanding that he/she return your security deposit. Make sure to include copies of those emails you sent your landlord asking for the deposit back so you have evidence to show you made several attempts to obtain the deposit without resorting to a more aggressive approach.
If after 60 days of this your landlord still doesn’t return your deposit (or your calls) you’ll have to decide whether you want to sue him/her. Filing a lawsuit in Small Claims Court may sound like a pain, but it’s pretty easy and you can do it without hiring a lawyer. The bad part is that it’s a long process, but then again, it’s your money we’re talking about here so it’s worth the effort. Once you file the suit you’ll get a date for a court appearance (like a trial date). If your landlord shows up on that day he/she may ask for an extension (the judge will likely allow it) and request a later trial date. This is just a stalling tactic but you’ll have to accept whatever the judge decides. The more likely scenario is that your landlord won’t show up at all. If that’s the case, you’ll just have to tell your version of the story to a mediator (no need to bring your own lawyer, seriously) who will probably find in your favor. Once the mediator finds in your favor (we know…it’s an exhausting process) you then have to contact a sheriff or city marshal and have them enforce the Small Claims Court judgment. If you have a copy of a deposited rent check you’ll want to give this to the marshal so they can track your landlord’s bank account and collect payment. Finally!!! Of course, none of this guarantees that your landlord will be solvent by this point but you just have to keep trying.
One thing to keep in mind is that even if your landlord has “spent” the deposit, he/she is still responsible for returning the money to you (less deductions for any damages or unpaid rent) at the end of your tenancy. Also, if a defect existed before you moved in, you should not be charged for that particular problem, which is why those move-in day pictures are a good idea.
Here are some helpful websites in case you do go after your deadbeat landlord for a security deposit you are lawfully owed: