Are security deposit deductions worth going to court over?

When landlord can't provide receipts, it's right to question fees

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 1, 2012

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When landlord can't provide receipts, it's right to question fees

Robert Griswold
Inman News®

Q: I vacated my rental house after living there for five years. I had paid a $650 deposit when I moved in. Per the landlord-tenant act in my state, the landlord is required to provide a detailed itemized statement or accounting and a refund of any remaining balance of my security deposit.

On the 14th day after I moved out, the property manager wrote a letter to me stating that he and the landlord were still waiting on final bills for cleaning and other items. So I believe that this letter was not sufficient.

Today, I received the "final accounting" for my rental house. I had spoken to the property manager prior to vacating the premises and we agreed verbally that when I moved I would not be cleaning the carpet. Also, since I was leaving the state I did leave a desk in the house and a few items outside the house.

In the "itemized statement" there were several charges levied against my deposit. One was $235.21 for "garbage removal." I know from personal experience that a dump run in that area costs $20 for up to 400 pounds, so I question the charge for "garbage removal."

Another charge is $215 for "tenant portion of interior painting," which seems like complete repainting. The one-bedroom, one-bath house was only 496 square feet with a tiny kitchen and two closets.

Also, this itemized statement did not provide any copies of receipts, so it is as if the landlord expects me to take his word for all of this. I have always been under the impression that if a tenant occupies the unit for more than one year, the painting is considered normal wear and tear. I am in shock that the landlord is trying to charge me for painting at all, let alone so much.

I think the landlord violated the state law. I have the right to take this to small claims court, and the landlord may be ordered to refund my full deposit or even pay me double my refund amount. All I really want is what is rightfully mine. The way I see it, the landlord owes me about $450 of my $650 deposit.

Can you confirm my reasoning so I can determine if it is worth taking this to small claims court?

A: I am not an attorney but it is my opinion that sending you a letter on the 14th day meets the intent of the law. The fact that you apparently left the property in poor condition such that the landlord could not get the work done and the bills finalized within 14 days does not mean the landlord has breached the legal requirement. Many times it is not possible to have the final invoices and accounting within a short time frame like 14 days.

I advise owners and property managers to do exactly what they did, which is send a letter explaining the circumstances and then follow up as soon as they can with the actual amounts. I cannot predict what a small claims court will do in your case, but I have seen such courts side with landlords in this exact situation.

I do think your request to see copies of the receipts for painting and the trash removal is certainly reasonable. But I don't believe the issue is what you think the costs should be as much as what they actually paid and that the amounts paid were reasonable. Landlords and property managers are not required to do the turnover of rental units personally or for the cheapest possible cost using day laborers. They can hire professional companies that have employees and offer those employees reasonable market-level wages and benefits.

So the fact that you know that the local dump will take 400 pounds of trash for $20 is not relevant other than for that portion of any charges passed on to you should be the actual cost incurred by the landlord. You seem to be overlooking what is likely the largest portion of the $235.21 charge and that is the labor to clean up and the transportation costs to haul away and dump the items and/or trash you left behind. You acknowledge that you left a desk and some items outside the house, and the landlord has to remove those items.

If you wanted to make sure that the charges were extremely low, then you should have done the work yourself or personally hired someone to do the work so you can control the costs.

The charge for the painting at $215 also seems quite reasonable based on my 30-plus years of experience. There is no law that specifically states that a tenancy of more than one year exempts a tenant from charges for painting. So the landlord can charge for the reasonable costs beyond ordinary wear and tear.

You don't provide details about the condition you left the rental unit paint in, but it doesn't take a lot of damage to incur $215 in costs for labor and materials to patch and paint a one-bedroom unit.

While your rental unit may have only been less than 500 square feet, it is difficult to find a painting contractor to come out and do much for just over $200. Think about the costs of a painting contractor these days and most have minimum charges. So ask for a copy of the receipt, but know that the charge seems quite fair, as the complete prepping and patching and repainting and cleanup for a 500-square-foot rental property could be $400-$500 in many areas. I would expect that you will find the landlord paid more than the $215. And, as the landlord's comment in the final accounting suggests, you were just charged for a portion of the costs, which would be reasonable since you did live there for five years.

You don't mention that there were any other charges against your security deposit but acknowledge that you told the landlord that you were leaving with the carpet dirty. So any reasonable charges for the carpet cleaning would seem to be legitimate as well.

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