What To Do If You Don’t Get Your Security Deposit Back

It’s supposed to work like this: you give your landlord your notice (“So long, I’m moving, it’s been swell!”), clean the place till it literally sparkles, pack your belongings Tetris-tight into a truck, and head out to your new abode. A few days later, your security deposit refund appears in your new mailbox. You congratulate yourself for getting the whole thing back, for leaving the apartment in pristine condition–not that you were worried, of course–and you take the check to the bank. Done. Chapter of your life, complete.

For me, recently, things went off-script. Oh, I did my part: gave notice, cleaned, packed, moved. Waited. And waited. The landlord never sent the refund, or gave any reason for not sending it.

Lesson 1. Discuss the return of your deposit with the landlord before moving out

It’s been four months. I’ve tried to get in touch with both the landlord (it’s a small-time operation, one family that owns one building) and the property manager, via phone, email, and old-fashioned United States Postal Service. The only response, ever, was one time when the property manager finally called me back and said that the landlord had returned my deposit by simply not cashing my last rent check. (Seems  he’s used to people using the deposit for last rent payment. That’s what I get for being a good guy!) I was pretty sure that was inaccurate—I keep a pretty close eye on my checking account—but said I’d double-check the bank records and call him right back. I clicked open my account online records, then picked up my phone and left another voice mail with the news: Nope. The last check was, indeed, cashed. They still owed me my refund. (And by the way, in Minnesota–where I live–the law specifically says that you, the renter, may not simply use your deposit for your last month’s rent.)

Lesson 2. Talk to someone who has the inside scoop

With no response to that voice mail, I didn’t know what to do–didn’t know my rights, didn’t know if the landlord could suddenly claim he was keeping my deposit, didn’t know my next step. But a few days ago, I was having brunch with some friends, and I remembered that one of them worked for a property management company. I explained the situation and asked–pleaded, really–for advice. “Okay, here’s the deal,” she said, a sympathetic smile spreading across her face.

Here’s what I had been waiting to hear; here’s what you, the refund-less renter, need to know:

Lesson 3. You have the law on your side

“They owe you the deposit,” my friend said. “And you should talk to the state Attorney General. She helped us me resolve some rental problems a few years ago.”

In Minnesota, she explained, landlords have twenty-one days (after the tenant has moved out) to return the deposit or provide a written explanation for why there will be no–or only a partial–refundIf neither is provided in twenty-one days, then the landlord owes the renter the full refund, period, even if there was otherwise a reason to withhold it.

Lesson 4. If the landlord does not return the deposit on time, he may owe your DOUBLE the amount!

In Minnesota, if there’s no refund or explanation within twenty-one days, the landlord owes the renter double the deposit amount, plus interest. It’s all in the state law, and spelled out in clear, not law-jargon terms, on the Minnesota Attorney General’s web site.  My not-refunded-yet deposit was $650, so the landlord technically now owes me $1,300, plus interest (which would amount to just a few dollars).

Lesson 5. When all else fails, contact your Attorney General

Last week, I emailed the property manager a firm (but friendly) email laying out all of the circumstances and details, including links to the exact wording of the law on the Minnesota State Legislature web site. I told him I would appreciate a prompt response and payment, and that I didn’t particularly want to involve the Attorney General’s Office, but that I would certainly do so if I didn’t hear back from him. Still no reply, still no check. Which means that right now, I’m preparing a letter to send to the Attorney General.

Lesson 6. All the legal information is just a click away

I know now that all the information you need is readily available by finding your proper governmental agency. In addition to the Minnesota Attorney General’s web site, I’ve looked at a random sample of other state web sites, and all of them have extensive information about all aspects of renter’s rights. And you can be sure that when I move to another state, the first step of my apartment hunt will be to look up the local laws.

In many cases, they’re similar (but not identical) to Minnesota’s laws, such as the requirement that landlords have twenty-one days to return your full deposit or provide a written explanation for why they are not doing so.

To find the laws that apply to your own state, go to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s web site and click on “State Info” in the navigation bar at the top of the page. Select your state, and then look for a link with a description similar to Tenant Rights, Laws and Protections.

Lesson 7. Make sure you leave the apartment spotless and document with photos

And, of course, don’t forget that you also have your own responsibilities and legal obligations. You still have to leave your apartment in good shape, you still have to follow all the specific of the lease, including regulations about pets, the amount of notice you must give before moving out, and so on. Much of that information is also laid out in the laws, so be sure to read those sections,too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a letter to write. Wish me luck.

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Doug Mack is a writer based in Minneapolis and the author of the travel memoir Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide (Perigee Books/Penguin). He has lived in apartments large and small, historic and modern, in Minneapolis and Chicago. Visit his web site at www.douglasmack.net or find him on Twitter @douglasmack.

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Comments (1)

  1. Avatar Andy

    I’m glad (and surprised) to hear that Minnesota has such good security deposit laws. Here in Chicago most landlords don’t follow the law which gives tenants a lot of leverage to get their deposit and penalties back.