Landlord Doesn’t Return Deposit After 21 Days

Author: Todd Christiansen | Category: Tenants

In Minnesota, California and a few other states, the law requires that the landlord must return your deposit in full or send you an itemized list of damages and any remaining deposit 21 days after you move out.  I think this is a good law for tenants.  It keeps lazy, crooked, or incompetent landlords on their toes and makes them do what they are supposed to.

Point of information:  Remember that in most states, it is the tenant’s responsibility to notify the landlord in writing of their new address.  Many tenants forget this step, disappear and the landlord can’t find them to follow their legal requirements.  When this happens, the 21 day clock only starts ticking once the tenant notifies the landlord (assuming they have moved out).

So what happens if the landlord doesn’t return the security deposit after 21 days?  What can you as the tenant do?  Here are some ideas.  While none are maybe full proof, I wrote them as an escalating set of steps:

  1. Send a letter (keep a copy) to your landlord to the same address that you send your rent stating that 21 days have past since you have moved out.  You are just wanting to check on your security deposit.  Keep this upbeat and cordial.  No need to get anyone alarmed right now.  Put your new address in the letter again.
  2. Wait for a day or two after you are confident they received the letter.  Give the landlord a call and see what the story is.  Hopefully, they just forgot and are sending your deposit immediately.  If the landlord won’t return your calls or says he is keeping all of it, now you are going to need to get ready to fight.
  3. Although you can do this next step yourself, I think it is very effective coming from an attorney.  Many attorneys will charge a minimal fee to write a demand letter for you.  This letter states that by state law (Civil Code 1950.5 in California) the landlord is required to send the deposit or an itemized list of repairs/cleaning within 21 days.  Now since that time has past, the landlord forfeits his right to keep any of the deposit and must return all of it or face more sever action against him.  I find that often this get’s their attention.  If the landlord calls the attorney, you may have an additional bill to pay, but the attorney may help explain that the landlord is in the wrong.
  4. If this still does nothing, now you must sue the landlord.  I wish it was easy as just going to housing court, but it is not. You must sue the landlord in conciliation court (or small claims court).  This is actually a pretty easy process.  It is set up for common people to get in front of a judge to get their differences heard and solved.  Make sure to bring all the documentation you have regarding when you moved out, when you supplied the forwarding address, the other letters you sent and the condition of the property at the time you left it.  Fortunately, the landlord should have very little defense for not paying your damage deposit.

The upside is that the tenant laws in California and Minnesota allow the tenant to sue for triple the amount of the security deposit!  If your landlord has a brain, he should pay you well before court to prevent having to pay triple.  If you get to court, it will cost you some time and maybe some money (filing fees), but you should have a strong case.

If you are a tenant, don’t let your landlord bully you into keeping all of your security deposit.  Use the above steps and the law to get what is fair.

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