When Janice Sellers showed up at her bank to cash her landlord’s returned security deposit, the teller surprised her by stamping “Stop Payment” all over the check. After contacting him about the incident, her former landlord told her he had stopped the check because she had destroyed a cabinet in her old apartment. Sellers took a friend with her to check out the furniture in question.         

“What he had apparently done was taken a hammer to the cabinet and broken it into several pieces,” Sellers told MainStreet. “He, of course, denied that he had done so and insisted that I had caused the damage. I saw there was no use in arguing, because it was my word against his.”

Seller’s sentiments echo the belief of most renters: When it comes to getting back a security deposit, they are at the mercy of their landlord, not only because they signed a lease he or she had written, but because few tenants want to pursue litigation.    

“Court can be a very overwhelming task for renters.  Often, they will give up on getting their deposit back due to the huge hassle required, ” Scott Paxton, Director of the Rental Protection Agency (RPA), said, before adding “renters should never be forced to give their landlord $1 more than they need to.”

This is because getting back your security deposit may be easier than you think. There are organizations, such as the RPA and local Divisions of Housing and Community Renewal, that were created, in part, to provide cost effective ways of settling tenant/landlord disputes.  But, beyond that, taking a landlord to Smalls Claims Court can be relatively inexpensive.

“The great thing about Small Claims Court is that the filing fee is only $15 and, overall, it’s a very efficient and expeditious process,” Luigi Rosabianca, principal attorney and founder of real estate law firm Rosabianca & Associates, told MainStreet.

Rosabianca pointed out that Small Claims Court has a jurisdictional limit of $5,000, so tenants with higher security deposits would have to take their case to Civil Court, which is decidedly more expensive. However, he stated that simply sending a written letter to your landlord demanding the return or your security deposit can get results.

“Nine times out of ten that my colleagues and I are tasked with such a situation, the threat of litigation proves to be more effective than the litigation itself and we immediately get the money back for our client,” Rosabianca said.

Paxton seconded this, saying “Once the RPA gets involved, landlords tend to bend over backwards to cooperate.” (The RPA is a national agency that mediates landlord/tenant disputes for a singular filing fee of $35.)

Tenants, also, can be proactive when it comes to ensuring their security deposits’ return.  For example, photographing your apartment when you first move in can prevent your landlord from blaming you for any pre-existing damages or imperfections later.  Renter Natalie Perez was able to fall back on her photos when a former landlord tried to deduct the costs of repairs for pre-existing damages from her security deposit.

“I had taken pictures of every part of the apartment the day I moved in as well as the day I moved out. I knew with all of my photos I had a case that [my landlord] could not win,” Perez said.  She did ultimately take her landlord to Small Claims Court, but her photos weren’t even needed because “according to the judge, my landlord had not done what was required of him by law by not giving me a detailed reason in writing for keeping my deposit.”

This means that renters, first and foremost, need to know their rights. For a complete and thorough explanation of a renter’s civil liberties, prospective tenants should visit the RPA Web Site.

Of course, there’s more than one way to stick it to a greedy landlord. Sellers, for example, in lieu of litigation, offered her landlord a trade.

“I told him I wanted to take the cabinet with me,” she said. “If I had damaged it and he was keeping my security deposit because of that, I obviously had paid for it.” Her landlord, reluctant to hand over the security deposit or the cabinet, tried to argue against this request until ultimately, he acquiesced.

“My friend and I loaded it up and took it to my new home,” Sellers said. “I sat down with it, figured out how to put it back together and am still using my $200 cabinet to this day.”

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.