NEW YORK (MainStreet) — As I recently found out, there's a certain exhilaration that comes with suing your landlord and winning. Too often, people think that it's not worth the legwork to get back money they're owed from a security deposit. In fact, it’s much easier than you might think. So how do you take your landlord to court and come out on top?
The Lease and the Law
John Heath, a directing attorney with LexingtonLaw, notes that landlord disputes are generally just a simple case of contract law.
"The contract -- the lease -- is going to govern in this case," he said.
Beyond just what's in the lease, you need to consult state and local laws to see what your landlord's obligations are.
"Most states require the landlord to keep the property in a habitable condition -- running hot and cold water, electricity and heat," Heath said. "If you don't have those, you can sue your landlord."
What’s more, in some states, if he fails to provide them, it might invalidate the entire lease.
Document As Much As You Can
"If you're trying to get a security deposit back, take a lot of photos," recommends Mike Sullivan, director of education with Take Charge America.
This includes taking pictures of every room when you move out. In fact, with the prevalence of smartphones, you might be better served taking video footage of the walk through. Even if your landlord doesn't do one of those with you, you should do your own to present to the court if things get that far.
Save All Communication
One of the biggest mistakes people make in landlord disputes is not keeping a paper trail of their communication.
"You want to show that you made every effort to resolve this without going to court," says Sullivan.
This means communicating through email, but also through certified, registered mail. The former works for basic communication, the latter is for when you start ratcheting up the forcefulness of your request to get your deposit back.
"Generally, the law requires you to give your landlord notice in the form of a letter," says Heath. "If they fail to respond in a certain number of days, then you can take them to court."
What's more, you want to keep everything that your landlord sends to you in a binder, says Heath. You don’t want this to become a case of "he said, she said." Keeping track of all communication between you and your landlord is the best way to do this if you have to take things into the courts.
Going to Court Against Your Landlord
Most security deposits are just going to go to small claims court.
“You’d need a pretty big security deposit to move this into municipal court," says Sullivan.
This comes with two advantages. First, you're not going to have to hire a lawyer. Second, a lot of times your landlord won't even bother to show up, making it far easier for you to make your case. Still, you want to come with as much information as you can on the day of your case. More than this, both of our experts concurred that doing everything the right way is of paramount importance. You'll need to bring your lease, any documentation that your landlord violated the lease, communication between you and your landlord and finally images and video from your own walk through.
When it comes time to talk, you want to stick to pertinent facts of the case. You're going to be one of dozens of cases that the magistrate or judge will be hearing that day. You want to get to the point. Say what the lease says, how you stuck to it and how, if relevant, the landlord violated the lease.
"You want to make sure that you have evidence and that you do a good job of presenting it," says Sullivan. He’s also quick to note that "judges in these cases tend to be pretty reasonable."
Finally, present what you can proving that you tried to resolve the situation without going to court. This is where all of your documentation of communication between you and your landlord is going to come into play. If you've made repeated attempts to get your deposit back from your landlord, not only will the judge side with you: in some states, there will be punitive damages involved.
-- Written for MainStreet by Nicholas Pell