Q: I have good reason to believe my landlord may improperly withhold my security deposit at the end of my lease. Can I wait to pay my last month’s rent, and then pay up if my landlord comes through with the security deposit?
A: You should always pay your last month’s rent on time, and don’t assume your security deposit will cover it. For example, your landlord may charge you for extra cleaning that your deposit won’t cover. If you don’t pay your last month’s rent, and your landlord tries to collect money (“damages”) from you for more than the amount of the security deposit, the law will not protect you, since all of your security deposit would be rightfully withheld by the landlord as rent. If you do pay your last month’s rent, however, and can show your landlord improperly withheld your security deposit, a provision in Ohio law (Ohio Revised Code 5321.16) allows you to go to court to recover double damages and attorneys fees from your landlord.
Q: Does the law require my landlord to give back my security deposit?
A: You must notify your landlord of your forwarding address in writing or in person. After having received your notice, your landlord has 30 days to give you a written itemization of deductions from your security deposit and refund the remainder of the security deposit to you. If you can prove you properly notified the landlord of your forwarding address, and that your landlord wrongfully kept any portion of your security deposit for more than 30 days, then the court may order your landlord to pay you double damages and attorney fees.
Q: How can I improve my chances of getting back my security deposit?
A: First, you should review your lease to make sure there are no “intent to vacate” clauses. “Intent to vacate” clauses are sentences or phrases within your lease that say you must give your landlord a certain amount of notice that you intend to leave at the end of your lease. Courts have enforced clauses that renew a lease for a year if the tenant does not give such notice. Make sure you get your notice of intent to vacate in on time (according to the terms of your lease) and keep a copy of what you sent by certified mail to the landlord. Even if you have no such clause in your agreement, it is a good idea to send your landlord a certified letter that contains your forwarding address before you move out.
Q: Is there anything else I can do to make sure I get my deposit back?
A: After you have removed your possessions and fixed any damage you may have caused, clean your unit. Hire a professional cleaner, and keep your receipt. Videotape the place before you leave, holding up a copy of that day’s newspaper so that the camera captures the headline date.
Q: What if I do all that, and the landlord still sends me an itemized list of damages I never caused?
A: If necessary, you can sue your landlord. Generally, such cases are heard in small claims court. When you take such a case to court, remember that the person or company you think is your landlord may only be a rental manager for another person or company. Look up who owns the property you rented on your county auditor’s or recorder’s website and make sure the owner is also named as a defendant in your lawsuit. Be sure to say in the complaint that you are bringing suit under Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.16, and that you are requesting double damages and attorneys fees (since you may need to hire an attorney later on). If the court determines that your landlord wrongfully withheld any amount of your security deposit, then the court must award you double the amount of whatever portion was withheld. The court also must hold a hearing to determine what attorney fees were reasonable and should be covered.
This "Law You Can Use" column is provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Columbus attorney Eric E. Willison, of the Law Office of Eric E. Willison.