Q: Doesn’t my landlord have to give back my security deposit according to the law?
A: Yes. Your landlord must return your security deposit as long as you 1) paid all rent that was due, 2) did not damage the property beyond “normal wear and tear,” and 3) gave your landlord a mailing address where the security deposit could be sent. If you have done these things, your landlord has 30 days from the day you vacate the property to either return your deposit or give you a written itemization of deductions from your security deposit and refund the remainder of the security deposit to you.
Q: What is considered “normal wear and tear”?
A: When a rental unit is lived in, it sustains some wear and tear. For example, the carpet may show wear and the blinds may have faded from everyday use of the property. Some landlords will pay for carpet cleaning, new blinds, new paint, etc., every time a tenant moves out to refresh the property for the next tenant. A landlord should not withhold deposit money to pay for routine property maintenance.
Q: Can my landlord use my deposit money to cover past due rent?
A: Yes. If you leave the apartment and owe back rent, the landlord can use the deposit money to cover your unpaid rent. The landlord needs to give you a written notice explaining why he did this and itemizing what he did with the deposit money. The landlord must also return to you any money not used for past due rent or damages.
Q: My deposit was $500. My landlord says I have done about $2000 worth of damage to the property. If he keeps my deposit, can he make me pay the additional $1,500 he says I owe?
A: Yes. In this case, your landlord could apply the $500 deposit to the damages, and then sue you for the remaining $1,500. If your landlord sues you, he will have to give the court evidence of the cost of the damages and that you caused them. If the court determines that you owe the additional money, you will be ordered to pay it.
Q: Can I do anything to improve my chances of getting back my security deposit?
A: Yes. There are three things you can do:
1) Leave the rental unit in good condition. Remove all of your belongings and then clean up the property (e.g., sweep, vacuum, wipe down counters, cupboards and walls). If you caused any damage beyond normal wear and tear (such as a hole in the wall or a purple grape juice stain on white carpet), try to make the appropriate repairs or assume the landlord will use a portion of your deposit money to make the repairs.
2) After you have removed your belongings and cleaned, document how you left the property by taking a video of each room, including walls, floors, windows, ceilings, as well as any appliances you used (e.g., the stove and your cleaned out refrigerator).
3) Write a letter to your landlord to give notice of a mailing address where your deposit money can be sent. Make a photocopy of the letter for your records, and mail the letter with a certificate of mailing.
Q: What if I do all that, and the landlord does not send me anything, or sends me an itemized list of damages I never caused, or withholds deposit money for routine cleaning or painting?
A: Write a follow-up letter to your landlord asking about the deposit or explaining why you believe it should not have been withheld. If the landlord fails to respond within a reasonable amount of time or the matter cannot be resolved, you can sue your landlord. Usually, because these cases involve amounts less than $3,000, they can be filed in small claims court. Ask your local municipal court for a small claims complaint form to start the process. You will be the plaintiff. The landlord will be the defendant. If the landlord is just a property management company, you also need to list the property owner as a defendant. You can find out who owns the property by looking on your county auditor’s or recorder’s website.
Write in the complaint that you are bringing suit under Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.16, and that you are asking for double damages, court costs, and attorneys’ fees. After the defendants are served with your complaint, you will get notice of a hearing. Bring to the hearing copies of your lease, security deposit receipt, a copy of your notice to the landlord with your new address, and anything else that will help prove you fulfilled your duties. 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 wrongfully withheld. If an attorney helps you, the court will also hold a hearing to determine what attorney fees were reasonable and should be covered.
This “Law You Can Use” consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by attorney Benjamin D. Horne of the Legal Aid Society of Columbus.