How to Protect Your Security Deposit When Dealing with a Bad Landlord

Angela Colley

More and more, we’re becoming a nation of renters. There were 43 million renters nationwide in 2017, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, and between 2010 and 2016, an average of 976,000 renters per year joined the market. It’s easy to see why: Renting is often cheaper up front, comes with flexibility, and if the water heater bursts in the middle of the night, it isn’t on you to fix it.

But renting can also be a headache, and renting someone else’s property creates a strange, and often complicated, relationship between two strangers. While landlords can conduct background checks on their potential tenants, renters essentially go into the relationship blind.

And that can be a huge problem for the tenant if the relationship sours, especially if state laws aren’t on their side. Vermont, for example, is a tenant-friendly state. It has laws that favor protecting the tenant such as a 60-day written notice for rent increases, a 14-day window to return security deposits, and a 48-hour notice requirement to enter a tenant’s home, according to The Balance Small Business. But Louisiana, where I live, is a landlord-friendly state. There’s no limit on security deposits. Landlords have 30 days to return security deposits and only have to give a five-day notice if they’re evicting a tenant for a lease violation.

While the majority of landlords want to build long, healthy relationships with their tenants, some are the opposite. And in a landlord-favoring state, property owners can build careers on their ability to “work” the system.

I should know. After six months of harassment and mild stalking, I was illegally evicted by a private landlord. But unlike many renters, I scored a small victory in the end and at least got some of my security deposits back. Here’s how.

Do your homework

In 2008, after my roommate suddenly moved out of the area, I found myself scrambling to find a new apartment. My sole focus was finding a pet-friendly apartment—fast.

I found a duplex and put down first and last months’ rent, a security deposit, and a $700 refundable pet deposit with a private landlord who seemed nice enough and said all the right things. But the relationship went south almost immediately. A couple of weeks after moving in, the landlord used his keys to let himself in early in the morning, surprising a visiting family member asleep on the couch. There wasn’t an emergency, and the landlord seemed not to care about privacy laws. I had a gut feeling things would get worse.

In hindsight, I might have avoided the nightmare ahead by doing more research on the landlord and not just the apartment—but it was 2008, and I didn’t have a lot of options to do so. Things are a little better now. While you can’t get the same background check on landlords that they can on you, it is always a good idea to check any potential landlord out online. Some major cities have websites that let tenants rate and review their landlords on issues such as friendliness, responding to repairs, and returning security deposits.

Document everything

My gut feeling was spot on. My landlord started showing up a lot. Once, he claimed I’d been throwing parties all night (I wasn’t) and the neighbors had called both him and the police (they didn’t). On another occasion, he said my inside-only dog had “accosted” him outside while loose on the street. A week later, he said he’d gotten complaints from my neighbors about “all the men” I’d had in and out of my home at “all hours of the night.”

Being a young, inexperienced renter, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just stopped answering the door. And then late one night as I was getting out of the shower, I thought I heard someone come in the front door. Terrified—and draped in a towel—I peeked into the hallway and saw the shadow of a man standing there. When the figure called out, “Hey! Didn’t realize you were home!” I realized it was my landlord. He muttered something about the neighbor reporting a gas leak and bolted out the front door.

That night, I started an email chain to myself and a trusted friend detailing the time and reason of every visit.

That was the right call. “The best thing a renter can do is document communication and anything that may be considered evidence including photos and videos. Otherwise, you enter a he said, she said argument in court which doesn’t necessarily favor you,” says Paul Burke, founder and CEO of RentHoop, an app that helps renters find roommates and sublets.

But be sure you’re documenting the right way. If you end up needing to plead your case in court, “Timestamps make your case that much stronger. Even though your phone does store accurate information about when and where the photo was taken, there are apps like Timestamp It that will a show a judge how diligent you’ve been,” Burke says.

Get help when you need it

When I was a day late paying rent, my landlord started leaving notes on the front door and my car, calling regularly, and texting when I didn’t answer. My neighbors spotted him outside the property regularly, and I started running into him everywhere. Though it might have been nothing, I felt harassed and trapped.

But renters aren’t entirely alone when a landlord and tenant relationship sours. State and local agencies can help tenants mediate problems with their landlords. “The Courts and the NYS Division of Housing and Community Renewal have procedures in place to file complaints of harassment,” says Steven Goldschmidt, a 30-year real estate veteran at Warburg Realty Partnership. While the burden of proof is on the tenant, housing authorities can help you get your case together and protect your legal rights.

However, it may take weeks, or even months, to get help from a government agency. In landlord-friendly states and major cities, housing agencies are often overwhelmed and can’t get to every case in time, but you still have recourse. “Hire a good lawyer or seek out any one of the many tenants’ rights or tenant advocacy groups,” says Goldschmidt.

Dealing with illegal eviction

When it all hit a breaking point, my landlord exploded on my mother, a neighbor, and myself, and told me to move out. Legally, a landlord can’t evict you without cause and without going through the courts, but illegal evictions happen all the time. If you want to stay in the property, Goldschmidt recommends hiring a lawyer (or contacting a service such as legal aid). By that point, I was ready to get out of that house, but, in my haste, I made a mistake that cost me a lot of stress (and money): I didn’t get our agreement to break the lease in writing.

“If a landlord and tenant agree to early termination of a lease, the agreement should be in writing and cover all terms and obligations. The return of the security deposit would/should be covered in the agreement,” says Goldschmidt.

To, victory (sort of)!

Unsurprisingly, my landlord opted not to return my deposits or last month’s rent, instead choosing to send long, vulgar text messages explaining his position on my existence. And I didn’t have anything saying I’d essentially been forced out.

But I did have documentation—lots of it. So, I sent my landlord copies of it all and surprisingly he agreed to return half my security deposit. I’d lose my last month’s rent and pet deposit, but I had to make a choice: hire a lawyer and fight it in court or begrudgingly accept what I got. In the end, I just accepted it and moved on, but you don’t have to. For a fee (and ideally with a lawyer’s help), you have every right to sue a landlord in small claims court if you don’t think you received what you were due.

In the end, what helped me the most was documentation. Keeping a record of everything, even if you never need it, can tip the balance even in a landlord favoring state. Hopefully, you’ll never need it, but renting isn’t always easy.