NEW YORK CITY — When Kayla Napoli moved out of her Flatbush apartment in 2008, she was told to expect a check for her $1,100 security deposit about a month after leaving.
But the check never came.
"We went through whatever process we needed to go through — I think we had somebody come and inspect the apartment," she said, noting the landlord never claimed any damages, so after many months of being ignored, she headed to small claims court.
If you're lucky, you won't have to fight to get your security deposit back.
"We've never found any fool-proof way to ensure that a landlord returns a security deposit," said Catharine A. Grad, of law firm Grad & Weinraub LLP, which specializes in tenant issues.
"Unfortunately you do hear a lot of people complaining about it, and it's frustrating."
Below, you'll find a rundown of how security deposits work, and tips on how to increase the chance of getting yours back once the lease is up.
► The Basics
A security deposit is money collected by a landlord — usually the equivalent of one month's rent — that he or she could potentially use to cover damage or collect outstanding rent, if any is owed.
If neither of those is the case, the money is returned to the renter when they move out.
"It's technically just your money being held by your landlord for you," Grad explained.
Landlords are supposed to keep security deposits separate from their own personal funds, and those with six or more apartments in their buildings are required to deposit the money into a bank account that earns interest, according to the New York Attorney General's Office.
That interest belongs to the renter, minus a one percent administrative fee that the landlord gets to keep.
Housing attorney Ronald Languedoc says there's no exact date for when a landlord needs to return a security deposit — the AG's office describes it as within a "reasonable time" of the lease ending.
"The standard sort of in the industry is 30 days," Languedoc said. "People should not expect that they're going to get a refund on the spot unless that's been worked out in advance."
► Read Your Lease
The exact terms of a tenant's security deposit are usually laid out in the lease, so review yours carefully when you're getting ready to move out, Grad recommends.
"The lease is the first place to look to figure out when the landlord is going to to get it back to you, what they get to deduct for," she explained.
Look for specifics about a return date as well as what kind of damages are covered by the deposit.
Most leases will state that the landlord can deduct from your security deposit if you owe rent, or if you damage the apartment. What constitutes "damage" can be tricky to determine, though most leases will define it as anything above "normal wear and tear."
"That's pretty specific, but it's subject to different interpretations," Languedoc said. "Very often people end up in small claims court over that type of a dispute."
"Normal wear and tear" usually means any damages that can be attributed directly to something the tenant did — not just the standard things that happen when you live in an apartment, like chipped paint or slightly scuffed floors.
"If the door is broken off the hinge and it was fine before the tenant left, then you know it's the tenants fault," said attorney Judith C. Aarons.
Something like a leaking ceiling, on the other hand, isn't usually the tenant's fault and shouldn't count against you. You also shouldn't be expected to cover the cost of the landlord repainting or cleaning for the next tenant if you left the place in good shape.
"Landlords may try to pass costs of getting the apartment ready for the re-rental that they aren't entitled to, especially painting," Languedoc said.
Though if you opted to paint your apartment bright yellow, many landlords will require that you paint it back to white or whatever color it was previously before you leave, he said.
► Talk to Your Landlord
If your landlord or property management company is responsive and easy to get in touch with, Languedoc recommends reaching out to them before you move out to discuss any potential problems or changes you made to the apartment while you lived there.
You might think the shelves or the funky light fixtures you installed made the place better, but a landlord may disagree — and he or she could charge you for the cost of removing them after you leave.
"If you had any issue with anything that happened in the apartment, or anything you changed, discuss it in advance with the landlord," Languedoc said. "Don't just assume you can keep the light fixture."
Whatever the landlord does charge you for those changes would be deducted from the security deposit, and you are still entitled to the remainder of the money.
► Try to Schedule a Walk-Through
Before you move out, see if you can have your landlord or management company come inspect the apartment with you and alert you to any problems that might mean a deduction from your security deposit.
This gives you a chance to take care of any issues before you hit the road.
► Take Pictures and Get It In Writing
If you feel like the apartment is in tip-top shape when you move out, take pictures. This will help serve as proof that any damages the landlord might try to pin on you happened after you left.
"You really need to document the conditions of the apartment before you take off," said Grad. "You can have a friend come and take a look as a witness."
It's also a good idea to get any agreements you made with your landlord in writing — if he or she says you don't need to remove the dividing wall you erected in the living room, for example, get them to say that in a letter or an email.
This is documentation you can later use in court to bolster your case, if you end up there.
► Leave a Forwarding Address
It might sound obvious, but making sure your landlord or management company knows where to send your security deposit is one small way to make sure it gets to you quicker. Send them a letter or an e-mail with your new address so they don't have to track you down when it's time to return the funds.
► Don't Assume You Can Skip the Last Month's Rent
A lot of tenants who are worried about getting their deposit back don't pay the last month's rent, figuring the security deposit they paid in the beginning can be kept in exchange for it.
"Sometimes landlords will accept that, because to try and sue the tenant for one month's rent is too costly and time consuming," Languedoc said.
But doing so could leave you vulnerable to a lawsuit.
"It's not a safe choice, necessarily," he said. "They are running the risk of being sued."
► Take it to Court
Sometimes even when a tenant does everything right — like Napoli — they find themselves fighting to get their deposit back.
There are a couple of routes a tenant can take to try and to compel their landlord to return their security deposit.
They can try filing a complaint with the New York Attorney General's Office, which helps mediate tenant-landlord conflicts and assists renters in getting their deposits back. The complaint form can be found here.
Otherwise, the renter's only other real recourse is to sue the landlord in small claims court, which handles disputes of up to $5,000 (anything more than that would need to be taken up in civil court), according to Languedoc.
In court, both the tenant and landlord will need to present proof of their argument. For a renter, that's where things like photos and e-mail documentation come in handy. A landlord might present something like receipts for repairs, or an invoice from a contractor.
The process can be overwhelming and time-consuming for tenants, experts say. Most renters head to court without a lawyer because hiring one can be more expensive than their deposit was.
"A lot of tenants, sometimes they do give up." Aarons said. "After a while if they don't get their money, they kind of walk away from it."
Napoli and a lawyer representing her old landlord met with a mediator, and the discussions eventually ended with her getting her payment. She says the whole battle took about nine months from when she started inquiring about the security deposit to when it was returned.
"It took a long time and it was annoying," she said, but added that it was worth it in the end.
"I definitely felt vindicated," she said. "It was a huge process, but I'm glad I did it."