For New York City tenants moving from one rental to another, the uncertainty around your security deposit and how much you’ll get back can be the most stressful part of the move. Move-out instructions can also be unclear and ambiguous — what one landlord considers tenant-caused damage, others may diagnose as normal wear and tear.
If you feel you were screwed out of your security deposit, worry not. The law could very well be on your side. But before spending the time and money taking up your dispute in small claims court, try getting your money back outside of the legal system with these tips.
Disclosure: Policygenius’ editorial content is not written by an attorney. It’s intended for informational purposes and should not be considered legal or financial advice. Please consult a lawyer for legal advice.
Leave the apartment in good condition & photograph it
Before bidding adieu to the premises, be sure you’re leaving it in decent shape. That doesn’t necessarily mean patching small holes or deep cleaning behind the oven, but it does mean you should get all of your stuff out of there, sweep the floors, dispose of trash, plastic-wrap your mattress before curbing it and repair any damages that could be considered more than normal wear and tear. Failing to sweep or clean the interior of the refrigerator may not be a lawful reason to withhold your deposit money, but it will make your landlord more willing to play ball in the event of a post-move dispute.
Learn what renters insurance covers when it comes to your apartment.
Once your stuff is all moved out and you’ve cured any potentially contestable damage, be sure to take detailed photographs of the entire rental property.
Be aware of recent changes to New York tenant law
The Housing Stability and Protection Act of 2019 (effective June 14, 2019) represented a breakthrough for tenant rights in the Big Apple. Highlights of the new law include a $20 limit on housing application fees, limits on how much landlords can collect for security deposits (only one month’s rent), and laws limiting rent hikes.
This same law also requires that landlords return your security deposit within 14 days of the end of your lease, so pay special attention to when the money was returned to you. As far as the law is concerned, if you receive the deposit a mere day after the required return period, the landlord forfeits any amount they intended to deduct and you’re entitled to the full deposit.
The new law also now requires that landlords offer you a walkthrough inspection of the premises no later than a week before the move-out date as long as you give them enough notice.
Be courteous & respectful
Framing your argument in a professional and courteous manner is one of the more integral parts of resolving a security deposit dispute. In fact, it was that extra bit of civility (along with having an adequate understanding of New York tenant law) that helped get me and my former roommates our withheld deposit amount back during a dispute in September.
For context, our management company never offered us a pre-move inspection — our right per the recently enacted New York tenant law — which we cited in the initial dispute email. After a rebuttal email from the management company that failed to address the cited law, we followed up with an email reiterating our right to the full deposit, except this one included a caveat — either we see the money back within the initially agreed-upon deposit return timeline, or we’d pursue litigation. All the same, we kept the tone professional, we were transparent and we stuck to the facts, not allowing emotional appeals to work their way into the dispute and hurt our chances of getting the money back.
According to Lucas Hall, a landlord and head of industry relations at Cozy, a website that provides tools and resources to landlords, landlords are just as interested in settling disputes out of court as tenants are.
“No landlord really wants to go to small claims court — it’s not worth the time,” Hall said. “If it’s between this (returning a small withheld amount) and going to court, you can have your money back.”
But Hall also emphasized that it’s not simply about being nice and courteous. That won't matter if you’re not transparent and honest with the landlord during the dispute process. “My best tip for tenants would be to be realistic and put yourself in the landlord’s shoes.”
Image: EMS Forster Productions