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Published: Saturday, 12/20/2008

Renter may be able to get the deposit back from landlord

Dear Dale: I moved out of an apartment last year. Even though more than a year has passed, I have not been able to get my security deposit back. I've called the apartment complex's office more than 100 times, but they still won't return my deposit. Every time I call, they have good attitudes with a lot of excuses, but they never give me my security deposit. I'm really tired of calling them. Is there anything I can do?

Answer: I think most of us have rented an apartment or home at some point in our lives, and most of us have had a landlord hold back all or a portion of a security deposit, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not.

I shudder at the memory of my college roommates and I acting indignant when our landlord refused to give us our security deposit back many years ago. We were, to put it euphemistically, enthusiastic college boys. By the end of the year, the nice home we had moved into looked like something the city might consider condemning. An exaggeration, but you get the point. Though we really had no business getting our deposit back, my brother, Gregg, and a buddy of his - both newly minted lawyers at the time - pointed us to a law that put part of our deposit back in our undeserving hands.

State law dictates when landlords can retain security deposits, and our landlord didn't comply with the law. The Ohio Revised Code requires landlords to return security deposits within 30 days after termination of the rental agreement.

A landlord can withhold all or a portion of a security deposit for such things as unpaid rent, damage to the property, or violations of the lease. A landlord seeking to withhold any portion of a security deposit must provide written notice within 30 days of the end of the lease giving an itemized listing of reasons the deposit wasn't repaid, and a dollar figure associated with each item. Normal wear and tear on an apartment isn't sufficient reason to withhold a security deposit, and courts have ruled that landlords can't build in routine cleaning costs to the lease as justification for withholding security deposits.

State law provides a hammer tenants can use to whack landlords who don't comply with the security deposit code section. If a landlord fails to comply with the law, the former tenant can get double the amount owed to him, plus reasonable attorney fees.

Double damages and attorney fees are available but the law states that the tenant must provide the landlord with written notice of a new address where the security deposit or an itemized list of deductions can be sent. Though it appears that your landlord did not supply you with notice of why your deposit was being withheld, it's unclear to me whether you provided written notice of your new address.

If you did provide notice of your new address, you may want to consider suing the landlord in Toledo Municipal Court. It might take some time, but you've waited this long, right? It's clear that the landlord either feels justified in withholding your deposit or has no intention of ever coughing it up. Maybe having to pay double damages and attorney fees will cause the landlord to reconsider this behavior in the future. Trying to stop that kind of behavior is precisely why the law contemplates that financial hit. The legislature realized that without some sort of pain in the pocketbook, landlords could withhold security deposits for all sorts of shaky reasons.

If you haven't supplied your landlord with written notice of your new address, I'd do that immediately by certified mail, and then I'd contact an attorney if that fails to produce your security deposit.

Dale Emch practices law at the Charles E. Boyk Law Offices, LLC, in Toledo. In his column, he will discuss general legal principles and answer readers' questions. Neither Mr. Emch nor The Blade present or intend his column to be taken as legal advice. Readers seeking legal advice should consult with an attorney. Readers should send their questions to Mr. Emch at demch@charlesboyk-law.com or Dale Emch, 405 Madison Ave., Suite 1200, Toledo, OH 43604.



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