5 Steps for getting your security deposit back in small claims court | Roost
Advertising disclosure
x

Our goal is to share information and products that are truly helpful to renters.

If you click on a link or buy a product from one of the partners on our site, we get paid a little bit for making the introduction. This means we might feature certain partners sooner, more frequently, or more prominently in our articles, but we’ll always make sure you have a good set of options. This is how we are able to provide you with the content and features for free. Our partners cannot pay us to guarantee favorable reviews of their products or services — and our opinions and advice are our own based on research and input from renters like you. Here is a list of our partners.

5 Steps for getting your security deposit back in small claims court

By Camila Lopez

No one wants to have to go to small claims court to get their security deposit back.  But if you’ve done all the things you are supposed to do and your ex-landlord isn’t cooperating or just plain not communicating with you about giving you your security deposit back, then it may be time to consider filing a small claims court lawsuit to get your security deposit back from your landlord. In this article, we cover 5 steps for getting your security deposit back in small claims court.

Need moving help?

Step 1- Conduct a walkthrough as soon as you move in 

Yes, the first step to getting your security deposit back is right when you move into your apartment! The first thing you need to do before moving your boxes into the apartment is to inspect it. Make sure you take pictures of the entire place, write down any defects, and send them to your landlord via email. Make sure you type something memorable on your email subject line so you can easily find that email later on. For example, “Walkthrough of Apt 123 on 1-1-2021.” In the body of the email make sure you write down detailed information about what you found.

Here is a sample email to your landlord after you move in:

Dear Landlord,

Thank you for the seamless move-in! I had an opportunity to conduct a walkthrough of the unit and I wanted to mention a few items I noticed for your records:

  • There are a few holes on the wall in the master bedroom.
  • The kitchen countertops have a small crack near the fridge.
  • The flooring is coming up a bit in the corner of the dining room.

Attached please find pictures. 

Thanks,

Your Tenant

If you didn’t conduct a walkthrough of the unit after moving in or didn’t take pictures, don’t worry, you can still succeed in small claims court and get your security deposit back. 

Step 2- Conduct a walkthrough before moving out and take pictures

To help make sure you get your security deposit back make sure you have fixed anything that is broken so long as your lease agreement allows you to make repairs to your apartment. Remember, you are not responsible for damages that are “normal wear and tear.” In some states, you have the right to a move-out inspection before moving out of the unit. Even if your state does not give you the right to a move-out inspection before moving out, you should request one from your landlord.

The goal of the pre-move-out inspection is to walk through the unit with your landlord to see if they think anything needs to be repaired before you move out. If your landlord tells you to clean the bathroom, fix the holes in the wall, etc. make sure you write down that information and consider fixing those items before moving out to help you get your security deposit back. It is good practice to recap your meeting with your landlord in an email after the pre-move-out inspection. 

Here is a sample email to your landlord when you move out:

Dear Landlord,

Thank you for conducting a pre-move-out inspection with me today! To recap, here are the items you mentioned during the walkthrough: 

  • There are a few holes on the wall in the master bedroom.
  • The countertops have a small crack near the fridge.
  • The flooring is coming up a bit in the corner of the dining room.

Thanks,

Your Tenant

Even if your landlord does not agree to a pre-move-out inspection, make sure to take pictures and videos of your apartment once you have packed and have moved out all your boxes. 

Roost Tip! We know it’s a bummer but this extra step will provide crucial evidence for your small claims court hearing and help you get your security deposit back. 

Need moving help?

Step 3- File and serve your small claims court lawsuit correctly

It has been over a month or more since you moved out and you still have not gotten your security deposit back.  Your landlord has stopped responding to your emails, now what? 

Gear up for small claims court. Small claims court is meant to be quick, affordable, and a convenient way to get your security deposit back. It is very important you follow the correct procedure to make sure you can get your day in small claims court. After you have prepared your small claims court lawsuit, you want to make sure you file it correctly. Make sure you call the courthouse or review the small claim court’s website online before filing your lawsuit so that you know how to file the lawsuit correctly. 

Once the small claims court lawsuit is filed, you must notify your landlord that they have been sued because they did not give you your security deposit back. This is called “serving.” Each state has different rules regarding serving, so it is very important you review your state’s serving requirements. For example, in California, your small claims court lawsuit should be served at least 30 days before your hearing date and you cannot serve your own lawsuit. 

Here are some tips for being successful at filing and serving your small claims court lawsuit to get your security deposit back:

  • Filing. Review the small claims court’s website to see if you can file your lawsuit in person, by mail, fax, or electronically. 
  • Serving. Review the small claim court’s website to see how your lawsuit can be served on your landlord.
  • Deadline to Serve. Make sure you serve your small claims court lawsuit before the deadline you are required to serve by, otherwise, your hearing may be rescheduled and you will have to wait even longer to get your security deposit back.
  • Proof of Service. Make sure to file any forms that show proof you have served your small claims court lawsuit if this is required. 
  • Who can serve the small claims court lawsuit. You can normally hire a process server, a person licensed to serve lawsuits, to serve your lawsuit. You may also be able to have the sheriff serve your lawsuit or have a friend serve your lawsuit. 

Step 4- Prepare your evidence for your small claims court hearing

Key to getting your security deposit back in small claims court is preparing your evidence for your small claims court hearing. 

Anticipate what your landlord will bring up at the hearing regarding why they did not give you your security deposit back. 

  • You want to make sure you take some time to think about what your landlord will share with the judge as to why they did not give you your security deposit back. 
  • You can look through any responses you have received from your landlord regarding your security deposit. 
  • For example, if your landlord told you they weren’t going to give your security deposit back because you broke the sink, what will your response be? Maybe the sink was broken before you moved in and you have pictures of the sink on your move-in day to prove it. 

This exercise will help you think of evidence or what to say during your small claims court hearing and help you get your security deposit back! 

Here is some sample evidence for your small claims court lawsuit against your landlord:

  • Pictures or videos of the unit before you moved in.
  • Pictures or videos of the unit after you moved out.
  • Any statement of deductions to your security deposit your landlord sent you.
  • Any receipts your landlord sent you related to your security deposit.
  • If you made any repairs to the unit before moving out, include receipts or information relating to the repairs. 
  • Any communications you have had with your landlord regarding getting your security deposit back (text messages, emails, letters, etc.)

Step 5- Prepare to present at the small claims court hearing to get your security deposit back

Small claims court hearings typically last around 15 minutes and they tend to be informal. The judge understands that this is likely your first time in small claims court and that you are nervous. 

Here is how the general format of a small claims court hearing looks like:

  • The judge will ask you to present first. 
  • The judge will then ask your landlord to present. 
  • The judge will then ask you if there is anything else you would like to include about why you should get your security deposit back after hearing your landlord speak. 

Avoid these common small claims court mistakes

Here are common mistakes people make when presenting their small claims court case: 

  • Not giving context at the beginning. For example, you want to start with “Your honor, I am suing my landlord because on January 1, 2021, I moved out of my apartment and my landlord never gave me my $3,000 security deposit back.” You want to make sure the judge understands who is who, how much you are suing for, why you are suing, and relevant dates.
  • Interrupting the judge or your landlord. While you may get upset if the judge doesn’t understand what you are saying or maybe the landlord is lying, don’t interrupt. Make sure you write any comments on a piece of paper so when it is your turn to speak, you make sure you bring up the points.
  • Not answering the question that the judge asked you. While you may want to tell the judge your entire history with your landlord, stay focused. The judge has likely seen hundreds of small claims court lawsuits over people trying to get their security deposits back, so they want you to get to the point through a series of questions. If the judge asks you a yes or no question, make sure to respond with either a “yes” or “no” first, and then elaborate if you need to. 

Getting your security deposit back in small claims court isn’t hard, you just have to be prepared and understand the ins and outs of the small claims court process! Small claims court was created to help you assert your rights so that you can get your security deposit back without spending a fortune. 

Need moving help?

A quick note! Our goal is to gather and share info that’s up-to-date and helps you make great decisions as a renter. That said, the information you get directly from a provider could be a little different. Make sure to review their terms and conditions directly; and, if you see anything here that needs to be updated, please let us know! Advertising disclosure
Last Updated: September 23rd, 2021