By Matthew T. Hovey, Esquire
Almost always, when a new tenant signs a residential lease with a landlord, the landlord will require that the tenant provide a security deposit in addition to rent. The security deposit is held by the landlord and will be used by the landlord in various circumstances if the tenant fails at his or her obligations. The most common example of how a landlord uses the security is to reimburse the landlord for damage caused to the leased property by the tenant. Under Pennsylvania Law, within 30 days of the tenant moving out of the property or the landlord accepting a surrender of the property, the landlord must provide the tenant with an accounting of any amounts the landlord is keeping to reimburse for damage to the property and return the remainder of the security deposit to the tenant. If damage was caused to the property, the accounting should list the damage and the corresponding cost of the repairs.
Unfortunately, not every landlord strives for the gold-standard of professionalism. There are landlords who will generate bogus or exaggerated charges in order to keep a greater portion of your security deposit. These charges may include fabricated damages or even charges for services they would have employed regardless of the condition of the apartment (i.e., cleaning services).
Q: How can you protect yourself?
(1) When moving into a rented property, immediately inspect it! Note, in writing, all damage to the property that exists prior to your habitation. If something is borderline, make a note of that and include it in your inventory. Then submit a copy to the landlord. If the landlord refuses to make repairs or determines that a repair in unnecessary, at least you established that the issue existed before you moved into the property and you should not be charged for the problem once you move out.
(2) Take pictures! Lots of pictures! It is crucial that you take pictures of the property at two distinct points in time: (a) when you first move-in; and (b) when you first move-out. When you move out and have emptied the apartment, take pictures of all the rooms and hallways. In the age of digital photography, do not hold back. Photograph each area from multiple angles. This way, if, for example, the landlord submits a bogus charge against you for holes in the wall, you have proof that you were clearly not responsible for any holes in the wall. Please adhere to this recommendation! It is common for people to later regret not heeding this advice.
Q: What can I do if my Landlord has submitted bogus charges against me and retained my security deposit, in whole or in part?
(1) Contact the landlord and dispute the charges. If you have evidence that the charges of bogus, then provide copies (NOT THE ORIGINALS) to the landlord. Not all landlord who submit bogus charges are evil and the charge may have been accidentally included. A quick and private resolution can often be obtained.
(2) If, however, the landlord persist in withholding the security deposit, contact an attorney! You may be entitled to damages! For example:
A. Landlord/Tenant Act – This Act provides that if a landlord wrongfully withholds a tenant’s security deposit, in whole or in part, then the tenant is entitled to the entire security deposit plus the amount of the wrongfully withheld portion of the deposit. For example, if your deposit was in the amount of $1000 and the landlord improperly withheld $500, then you would be entitled to receive $1500.
B. Consumer Protection Laws – These laws apply to residential leases. If the landlord knowingly misrepresented that services, replacements, or repairs were needed if they were not truly needed, then the landlord has violated Pennsylvania’s Consumer Protection Laws. As a result, you could be entitled to receive actual damages, treble damages, and attorney’s fees!
As with all civil actions, there is a statute of limitations and failure to act within that time period could forever bar your ability to recover what is legally owed to you. Therefore, if you, a friend, or a relative, are renting according to a residential lease, please take steps to protect yourself. If you, a friend, or a relative have been burned by a landlord who subjected you to bogus charges and subsequently withheld your security deposit, please call our offices and schedule a free consultation immediately.