What’s the damage?

Before Andrew Benzer and his girlfriend, Mary Robinson, moved out of their Columbia Heights apartment last September, Benzer spackled, sanded and painted the small blemishes created by picture hangers. He even repainted one of the rooms, restoring it to its original color to comply with his lease.

Almost a month later, Benzer, 29, and Robinson, 27, received their security deposit refund. Nearly $1,400 of their $1,950 deposit was missing.

Nikki, who asked that her last name be withheld because of an ongoing legal case, took her landlord to small claims court to get her deposit back.

Included with the smaller-than-expected refund was a list of charges that had been deducted from the deposit. Some were for fixes that Benzer says were needed, such as “touching up bicycle tire marks in the hallway,” while others were for repairs he had already made, like “interior painting.”

“The charges were excessive and duplicitous,” Benzer says. He and Robinson later summoned the landlords to small claims court. They settled the dispute in mediation and got another $472 of their security deposit back.

Security deposit disputes are some of the most common landlord-tenant conflicts in the Washington area. They’re so common that the nonprofit D.C. Tenants’ Advocacy Coalition, or TENAC (Tenac.org), says questions about security deposits are the most frequent type of complaint received on their hotline.

Landlords ask for a security deposit — usually the equivalent of one month’s rent — to cover damage that exceeds normal wear and tear, according to the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate (OTA).

“Normal wear and tear” could include minor scuffs and scrapes, such as small nail holes made in walls to hang pictures, or a little wear down on carpets. “Damage” — the stuff you’ll get charged for — might include large holes in the wall, stained carpet, broken windows or garbage left behind.

Of course, it’s not always that simple. “Normal wear and tear, as far as I can tell, is in the eye of the beholder,” says Jim McGrath, the chairman of TENAC.

It’s wise to take steps to protect your security deposit before you move in. McGrath recommends that the tenant, the landlord and a third party walk through the unit before a move-in to document and photograph any pre-existing problems. Write everything up in a report that’s signed by both the tenant and the landlord. When the tenant moves out, compare the damage to what’s in the report.

Cindy Clare, president of Kettler Management, which oversees more than 19,000 apartments, most in Northern Virginia, says her company tries to be reasonable when differentiating between “wear and tear” and “damage.”

“We’re talking about stains, burn marks and pet odors,” Clare says, “not small little marks, but large visible stains that cannot be removed.” A renter likely won’t foot the bill for a spill that can be cleaned easily, but if the carpet needs to be replaced, the cost will come out of their deposit.

Before you move out, repair any large holes or marks in the walls. “Something that’s visible while standing in the middle of the room should be spackled,” Clare says.

In the District, landlords are required to return security deposits within 45 days of apartment vacancy (provided the tenant gave the landlord adequate notice — generally 30 days). But what if you follow all of this advice and your landlord still doesn’t return your deposit — or withholds a significant portion?

D.C. tenants can file a petition with the rent administrator, which will trigger either a hearing or mediation. Landlords in D.C. who are found to be in the wrong could pay up to three times the amount of the deposit, says Dennis Taylor, OTA’s general counsel.

OTA recommends taking this route if you want to reclaim the security deposit plus interest. (You’re entitled to interest on a security deposit if you have lived in the apartment for more than a year.) However, if you want just the security deposit back, file a claim in D.C. Small Claims Court.

Nikki, who asked that her last name be withheld because of an ongoing legal case, took her landlord to small claims court to get her deposit back.

Nikki, 22, went to small claims court after she arrived at a Capitol Hill apartment she’d rented sight-unseen to find floor tiles coated in a black film, rotting floorboards and cockroaches.

Nine days after moving in, Nikki, who asked that her last name be withheld because of ongoing litigation with her landlord, left for a hotel. She emailed her landlord and requested the return of the $400 security deposit and first month’s rent of $1,650.

The landlord refused, Nikki says, so she took the case to small claims court, where a hearing is scheduled for this month.

“I know I’m going to win because it’s ridiculous,” says Nikki of her experience. “The next place I go, I’ll spend the extra money to look at it in advance.”

 
Read what others are saying