My landlord won’t return my security deposit. What can I do?
A renter takes her landlord to court, and wins.
Natasha Weled was on guard.
It was February, and she was moving out of her two-bedroom apartment in Bellevue, and the property manager had stood her up for the final walk-through — twice.
On the third try, the property manager, Denise Farris, showed up. Weled, anxious by now, had her camera at the ready for documentation.
It went smoothly, and Weled was told she would get back $377.65 of her security deposit.
Instead of a check, Weled got a letter from debt collections, demanding $240.55.
Disputes over move-out charges are common, but renters face a time-consuming and confusing legal battle to push back: filing in small claims court, attending mandatory mediation, then arguing their case before a judge – all with uncertainty of success.
“For a lot of tenants, particularly low-income tenants who don't have access to an attorney, that's an insurmountable barrier,” said attorney Scott Crain of the Northwest Justice Project, the state’s legal aid group.
The Northwest Justice Project gets around 10 calls a week from tenants saying they were charged for damage they didn’t cause, Crain said. State law prohibits landlords from recouping costs associated with normal wear and tear.
In court, the burden of proof falls to renters, as nothing in state law requires landlords to document damage to their property, Crain said.
If a landlord takes a debt to collections, a bad credit report might suggest a renter trashed a property, even if there is no proof.
“It's very difficult for a tenant to prove that that didn’t happen,” he said.
Legal action is risky: If renters lose, the landlord can demand reimbursement for legal fees.
Case of the broken stove
Weled learned that she had been dinged for a broken stove door. Surprising, because documents showed the stove was fine during the walk-through with Farris.
She checked the walk-through sheet, which said the range was “OK.” She had further proof: a photo of Farris opening the stove and looking inside.
The day the debt collection letter arrived, Weled wrote to us with a question:
“As our region grapples with unaffordable housing, landlords have strong demand in their favor,” she said. “What are our rights as tenants? As a renter, I am interested to hear how the state's law protects (or leaves vulnerable) renters.”
Over the next three months, we followed Weled as she searched for the answer.
We looked into Allied Residential, the property management company that had rented her the Bellevue apartment.
Allied Residential has a portfolio of dozens of apartment buildings across the Puget Sound region.
The company was recently at the center of a controversy after it assumed responsibility of the 58-unit Tiki Apartments in Tacoma and gave the residents – many low-income and disabled – less than a month to vacate.
Responding to this story, Greg Anderson, president of Allied Residential, said the company processes 3,000 to 5,000 move-outs a year, so disputes are to be expected. The company doesn’t benefit from withholding security deposits, he said.
“Our goal is to be fair to all sides,” Anderson said. “That being said, the concept of ‘normal wear and tear’ is often interpreted very differently among the parties involved.”
Citing privacy, Anderson would not comment about any renters specifically.
Small claims court filings revealed that other renters have had frustrations with Allied Residential.
In August 2017, Martin Reimers, an architect in Everett, moved out of an Allied Residential-managed apartment, expecting the return of $480 from his deposit. Instead, 28 days later, he received a collections notice from Genesis Credit Management saying he owed $899.24. Reimers took the case to small claims court.
During pre-trial mediation, an apartment manager agreed to zero out the alleged debt and pull his file from collections.
“They won in a sense, they got some of our money,” Reimers said. He wasn’t on the hook for any money, but most important, the threat of a black mark on his credit score was lifted.
Since 2011, tenants have filed eight small claims court cases involving unreturned security deposits against Allied Residential in King and Snohomish County. These numbers aren’t unusual. A search of small claims cases involving other large regional landlords showed similar numbers. No data exists on how often landlords illegally withhold a security deposit.
Some renters don’t carry their grievances as far as small claims court.
Nadezda Umanskaya moved a relative out of an Allied Residential-managed apartment in Burien, where she had chipped in for a deposit, and later cleaned the place for two days in hopes of getting back the $200 she put down.
But less than three weeks after her relative moved out, Umanskaya said, they got a call from a man speaking Russian, their native language, who pressured them to pay $300 in apartment charges ASAP to avoid trouble.
After a visit to apartment management and, she said, a heated argument, Umanskaya received a collections letter saying the charges had been in error.
Greg Anderson of Allied Residential said that when residents move out, his company forwards the debts to Genesis Credit Management with a 30-day grace period.
“Any calls made to the resident within that first 30 days, are courtesy or reminder calls. It’s only after that time that Genesis fully manages the accounts.”
For Natasha Weled, this felt like extortion. She and her husband wanted to buy a home, and they worried about their credit rating.
When the Weleds disputed the charges, the debt collector sent them a copy of a move-out inspection form with their signatures on it. It looked nearly identical to the one they had, but something was off.
On the second page, the lines that had showed the Weleds were due a refund appeared to be whited out. In place of a refund, it said they owed money.
The document appeared to be altered after they signed it.
“We found that really shocking and appalling,” Natasha Weled said.
The case against her former landlord was time-consuming; it took multiple trips to court, taking time off of work, and countless hours of research.
The couple eventually negotiated with debt collectors to cut their debt in half, $124.16. They valued a good credit score more, she said.
Case of the missing numbers
Then in April, the Weleds filed a small-claims court case for $1,052.87 – including costs and damages. They were given a date for mediation at a courthouse about 30 miles from their home.
At mediation, they declined to settle.
And three weeks later, the Weleds returned to the courthouse and presented their case before a judge.
Kiel Curtis, an Allied Residential manager representing the company, did not dispute the facts of the case.
Judge Pro Tem Rhonda Laumann held up two photos and looked over her glasses at Curtis.
“There are pictures of the stove, and if the stove door was broken then Ms. Farris would have known that,” Judge Laumann said, “because she’s shown here opening the door.”
The court awarded the Weleds $583.81 – almost everything they asked for, except legal damages.
Standing outside the court house, the Weleds reflected on whether it worth it.
“It's this horrible avenue that we just went through that gave us justice, but it was long and arduous,” Natasha Weled said.
Ultimately, it was more about the principle of the matter.
Document when anything breaks.
Tenants should not pay for normal wear and tear when they move out of rental housing. Attorney Scott Crain of Northwest Justice Project recommends documenting when, for example, a stove stops working as a result of normal use. Keep photos and send written notice to your landlord, he said.
“If they don't fix it, at least you've got evidence at the end of the tenancy that that thing broke two years ago, the landlord never fixed it, and now they're charging you to replace three burners on your stove,” Crain said.
Landlords have 24 hours to fix hazardous conditions, like restoring heat, electricity, or hot or cold water.
Natasha Weled has another tip: If your landlord uses an online system to track maintenance requests, take screenshots of your requests and the landlord’s response for your own records, just in case.
Document the condition of the apartment when you move out.
“It's much harder for a landlord to allege damages that didn't occur,” Crain said.
Photos of the move-out inspection were key to the Weleds’ case.
Natasha Weled read online that she should not only take photos of the condition of the apartment, but also of the person performing the move out inspection. During the trial, the judge specifically picked up the photos containing the property manager and showed the courtroom.
Weled recommends going a step further: “If you have enough memory on your phone, record it. Video record what the resident manager says."
Weled got help from a Neighborhood Legal Clinic , a program of the King County Bar Association.
Catholic Community Services has the Tenant Law Center .
Northwest Justice Project provides a legal aid hotline to low-income Washingtonians and runs the online resource center, Washington LawHelp, where you can find articles on landlord tenant law.
Deal with it now.
Challenging a landlord’s claim that you owe money is easier if you do it sooner when the “evidence is fresh,” rather than later when it’s already on your credit report, Crain said. “It can really impair your ability to get housing in the future, unless it's been paid off.”
And you might not want to pay off, say, thousands of dollars that you don’t believe you owe.