On November 20 2019, a Twitter user posted an unredacted apparent screenshot from the Facebook group “Landlord Round Table,” in which an original poster appeared to ask fellow landlords if any of them ever had “to give back the security deposit”:
At the top it suggested that a Facebook user going by the name Julian Skerra shared the post to “Landlord Round Table” eleven minutes before a screenshot was apparently taken. The post read:
Has anyone ever had to give back the security deposit? A few months ago my long term tenants left my place in surprizingly good condition and I wracked my brains trying to find something they broke and I couldn’t fault them for a single thing!
I think it was because its a newly built apartment, every other property in my portfolio was an older building with things sure to fall apart. It’s got me wondering if investing in newer properties is worth it or not if you don’t get to keep the deposit.
A quick search of Facebook showed the original poster’s account a) existed and b) was not a recent creation. That did not rule out the post being a satirization of landlord behavior, but it also wasn’t clearly the product of a sockpuppet account created to post in “Landlord Round Table” to mock other landlords for flagrantly lawbreaking practices.
The post had to do with a sub-issue of landlord-tenant relations, specifically security deposits. It is extremely common for renters to not only pay rent (first or first and last month) upon signing a lease, with an additional sum (often equivalent to a month of rent) as a “security deposit.”
Aspects of Skerra’s post nearly stretched bounds of credulity. In addition to openly suggesting it was standard practice to improperly retain tenants’ deposits, the user also hinted at regularly engaging in the practice described. On top of that, the post appeared to poll other landlords about whether it was “worth it” to rent properties which weren’t “sure to fall apart,” and if habitable rentals could be profitable without swindling tenants out of security deposits (all of which are stereotypical behaviors attributed to unethical landlords in general).
A security deposit is not intended to be landlord compensation; it is typically held in the event damages above and beyond “wear and tear” occur to the rental property for the duration of its rental. Specific laws vary from state-to-state, but by and large, landlords are only permitted to not release the funds under specific conditions:
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a directory with links to tenant rights websites for each state and some cities. Your local city government may also have a housing department with additional resources, and there could be nonprofit tenants unions or housing advocacy groups in your area that can help explain relevant rental laws.
Depending on the applicable laws, your landlord may have several weeks to inspect the property and return your security deposit. Landlords that don’t return a full deposit may have to give you an itemized list of how they’re using the money (e.g., to pay for a cleaning service, repair damages, etc.) or forfeit their right to the security deposit.
Generally, you won’t be responsible for normal wear and tear on the property or the appliances. However, if you caused damage to the property, left it less clean than when you moved in, took keys or appliances, or moved out without proper notice, the landlord may be able to keep money to offset the associated costs for repairs, cleaning, replacements, and lost rental income. Also, be sure to give your landlord a forward address where the security deposit can be sent.
Typically, there are some nearly universal elements to landlord-tenant law involving security deposits in the United States:
Security deposit laws in every state allow a landlord to collect money from a tenant to repair damage that exceeds normal wear and tear and for unpaid rent. After a tenant moves out of the rental unit, the landlord must return the unused portion of the security deposit to the tenant within a specific time. In some states, a landlord must also pay the tenant interest on the security deposit … Security deposit laws also regulate the return of a tenant’s security deposit. In most states, a landlord must return a deposit within 30 days, but deadlines range from 14 to 60 days. Most state laws require a landlord to mail the following to the tenant’s last known address or forwarding address:
• The entire security deposit, plus interest if applicable; or
• An itemized list of deductions for cleaning, repairs, and unpaid rent and the remaining security deposit, plus interest if applicable[.]
On that generalized advice page, the site indicated that if a “landlord acted with willful disregard for the law, a court may award the tenant two to three times the amount of the security deposit illegally withheld, plus attorney fees and court costs.” Again, that likely varied from state to state, and typically the only recourse available to tenants was legal — such as small claims court.
Larger regionality then came to issue in the ensuing Twitter thread. A response tweet near the top of the thread stated that in Scotland, tenants had a much easier time retrieving their security deposits:
You shouldn’t have to put up with this. In Scotland at least the deposit has to be deposited with Safe Deposits Scotland or similar, and you have the right to demand the deposit back, unless the landlord can prove damage. That’s how it should be. BTW, I’m a landlord
Another commenter was from the United States, and pointed out something that was apparent in the initial post (assuming it was legitimate and straightforward):
This man is publicly admitting that he violates the law.
I left my last place after a long fight in housing court (they didn’t turn on the heat, I withheld rent, they sent collections), with a settlement saying I didn’t have to pay back rent, and they’d let us out of the lease early with no penalty, but my security deposit was forfeit … I took the settlement because I knew they’d keep the deposit regardless, and then left the apartment a wreck when I left ✌
My favorite experience with this was when I waited 31 days after the end of my lease to let the landlord know that I was due 100% of my deposit because they were required to provide proof of damages within 30 days. Only time I’ve ever gotten the full deposit back.
I didn’t get my deposit back once because “there were bugs EVERYWHERE and we had to bug-bomb” — In fact I saw the exterminator’s report: he found and did nothing. Arkansas is the only state where landlords are not required by law to provide a “legally habitable dwelling” btw
And some praised the advent of landlords’ groups on social media, because they had the potential (through screenshots) to bring such practices to light:
These landlords groups on social media are one of the best things to ever happen to the campaign for social housing. Solidarity with the people infiltrating them to get these screenshots.
Information on the original submitter’s page suggested they lived in West Virginia. According to West Virginia Code 37, Article 6A (§37-6A-2, Residential Rental Security Deposits), “upon termination of the tenancy and within the applicable notice period, any security deposit held by the landlord, minus any deductions for damages or other charges, shall be delivered to the tenant, together with a written itemization of any such damages or other charges.”
On termination of rental agreement, any held security deposit could be applied only to: payment of rent due, payment of “the amount of damages which the landlord has suffered by reason of the tenant’s noncompliance with the rental agreement, less reasonable wear and tear,” payment of unpaid utilities billed to the landlord, storage, or other damages. As the purported landlord said, no damages were located upon examination of the rental property.
According to West Virginia law, landlords were required to return any security deposit owed to the tenant at the time the agreement was terminated; the poster stated the tenants vacated the property “months ago.” In the event the tenants were unreachable, landlords were bound to “hold the deposit for six months,” and upon request were similarly bound to personally deliver the deposit to tenants within 72 hours of their written request:
The holder of the landlord’s interest in the premises at the time of the termination of the tenancy, regardless of how the interest is acquired or transferred, is bound by this section and shall be required to return any security deposit received by the original landlord that is duly owed to the tenant. The provisions of this subsection apply whether or not such security deposit is transferred with the landlord’s interest by law or equity, and regardless of any contractual agreements between the original landlord and his or her successors in interest.
… For the purposes of this section, the delivery to a tenant of a security deposit and/or any notice prescribed by this section, may be accomplished by either personal delivery to the tenant, or by mailing the deposit and/or notice to the tenant’s last known address or forwarding address as provided by the tenant. It shall be the responsibility of the tenant to provide an accurate address to the landlord. If personal delivery is not reasonably possible and a deposit or notice mailed to the tenant at his or her last known address or forwarding address provided is returned as non-deliverable, then the landlord shall hold the deposit or notice for the period of six months, to be personally delivered to the tenant, or his or her authorized agent or attorney, at the landlord’s place of business during normal business hours within seventy-two hours after a written request is received from the tenant.
Whether the question about if any fellow landlords in Landlord Round Table “ever had to give back the security deposit” in the event tenants left rental properties undamaged was legitimate and not satirical was unclear. Nevertheless, a screenshot from the group made it to Twitter, after which point it circulated back on Facebook. For the purposes of the discussion around it and in accordance with West Virginia law, the poster appeared to be describing activity prohibited under the relevant landlord-tenant statute (and in most jurisdictions.) Based on comments across various platforms, the described behavior is not uncommon for renters to encounter, and obtaining one’s security deposit upon moving is frequently difficult.