One of our most common calls is from tenants who did not get their deposit back. Here are some tips on how to make sure you do!
First, renting a place to live is like renting a car……”you must return it in good condition with a full tank of gas”. It is a tenant’s responsibility to keep the unit clean, sanitary and safe (Iowa Code 562A.17).
Let’s go over some basic information about deposits and returns in the State of Iowa. The rental deposit is money paid to the owner/landlord as a guarantee that the owner/landlord will be reimbursed for damages caused by the tenants (family and guests as well) or unpaid rent. It is important to keep all receipts from your deposit and rent paid. We can all make mathematical errors and those receipts will help if you need validation.
Keep in mind, Iowa laws allow owners/landlords a full 30 days to return your deposit, or a letter the amount they kept and why. The 30 days begins at the time the landlord receives the keys to their property, and are given a forwarding address. When you return the keys, have the owner/manager give you a receipt – this can be hand written on a piece of paper, as long as it is signed and dated. This is also a good time to give them your forwarding address as to where to send the deposit return. If you have to mail them the forwarding address, we suggest you do that via certified mail. Keep a copy of the letter you send and the mail receipt. An email is okay, as long as they respond that they have gotten the information. Unfortunately, text messages are not generally allowed to be used in small claims court as proof on these matters.
Best practice? When you move into a rental property, we advise taking pictures or a video of everything. If they have you fill out a Move In/Out sheet, keep a copy for your records. When you are ready to move, clean their property well, and then take pictures of everything again. Keep your pictures in a safe place such as your Cloud account, a flash drive or send them to your email.
Good grief! Why all this picture taking and proof? Because we don’t want you to be charged for damages that were already there when you moved in! The State of Iowa allows deposits to be up to twice the monthly rent, which is a lot of money, and why it is important that you get it returned. Do not assume your deposit can be used for last month’s rent, because damages have not yet been assessed. Your lease will give requirements for giving notice to move, so be sure you give a proper notice. If you fail to do so, laws allow landlords/owners to take the next month’s rent out from your deposit for your failure to serve notice.
Okay, okay, you have done all these things, but the landlord sends a deposit return letter and you disagree with it. This is where all your pictures and proof come in handy! Often these letters will also include a bill for what you owe that is over the amount of the deposit kept. If you disagree with what is stated in the letter, we advise to write the landlord a dispute letter, stating what you do not agree with, and let them know you do have pictures of the unit before and after. Often, this letter, by itself, can get your deposit back.
What if the owner/landlord still refuses, offers a compromise you do not agree with, or goes past the 30 day window allowed by law? This, again, is where all that proof pays off. It is your civil right to file in Small Claims Civil Court, in the county where the rental property is located, and show your proof to a magistrate. Iowa Code 562A.12 states: The retention of a deposit by a landlord, or any portion of the rental deposit, in violation of the laws, shall subject the landlord to punitive damages not to exceed twice the monthly rental payment in addition to actual damages.