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At People Clerk, we aim to make the small claims lawsuit process easy. Here is a guide with everything you will need to know about New York security deposit laws, New York General Obligations Article 7 Sections 103-108, the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, and the tools necessary to take your issue to a New York small claims court.
If your landlord refuses to return your security deposit, you are likely looking for a way to get it back. Luckily, People Clerk is here to help make this process as smooth and easy as possible for you. So, is it possible to get my security deposit returned in New York? The short answer is: maybe. Below is a comprehensive guide that can help you recover what is yours, and educate you about the laws that protect you as well as how you can fight back against a landlord in small claims court.
Some of the questions answered in this article:
What should I do before moving out?
What does the New York Security Deposit law say?
What are my options if my landlord improperly withholds my security deposit?
How much can I sue for in small claims court?
What should I do before moving out?
The best offense is a good defense, so it’s important to make sure you do everything you can to ensure you’ll get your deposit back before anything goes wrong.
Once you sign your lease, but before you move into the apartment, your landlord must allow you to inspect the apartment with them (the landlord or their agent) to look at the condition of the apartment. It is your choice to request the inspection in which both parties can make note of any damages and defects in what is called the “Precondition Agreement”. (See GOL § 7-108(c)). This inspection can be crucial because your landlord is not allowed to deduct any money from your security deposit for any damage or defect written in the Precondition Agreement.
Photo evidence is one of the keys to keeping your security deposit because it can help you prove that specific damages were not your fault. When you first move in, make sure to have a camera so that you can make a record of what the unit looked like before you started living there. This is especially important if your unit has any pre-existing damage (scuff marks, stains, etc.) left by previous tenants. If it does, be sure to write down a list of everything you find and contact your landlord about getting the damage repaired. Since a move-in inspection is not required, having thorough documentation of all pre-existing damage can make the difference between winning or losing a small claims suit. No matter the situation, it is better to have the evidence and never need it than to have money deducted from your New York security deposit for the damage a previous tenant caused and no way to prove that damage was already there.
Declare Your Move-Out
The most important step in moving out is looking over your lease, as there might be certain clauses that you agreed to when you signed the lease. The standard policy in New York is to give your landlord a 30-day notice of your intent to vacate (NOTE: 30 days is not the same as 1 month). Some common things to include in your notice to vacate are listed below for your convenience:
The address you are moving from so that your landlord has a point of reference
The date you write the letter
The date you intend to move out
When you’ll be available for a move-out inspection with your landlord (provide a range of times, just in case)
Your new forwarding address
Find a Sublet
If for any reason you want to find a sublet for your lease, then there are certain protections and rights that you may have that you should be aware of.
In New York City, if you live in a rent-stabilized apartment, you are entitled to sublet your apartment under the following provisions. Your landlord is not allowed to reject your sublet unless they have reasonable grounds; an example of reasonable grounds may be a sublessee with a bad credit score. To move forward with your sublease, you need to send your landlord a letter by certified mail with at least 30 days' notice before the sublease would begin. This letter requesting the sublease must include:
The dates and duration of the sublease
Who the sublessee is
Both the business and permanent address of the person who is taking on the sublease
Why you are subletting
The address where you will live during this period
If you have any co-tenants or guarantors, you need their written permission
The proposed sublease
Your landlord then has 10 days to request more information that you must comply with, as long as they are reasonable requests. No response within 30 days is considered consent.
It is very common for landlords to hire a cleaning service after a tenant moves out of their unit, this is a very common reason to lose some of your security deposit. One way to avoid this is to make sure you leave the unit in as good of a condition as you can before moving out. Aside from general cleaning, here are some common repairs that you can do to your unit before moving out that can save you some of your security deposit:
Patch any holes in your walls
If you’ve painted your walls, repaint them to the pre-approved color they came in. You can do this by taking a chip of the original paint to a hardware store, where it can be precisely color-matched.
Clean any stains on rugs or carpets thoroughly
Remove water stains on window sills and wood floors
Clean off all surfaces, including inside of drawers, cupboards, and cabinets
Unclog shower and sink drains, as well as toilets
Reattach any shutters or doors that have been taken off their hinges
Treat wood floor scuffs and replace broken tiles
Disinfect and deep clean areas like the bathroom and kitchen
In some lease agreements, all minor repairs are the renter’s responsibility. However, “normal wear-and-tear” such as nail holes and older, broken appliances are not the renter's responsibility. (NY Gen Oblig. Section 7-108(1)(b))
What does New York Security Deposit Law say?
Below we have summarized and answered some of the most common questions regarding New York Security Deposit Laws. If there are still any questions that we did not cover, then the relevant code for security deposit refunds is General Obligations (GOB) Chapter 24-A, Article 7.
How much can my landlord charge for a security deposit in New York?
In New York, security deposit law dictates that the max that a landlord can request in security deposits is equal to 1 month's rent.
This can be seen in New York General Obligations section 7-108(1)(a):
“No deposit or advance shall exceed the amount of one month’s rent under such contract, unless the deposit or advance is for an owner-occupied cooperative apartment as provided for in subdivision six of this section.”
This is further discussed in the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which echoes section 7-108(1-a)(a). An agent representing a landlord or a landlord may not request a security deposit greater than one month’s rent regardless of the length of the tenancy.
Can a New York landlord charge non-refundable fees?
In New York, the Security deposit is always considered the property of the tenant, therefore, unless the landlord has the right to deduct from the security deposit, it must be returned.
This being said, no law prohibits the landlord from having other non-refundable fees in the lease such as a “move-in fee”. This is one reason why reviewing your lease before signing can be so important, as oftentimes these fees can be negotiated with the landlord.
How long does my landlord have to return my security deposit in New York?
According to New York security deposit law, your landlord has 14 days to provide you and any co-tenants with an itemized statement explaining any deductions to your security deposit. If the 14 days go by and your landlord has not given an itemized statement and the remainder of the security deposit, they lose any right to keep a portion of the security deposit and must return it to you in full.
This is all discussed in New York General Obligations section 7-108(1)(e):
“Within fourteen days after the tenant has vacated the premises, the landlord shall provide the tenant with an itemized statement indicating the basis for the amount of the deposit retained, if any, and shall return any remaining portion of the deposit to the tenant. If a landlord fails to provide the tenant with the statement and deposit within fourteen days, the landlord shall forfeit any right to retain any portion of the deposit.”
The 14-day period is specified in the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 as well.
What can my landlord legally deduct from my security deposit?
There are a few items that New York security deposit law allows your landlord to deduct from your security deposit. Here is a list of what your landlord can deduct from your security deposit:
Non-payment of rent
Damage caused by the tenant beyond normal wear and tear
Non-payment of utility charges payable to the landlord per the lease
Moving and storage of the tenant’s belongings
New York General Obligations section 7-108(1)(b) discusses this:
“The entire amount of the deposit or advance shall be refundable to the tenant upon the tenant’s vacating of the premises except for an amount lawfully retained for the reasonable and itemized costs due to non-payment of rent, damage caused by the tenant beyond normal wear and tear, non-payment of utility charges payable directly to the landlord under the terms of the lease or tenancy, and moving and storage of the tenant’s belongings. The landlord may not retain any amount of the deposit for costs relating to ordinary wear and tear of occupancy or damage caused by a prior tenant.”
Is a walkthrough of the unit required before moving out?
The following information applies to a tenancy termination in which the tenant provided at least a 2-week notice to the landlord.
It is the landlord's responsibility to inform the tenant in writing that they have the right to request an inspection of the premise and that the tenant has the right to be present at the inspection. If the tenant chooses to request this inspection, the landlord must agree to a time that takes place no earlier than 2 weeks before the move-out, but no later than 1 week before the move-out. The landlord must also give the tenant written notice with the date and time at least 48 hours before the inspection.
Following the inspection, your landlord must provide you with an itemized list of things that they intend to deduct from your security deposit. Now, you, the tenant, have the opportunity to remedy any of these concerns to save from their security deposit.
New York General Obligations section 7-108(1)(d) discusses this:
“Within a reasonable time after notification of either party’s intention to terminate the tenancy, unless the tenant terminates the tenancy with less than two weeks’ notice, the landlord shall notify the tenant in writing of the tenant’s right to request an inspection before vacating the premises and of the tenant’s right to be present at the inspection. If the tenant requests such an inspection, the inspection shall be made no earlier than two weeks and no later than one week before the end of the tenancy. The landlord shall provide at least forty-eight hours written notice of the date and time of the inspection. After the inspection, the landlord shall provide the tenant with an itemized statement specifying repairs or cleaning that are proposed to be the basis of any deductions from the tenant’s deposit. The tenant shall have the opportunity to cure any such condition before the end of the tenancy. Any statement produced pursuant to this paragraph shall only be admissible in proceedings related to the return or amount of the security deposit.”
What if the landlord is withholding my security deposit illegally?
According to New York security deposit laws, if any landlord is found to be violating any of the above provisions, they are liable for the actual damages; in this situation, it means any amount of your security deposit they illegally kept from you. Even worse, if a landlord is found to have purposely and knowingly violated any of these provisions, then they are liable for punitive damages up to twice the amount of the security deposit on top of the actual damages they are responsible for.
New York General Obligations section 7-108(1)(g) discusses this:
“ Any person who violates the provisions of this subdivision shall be liable for actual damages, provided a person found to have willfully violated this subdivision shall be liable for punitive damages of up to twice the amount of the deposit or advance.”
What are my options if my landlord improperly withholds my security deposit?
Security Deposit Demand Letter
A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests. For example, you could request a refund of your security deposit and explain why you are requesting a refund.
If you eventually decide to sue your landlord in New York small claims court over your security deposit return, we recommend that you first request your security deposit back before you sue your landlord. While you can request your money or property back orally, it is recommended you do so in writing in the form of a demand letter so that there is a physical record.
To be effective, your letter should answer the following questions:
How much money are you owed? Ie. how much you paid for a security deposit
Why are you owed money?
What is your contact information? How can your landlord reach you?
Where should your landlord send payment?
The address of your rental unit and the dates you rented from
Why you are entitled to a return of a portion or all of the deposit
The state laws that require a return of the deposit in a timely manner
The penalties for not returning the deposit as required by law
Finally, you may want to consider giving your landlord 14 days to respond to you. Include this in your letter, and state that if they do not respond within that time, you intend to sue them.
Mediation as a Possible Alternative
In New York, you have free access to 2 major potential remedies that you could go for if you are hesitant to start a lawsuit.
Online Dispute Resolution (ODR)
ODR is a free service offered in many New York courts.
24/7 Service in which negotiation and conversation can happen between the parties to come to a mutual agreement without having to go to court
A court-assigned mediator can join the conversation to help with the mediation process
The Small Claims court hosts free mediation
Bring all your evidence and work through the conflict with the other party and a mediator
Mediation is usually a much faster and cheaper method to resolve your issues with another party
These solutions are optional and can be concluded at any point, at which you can choose to elevate and file a small claims lawsuit. If you chose to sue, the judge can suggest arbitration; this arbitration would result in a binding conclusion.
Why sue in a New York small claims court?
If you’re reading this article, you may think that suing in small claims court over a security deposit sounds complicated and unnecessary. However, the small claims court process was designed and made with the goal of making justice for smaller amounts that most lawyers would reject or overcharge for, as accessible and simple to the average citizen simply seeking justice. Most conventional rules of court are suspended and the result is a forum in which you should be able to comfortably take your landlord to court.
How much can I sue for in New York small claims court?
This is known as the “small claims court limit”. In New York City, as an individual, you can sue for a maximum of $10,000. Outside of New York City the limits range by court between $3,000 to $5,000.
How much does it cost to file a lawsuit in New York Small Claims Court?
The cost of filing a lawsuit depends on the amount you are suing for. If you are an individual suing another individual or business, then you will pay:
$15 for claims up to $1000, and
$20 for claims over $1000.
If you are low-income and cannot afford to pay filing costs, you can apply for a waiver of your court fees:
To apply for this waiver, you should call the court clerk’s office as the requirements vary from judge to judge. Generally, you will have to go in person to the courthouse to make a statement under oath.
This waiver is unfortunately named the Poor Person Relief, but don't allow the name to drive you away if it is something that you need.
People tend to think of court hearings as complicated, confusing, and emotionally intense events — but in the case of the Small Claims Court, it’s quite simple and straightforward. Here we’ve laid out everything to expect at your security deposit hearing.
First, you do not need a lawyer for your security deposit lawsuit.
If you and your landlord both show up to the hearing, the judge will ask you both to show each other the evidence you’ve brought before the hearing officially begins. Then, the judge will ask you why you are suing, and your landlord will get the opportunity to present their side of the story. The judge will then ask you to show them your evidence. In some cases, the judge will keep the evidence, so make sure you’re not showing them screenshots or photos on your phone. The entire small claims hearing should only take about 15 minutes.
If you show up, but your landlord does not, you do not automatically win your case. You will still need to prove to the judge why you should win, but your landlord won't get the opportunity to present their side of the story in court.
No matter what, it’s very rare that a judge will tell you which side won right away. Typically, the judge’s decision will be mailed to you, which most of the time takes a few days. Be patient!
Up next: Guide to New York Small Claims.
Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ People Clerk. Camila is an attorney, consumer advocate, and certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.