Can A Landlord Refuse To Refund My Security Deposit?

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When a tenant moves out of a rental property, the landlord must still fulfill certain obligations to him or her. These obligations include inspecting the premises and returning the tenant’s security deposit, absent any excessive damage, within a reasonable amount of time. Disputes often arise when landlords refuse to refund any, or even a portion, of the tenant’s original security deposit, which is generally equal to one full month’s rent.

Wisconsin Law Regarding Security Deposits

The laws regulating landlord-tenant relationships are located in Chapter 134 of Wisconsin’s Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Act (ATCP). Chapter 134 is entitled “Residential Rental Practices” and it governs everything from the rental agreement itself, to security deposits, to acts prohibited by a landlord. ATCP 134.06 is devoted entirely to the topic of security deposits. This section mandates that landlords deliver to the tenant the full amount of the security deposit, less any amounts appropriately withheld, along with a detailed list of any deductions within 21 days of the termination date of the rental agreement.
ATCP 134.06(3) addresses restrictions on the withholding of a security deposit. Specifically, this subsection states that a landlord may only withhold amounts reasonably necessary to cover things such as tenant damage, waste, or neglect; unpaid rent; or unpaid utilities owed under the rental agreement for which the landlord became responsible.

What is Tenant Damage or Neglect?

Most disputes arise with respect to the provision for tenant “damage, waste, or neglect of the premises.” Landlords may only deduct for damages or excessive filth caused by tenants which go above and beyond normal wear and tear. For example, ordinary wear and tear includes things such as curtains faded by the sun, a carpet wore thin from normal use, and faded paint on the walls. On the other hand, tenant damage, waste, or neglect would likely come into play when there are cigarette burns in curtains, stains in the rug from a leaky fish tank, and water damage on walls from hanging plants. Damages and excessive filth exceeding ordinary wear and tear become the tenant’s responsibility, and landlords may withhold a reasonable amount from the tenant’s security deposit for the cost of repair.

What To Do If You’re Security Deposit Is Withheld

One of our clients recently moved from a rental property where the landlord withheld approximately $2,300 for what he referred to as “weed removal.” The client understood that he may be responsible for a reasonable weed removal fee of a few hundred dollars as he had not kept up with weeding around the property, but the landlord had essentially re-landscaped large portions of the yard and charged the client for it. Our client had pictures showing the vast improvements made to the yard, all of which were inappropriately charged to his security deposit. We wrote a letter to the landlord demanding the return of the unreasonably withheld portion of the deposit, along with an amount for attorney’s fees. In addition, we cited ATCP 134 and Wis. Stat. § 100.20(5), which states that our client was entitled to double damages for the amount wrongly withheld, and the landlord promptly paid up!
If you have recently moved from a rental property and believe the landlord has unreasonably withheld some or all of your security deposit, contact an attorney right away. If the Court finds that the amount was unreasonably withheld, you can receive double the amount that was withheld as well as court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees. The attorneys at Groth Law Firm, S.C. will work diligently to help you recover the money that has been wrongly and unreasonably withheld from you.

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