The low-cost lawyer who’ll get your security deposit back

Zach, laughing at the craziness of a landlord who won't give you your money back

Zach, amused by the landlord who won’t give you your money back

Unless you ‘move’ like Jagger (i.e. hire movers, do a few lines of coke and take a limo to your new apartment), changing your living situation is the WORST. No, let’s have none of that “out with the old, in with the new” optimism: everything about moving truly sucks, not the least of which involves actually paying for your new place when you still have a big chunk of money caught up in the old one.

Now, we’ve run a few posts about housing law before, but 31-year-old Zach J. Liszka is a trained professional. And since he’s using his chops to offer up low-cost legal services for helping folks get their deposits back, we figured he’d have some insight to offer on what you can do in case a landlord tries to rip you off.

So, why do our landlords sometimes hold on to the security deposit after we move out?
New York courts say that a landlord can hold your security deposit past the move-out date for a “reasonable time,” in order to give them time to inspect the place for damage.

At what point does that become illegal?
It’s not an exact science, and it depends on the situation. Generally, if the landlord has had ample time to inspect the place for damage, and there are no disputes, there really isn’t a reason to hold it past the “reasonable time.” Sometimes, though—and this is where I come in—even after the landlord has agreed to cut you a check, he/she will give you the run-around as you’re trying to get it back.

Woof, that sucks. Why would they do that? 
Maybe it’s on the presumption that you’ll just give up. While landlords aren’t downright corrupt, they do often go into property ownership because it’s a way for them to make money. There’s the potential for a little opportunism to sprout up, and the security is a perfect place for that to happen.

What can a tenant do about that, if it happens?
Worst-case scenario, you could go to small claims. But that can be time-consuming for someone with a busy schedule. You’d have to take off work several times. Then, you’d have to hire a sheriff (for a fee) to collect on a favorable judgment—that’s assuming the landlord actually has the money in a bank account, and that you know which bank account it is.

Let’s say a landlord really is pulling a fast one. What do you do?
A tenant contacts me on the website, and we go over the immediate situation together. How long has the landlord owed the deposit? How much is it for? Does the landlord have any reason to withhold the deposit? Landlord/tenant laws in New York can be complex, but I’ll figure out pretty quickly whether something legitimately shady is going on. And if it sounds like a case, I usually call the landlord to get a read. From my experience, when a landlord tries to give me the same answers as he did to the tenant, I just explain, very calmly, that his actions can have a very unhappy ending: going to court, property liens, bank account garnishing and generally spending a lot more money than maybe even the deposit itself.

Ooh, bad cop. I like it. But what if that tactic doesn’t work?
I’ll gladly take the case to court if that’s the best course of action. Small claims isn’t necessarily pleasant, but it’s there to serve. Then again, if a landlord is really willing to take things to court, he might have a stronger argument than the tenant realized/was letting on.

Okay, sounds cool. So what’s it cost to use you?
I only charge if we get you your money. If we win, I charge 25% of your deposit.

Did this ever happen to you personally, by the way?
No, but I’ve been working in social justice law ever since I experienced a different kind of discrimination first-hand.

Yeah? What happened?
Back when I was in journalism school in Alaska, I got a bartending job to pay the bills over the summer. After I was hired, the manager found out I’d been partially paralyzed as a kid; I didn’t think anything of it, because no one notices unless I tell them. As soon as she found out, though, she put me through a battery of weird tests, like “pick up this keg and bring it over here.” Then she called me up the next day before my shift and told me she couldn’t have “people like me” working at the bar, and I was fired.

Oh, no. People like you? 
Yeah. I asked, “What do you mean, people like me?” She said flat-out, “People with your disability.” I was so shocked. I filed a complaint with the Alaska Human Rights Commission, they took my case and we settled favorably some time later. But that’s when I decided to go to law school.

That makes sense. I’ve gotta admit, “underdog who just wants to help the underdogs” isn’t exactly the line that comes to mind when we think of lawyers.
Yeah, I hear you. But come on, people are so much more than their job title. All it takes is a bit of genuine curiosity—and maybe a few rounds of Talisker single malt—to figure out that someone has a story to tell. Not all lawyers are bad, just like not all landlords are bad. I’ll admit that it does feels great “making it rain,” so long as I’m fighting for the good side.

Noted. Okay, Let’s talk big-picture now. What kind of permanent change do you think this could have on the real estate beat, if deposit recovery services—or similar tenant vigilantism—becomes the norm?
New York desperately needs rent caps, and a licensing system for landlords to keep them accountable. My hope is that if enough people use this kind of service—okay, ideally my services in particular—landlords will get wise to the fact that tenants can lawyer up easily and aren’t going to take sketchy money-handling lying down.

Check out Zach’s deposit recovery services at www.dearslumlord.com. Hey, catchy site title.

4 Comment

  • Services like this are desperately needed more in NYC. Thank you for covering this.

  • Or you can just contact your state’s attorney General and have them go after your landlord for free.
    Also, don’t be an ass, if you never cleaned your shower or your stove and you never reported that things like window screens went missing, doors were off their hinges, broken locks and doorknobs, broken light fixtures, or you didn’t give enough notice that you were leaving or broke your lease, etc., don’t expect to get your security back. I work in real estate and deal with so many dumb people who don’t read their leases. All of that is in there. As much money as landlords make, most of it goes to expenses and taxes. So believe me, if they have a reason to keep your deposit, they will.

    • RF, I see you’re you’re an agent for landlords, so right there I question any advice you have to offer tenants about this because you’re on the other side. But, also, you’re adding to the confusion. Just because the tenant failed to notify the landlord of some damage, doesn’t mean the landlord gets to keep the entire deposit, as you say. Rather, the burden is on the landlord to establish the damages are beyond “reasonable wear and tear”, that the tenant caused them, and provide proof of their cost, then the landlord can deduct that amount, and no more, from the deposit, but the rest is the tenants.

      Tenants need all the help they can get in New York against these guys. An attorney can help tenants determine if they have additional claims that the tenant may not otherwise know about because the law is complex, so the attorney can use the claims as leverage against the landlord to get the deposit back before it even gets to small claims. NY landlord/tenant law is really complex and there needs to be attorneys on both sides, otherwise one party is going to get taken advantage of.

  • I know Zach from our time in Alaska. He is a man of integrity and would be a superstar up here but chose the big pond. It’s a shame because we have so much oil related corruption to root out. We miss you!