Know your renters' rights: How to get your security deposit back

HOUSTON – Nearly half of all Houstonians pay rent every month instead of a mortgage. When things go wrong, a lot of tenants don't realize they have rights supported by Texas law. One of the most specific laws is regarding your security deposit and what happens to it when you move out.

"I probably realized something was wrong about 5 to 6 weeks out," Christopher Gallego said. 
Before he moved out of The Block on Montrose, he gave 30 days notice and then turned in his keys and gave his forwarding address at the end of May.

The Texas Property Code allows landlords 30 days to return security deposits to tenants or an itemized list of why it's keeping all or some of the money. In Gallego's case, 30 days passed with no money and no information.

"No answered phone calls. No responded voice mails," he told consumer expert Amy Davis. "That's when I became concerned."

Someone who claimed to be with a new management company, Keener Management did call Gallego. They sent him a check at the end of August. It was short $82.50; and Keener Management didn't give any explanation as to why.

"A lot of landlords think 'I'm going keep this' and just put the burden on the tenant to push to get it back," said Rick McElvaney with the University of Houston Center For Consumer Law:

If it happens to you, McElvaney says you should push because the law says landlords who don't return the deposit in 30 days or who deduct money without an explanation of why could be forced to pay three times the deposit plus $100 and any court costs or attorney's fees. And landlords can't take money from your deposit for just anything. They have to be specific.

"They can't deduct for normal wear and tear," McElvaney explained. "They can only deduct for damages." 

For example, if the landlord has to replace carpet just because it is worn or repaint cracked or old walls, that is all considered wear and tear, not damage.

There are about 25 apartments in the complex where Gallego lived; and he's worried those still living there don't know about the security deposit law either.

"If you're holding on to five, six, seven, $800 deposits from each one of those, that's pretty concerning," Gallego said.

No one from Keener Management returned Davis' calls and emails asking why it kept a portion of Gallego's deposit. For Gallego to get the rest of his money, times three as the law states, he will have to file against the company in small claims court. In Harris County, it costs about $120, but if you win, the landlord will have to pay that cost as well.

[Know your renter's rights: How to get application fees back]

Most apartment complexes require you to give a rental deposit to hold an apartment for you while they are processing your application. You usually are asked to pay a separate application fee. While the application fee is not refundable, if you are not approved for any reason, the Texas Property Code says that rental deposit should be returned to you in full. But consumer expert Amy Davis found more than a dozen apartment complexes keeping rental deposits from rejected applicants.

A woman reached out to Davis when she applied for an apartment at Sedona Pointe on Highland Cross Drive near Intercontinental Airport. She paid an application fee and left a $300 money order for a rental deposit. An apartment manager told her she was not approved because of bad credit; but they refused to return her $300 rental deposit. No one from Sedona Pointe would talk with Davis when she stopped by, and repeated calls to CLMS Management, the company that manages the complex, went unanswered.

CLMS Management manages two complexes in Baytown and 11 in Houston. We checked every one of the websites for each complex and found statements like this one: "All fees paid at the time of your application are non-refundable."

Rick McElvaney with the Texas Consumer Complaint Center said that disclaimer still doesn't allow the company to break the law.

"The tenant can't waive this," McElvaney said. "The landlord can't make the tenant waive their rights to these rental application fees and deposit rights."

If a landlord refuses to refund your rental deposit after you were rejected from a complex, you can take them to small claims court. They will owe you three times your deposit plus $100 and any court costs you incurred. The renter who contacted Davis, if she won her case, she would get at least $1000.

Wednesday at 11 a.m., McElvaney and another attorney will be answering all of your questions about renters' rights in a live web chat. Click here to join the chat.

About the Author:

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.