How long does a landlord have to return a security deposit in Wisconsin? 3 Days? 1 Week? 21 Days? 2 Months? Here is how to get your security deposit back. Under Wisconsin law, a landlord is expected to return the tenant’s security deposit within 21 days after the tenant has moved out.

Indeed, just like in most US States, residential leases and rental agreements in Wisconsin require a security deposit. This dollar amount, usually one month’s rent, is mainly intended to cover damage to the premises beyond normal wear and tear, and to cushion the financial blow if a tenant skips out early on the lease without paying.

What is the Maximum a Landlord Can Charge as Security Deposit?

Residential leases and rental agreements in Wisconsin require a security deposit. This deposit will typically be returned to the tenant at the end of the lease term, as long as the tenant follows all the terms of the lease agreement. The state of Wisconsin has no established maximum amount that a landlord can charge a tenant for security deposit.

However, a landlord is expected to present a prospective tenant with the rental agreements and rules and regulations established, if in writing, for their inspection before a rental agreement is entered into, and before any security deposit is accepted. The tenant should receive a copy at the time of agreement.

After receiving the tenant’s security deposit, the landlord is also expected to promptly provide the tenant or prospective tenant with a written receipt for the deposit, stating the nature of the deposit and the amount. If a landlord intends to withhold any portion of a tenant’s security deposit, he/ she is also expected to deliver or mail to the tenant a written statement accounting for all amounts withheld within the required 21 – day time period.

The statement is expected describe in extensive details each item that is damaged or other claims made against the security deposit, and the amount withheld for each item or claim.

According to Wisconsin law, the landlord should not intentionally misrepresent or falsify any claim against a tenant’s security deposit, such as the cost of repairs, or withhold any portion of a security deposit for a claim that is intentionally falsified.

Nonetheless, if a tenant fails to provide a forwarding address, and the landlord follows the required return procedure, then he/she cannot be in violation simply because the postal service has been unable to complete mail delivery of the security deposit and accounting to the tenant.

Note that the failure to deliver to the tenant does not affect any other rights that a tenant may have under law when it comes to a landlord returning his/ her security deposit.

How to Get Your Security Deposit Back in 5 Steps

Most tenants who are moving out of a rental want their deposit back as soon as possible, either to make a deposit on a new rental or for use in a down payment on a house or condo. However, some landlords drag their feet in returning the deposit, or wrongfully withhold money from the deposit.

Note that a landlord is expected to follow state law when handling your security deposit, which means using it only for certain expenses and returning it to you by a specific deadline. But not all landlords will want to comply. Here is what tenants need to know to make sure you get your money back in a timely manner.

1. Plan Ahead

Some people tend not to think about their security deposit until they move out. But before you go, you can take steps that will help you get your deposit back on time and in full. If you have a month-to-month tenancy, consider giving your landlord the legally-required notice to end your tenancy (30 days in most states).

If you don’t give proper notice, note that you could end up owing extra rent, which the landlord can take out of your security deposit. Remember to make a copy of your notice and send it by certified mail, return receipt requested. You’ll need this evidence if you end up in small claims court fighting over the deposit.

In addition, if you are leaving before your lease ends, find another tenant to rent the unit. If you don’t, and the landlord does not re-rent the property quickly, you may owe rent until the end of the lease term — and your security deposit will quickly be used up.

Also, if you are the only tenant leaving, negotiate with the others or the landlord for early return of your share of the deposit. Landlords have no legal duty to return the deposit until all co-tenants leave, so you’ll have to try to work something out.

You can ask to be there when the landlord inspects the unit. Always ask to attend the landlord’s final property inspection so you can fix problems or do more cleaning. Confirm your cleaning plans with your landlord. Make sure you understand what your landlord expects, so you don’t end up under- or over – cleaning.

Clean thoroughly and fix any damage you, your guests, or pets have caused. When you leave, return all keys and remove everything, including garbage, food, and cleaning supplies.

Document your cleaning and repair work. Take photos and videos of the rental when you are done, and get witnesses who can attest to your work. Give the landlord your forwarding address. In Wisconsin, a landlord who can’t locate you within a specified time may keep the deposit.

2. Don’t Confuse Last Month’s Rent With the Deposit

For instance, if you’ve paid a sum of money clearly labelled “last month’s rent” before moving in to a rental, you can certainly use it to cover the last month’s rent before you move out. But if you’ve paid a sum of money called a security deposit; don’t assume you can use this money for the last month of rent unless you get the landlord’s approval.

Have it in mind that many rental property owners will normally want to hold on to the whole deposit until you move out, in case they need to make repairs or do extensive cleaning. If you use part of the deposit for last month’s rent, your landlord may not have sufficient funds to cover replacing items, making repairs, and/ or cleaning the rental unit.

3. Know Your Rights

Note that the state of Wisconsin holds landlords to strict guidelines as to when and how to return security deposits. Landlords who violate these laws may lose the deposit entirely or face hefty penalties. Wisconsin laws typically allow landlords to use deposits to cover:

  • Unpaid rent or other charges — for example, unpaid utility bills
  • Repairing damage you or your guests caused (but not for ordinary wear and tear), and
  • Cleaning the premises so they’re as clean as when you moved in.

The general rule is that you are not responsible for normal wear and tear. For example, if the dishwasher must be replaced because it simply wore out, that’s ordinary wear and tear.

4. Follow Up With the Landlord

If you don’t feel happy with your landlord’s deductions, you don’t get an itemization, or the landlord broke state security deposit law in some other way, it is advisable you first try to work something out. If you come to an agreement — perhaps the landlord will return some of your deposit if you do additional cleaning — put it in writing and sign it. The agreement is a legal contract, and if the landlord fails to honour it, you can go to small claims court.

However, if negotiations fail, write the landlord a demand letter asking for the return of the deposit. The state of Wisconsin require this before you can sue in small claims court, so if you don’t make a written demand for its return, you risk losing your deposit altogether. Even if it is not mandatory, a letter may motivate your landlord to act because it shows you know your rights and will insist on getting your money. Your demand letter should:

  • Explicitly review the main facts and lay out the reasons your landlord owes you money.
  • Include copies of relevant letters and agreements, such as your notice to move out.
  • Ask for exactly what you want, such as the full amount of your deposit within ten days.
  • Cite state security deposit law.
  • Say that you will promptly sue in small claims court if necessary.

5. Sue in Small Claims Court if Necessary

If your landlord fails to respond by your deadline or you are dissatisfied with the response, you can file a lawsuit in small claims court (called Justice of the Peace, Conciliation, Justice, City, or County court in different places). Remember to sue for the amount of the security deposit that your landlord wrongfully withheld and, if it is required by your city, for interest.

Note that you can also sue for extra punitive damages if the landlord acted in bad faith. Filing a small claim usually costs $10 to $50. You don’t need a lawyer, and disputes typically go before a judge (there are no juries) within a month or so.

Gathering evidence, such as your notice of intent to move out, photos of the rental unit when you left, and demand letters is crucial to winning. Note that the trial, which consists of each side presenting its version of what happened, seldom takes more than 15 minutes. The judge either announces a decision right there in the courtroom or mails it out (often within a few days).

Conclusion

It is very important for both landlords and tenants to know and understand Wisconsin’s security deposit law. Landlords are required to remain in compliance with the state’s security deposit law. Tenants have a duty to adhere to their lease obligations, and in so doing, can get a refund of their security deposit at the end of their lease term. Wisconsin security deposit statutes can be found in Wisconsin Statute 704.28 and Wisconsin Administrative Code 134.06.

Solomon. O'Chucks