Security Deposits in Virginia: A Quick Guide to Virginia Housing Laws

In Virginia, your landlord can only withhold your security deposit in very limited and specific cases. The requirements are outlined in the Virginia Code.

Last updated on March 29th, 2019

Landlords often use security deposits as a way of ensuring that any damage to their property is covered at the end of the lease agreement.

Under the Virginia Code, landlords can withhold part of this deposit in order to pay for damages, late rent payments, and other specific lease violations.

However, as a transaction that deals with thousands of dollars, the Virginia code lays out certain grounds rules which dictate how landlords handle the security deposit process. In this article, we’ll cover one of the most common reasons tenant law cases in Virginia: security deposits.

Legal Basics of Virginia Security Deposits

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The Virginia Code has an extended section that covers the laws surrounding security deposits in Virginia.

To learn more about how the law relates to your specific case, you should review this section with an experienced lawyer. However, we’ll cover the basics of this code section below.

Requirements for Landlords

The code outlines several specific rules about how landlords can handle security deposits. If your landlord breaks any of the following rules, you might be able to regain your security deposit through a civil court case.

Specifically, a landlord must:

  • Charge no more than 2 month’s rent for the security deposit.
  • Pay interest on the deposit to tenants who have been in the same residence for more than 13 months.
  • Either pay the deposit back to the tenant within 45 days after vacancy, OR provide a list of deductions in writing within that same period
  • Notify the tenant of the preferred final inspection procedure

When the landlord notifies the tenant of the deductions, they must do so in an itemized list. Some examples of common reasons for a deduction include:

  • Unpaid rent.
  • Late charges.
  • Repair to the dwelling, other than “normal wear and tear.”
  • Charges specifically detailed in the lease agreement.
  • Unpaid utility bills.

If there are damages, the notice from the landlord should list each type of damage and the cost to repair the damage.

Requirements for Tenants

There are also several rules that tenants must follow in order to retain their security deposit at the end of the lease. Generally speaking, these details are outlined in your lease agreement.

For example, most agreements have a section that says “you need to pay your rent by so-and-so date,” or “you must pay for any damages to the building.”

Since the reasons for withholding rent are often directly tied your lease agreement, it’s always wise to go over the agreement before you sign anything.

If you have a disagreement with your landlord about something in your lease, you should take the lease, in its entirety, to an attorney.

Changes in Ownership

Finally, you should note that if your landlord sells the property to a new owner, that new owner must honor your original lease agreement.

This means that they need to follow the same rules regarding your security deposit that the original landlord did.

Security Deposit Disputes

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If you feel that your landlord is unfairly withholding your deposit, there are several steps to challenging their claim.

Step 1: Document and Keep Records

Make sure to keep copies of all rent payment receipts, late charge payments, and anything else to do with your rent.

Likewise, if you pay utilities on the property, make sure all payments are documented and up-to-date, and verify with your landlord the correct procedure for either shutting off the utilities or switching them out of your name.

Not all landlords will perform a final inspection with the tenant, and will simply send the tenant an itemized list of required cleaning and “damaged” items. Be aware of your landlord’s procedure and, if possible, ask that the inspection be performed with you present.

It’s also wise to do a full walkthrough of your unit with a camera in order to document the state of the building before you move in. By creating a record of how the unit looked before you moved in, it becomes harder for your landlord to claim you damaged their property during your residence.

Step 2: Put Your Complaint in Writing

Once you have enough evidence, you should hire a lawyer and send your landlord a formal demand letter. A demand letter states all the facts of your case, and dictates what the landlord legally owes you.

You should send this letter by certified mail. Make sure you keep the receipt that shows your landlord received the letter. You should also save a copy of this letter for future reference.

In most cases, this letter is the “nuclear” option. It shows that you’re willing to take your case to court, so your landlord will normally either return the money immediately or hire their own lawyer to fight the claim.

For this reason, you should make sure you have a solid claim before sending this demand letter.

As an added bonus, this letter provides a written record of your demands in a clear, concise manner.

If your case does go to civil court, this will show the judge that you made an attempt to settle the matter outside of court, which often works in your favor.

Step 3: Go to Court

If your landlord doesn’t comply with your demand letter, the next step is generally to take them to small claims court.

In Virginia, you can sue in small claims court for any amount up to $5,000. These claims go before a judge, who will generally settle the matter quickly.

Before you go to court, make sure you have all your documents in order.

You should bring a copy of your demand letter, all receipts, and any personal correspondence (texts or emails) with you. You may also want to have some pictures of the unit, if needed.

If the judge rules in your favor, your landlord will have to pay back the security deposit they unfairly withheld.

Conclusion

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The Virginia code states how much security deposit your landlord can demand you pay, and when they must return your deposit after you move out. Your landlord can withhold your security deposit to cover unpaid rent, late fees, or repairs to the dwelling.

However, they must provide an itemized list that justifies the expenses.

If you feel that your landlord has unfairly withheld your deposit, you should speak with an attorney to see if you have a case. While you can dispute small claims by yourself, larger claims general require the assistance of an experienced lawyer.

In most cases, an attorney can quickly settle these larger disputes before they ever reach the courtroom.

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