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In this article we will explain how you can sue your landlord for withholding your security deposit in Wisconsin, including: What options do I have besides going to court? Should I hire an attorney? What are Landlords allowed to withhold from the security deposit? What is “normal wear and tear”?

Yes. If your landlord does not return your security deposit and/or an itemized list of deductions within the 21 days after your lease ends, or if your landlord withheld part or all of the deposit unreasonably, suing could be an option for you to consider.  

In this article we will explain how you can sue your landlord for withholding your security deposit in Wisconsin, including:

  • What options do I have besides going to court?
  • Should I hire an attorney?
  • What are Landlords allowed to withhold from the security deposit?
  • What is “normal wear and tear”?

What options do I have besides going to court?

Educating yourself is a good first step – the Tenant Resource Center has comprehensive and updated information on Landlord tenant law in Wisconsin Tenant Resource Center. Also, every case is unique, and attorneys or other legal resources are available, and many provide free consultations.    

You should consider negotiating with your landlord – write a letter or email and make clear which items you disagree with. There is probably no reason to be uncivil at this point, just make sure to keep a copy/record of your correspondence, and any evidence you may have collected such as pictures or a check-in sheet.

Consider filing a complaint with consumer protection, they can mediate the dispute and help find a resolution WI Consumer Protection Complaint  

Should I hire an attorney?

You do not need to hire and attorney. You can represent yourself in small claims court, and there may be some legal resources where you live that can help you represent yourself “Pro Se”. Click the guide below to get an idea what that process might look like.

WI Small Claims Guide

An attorney can be an excellent resource. They can be an indicator to your landlord that you are serious, provide advice, draft correspondence on your behalf, and if need be, file a complaint and represent you in small claims court.  

One thing that helps make hiring an attorney in this area of law a little easier is statutory fee-shifting in Wisconsin. It allows tenants the opportunity, if they win, to recover double the amount that was unreasonably withheld, as well as costs and reasonable attorney’s fees. Which could mean that the Landlord ends up paying for your attorney.  

Wisconsin Statute 100.20(5) Any person suffering pecuniary loss because of a violation by any other person of any order issued under this section may sue for damages therefor in any court of competent jurisdiction and shall recover twice the amount of such pecuniary loss, together with costs, including a reasonable attorney's fee.

This can help with finding an attorney that will not charge an arm and a leg, as well as pressure a landlord into settling with you to avoid the threat of an attorney bill if they lose.

What are landlords allowed to withhold from the security deposit?

Wisconsin Statute 704.28/ATCP 134.06(3) governs the withholding and return of security deposits. With some exceptions, Landlords can withhold only what is reasonably necessary to pay for:

  1. Tenant damage, waste, or neglect that go beyond “normal wear and tear”
  1. Unpaid rent  
  1. Utility Service - either provided by the landlord that the tenant agreed to pay in the lease separate from rent, or that the tenant owes to a government-owned utility to the extent that the landlord becomes responsible for the tenants non-payment  
  1. Unpaid monthly municipal permit fees (A.K.A. Mobile homes parking fees) to the extent that the landlord becomes responsible for the tenants non-payment  
  1. Payments from acceptable non-standard rental provisions in the lease

What is “normal wear and tear”?

There is no definition for normal wear and tear. It is up to the parties and a judge to decide whether something is normal wear and tear, or if it is damage caused by the tenant that exceeds normal wear and tear. However, unless a tenant has damaged walls or carpet beyond normal wear and tear, routine carpet cleaning, painting, and maintenance generally cannot be withheld from a security deposit.  

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