Almost every day we are asked how long a landlord has to return a security deposit in Chicago. The short answer is: usually 45 days after the tenant moves out. However, this is not the case in properties not subject to either our local law the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordnance (“RLTO”) or the state-wide law the Security Deposit Return Act (“SDRA”). (Note: Suburban Cook County has it’s own law. Click here to read about Cook County security deposit law if the unit is in suburban Cook County.
To determine the amount of time a landlord in Chicago has to return a deposit, three questions must be answered:
- Does the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordnance or the Security Deposit Return Act apply to this property?
- Does the lease of the apartment specify a time for deposit return?
- Under what circumstances did the tenant vacate the apartment?
If your landlord is stealing your deposit, it is important to get legal help as soon as possible. Click here to request a free case review.
Does the RLTO or SDRA apply?
Determining whether the SDRA applies to a property is relatively simple. The SDRA applies to all residential rental properties in the State of Illinois that contain 5 units or more. If your landlord owns five or more units in your building, your deposit must be returned in accordance with the SDRA. The SDRA requires that deposits be returned within 45 days of the tenant vacating the unit.
Determining whether the RLTO applies is a bit more tricky. For the purpose of this article, we will only address the most common exception to the RLTO, small owner-occupied properties. If you are in an unusual living situation (e.g. university owned property, a covenant, or employer owned property), click here to learn more about the applicability of the RLTO.
By far, the most prominent exception to the RLTO is owner-occupied buildings containing six units or less. Thus the RLTO applies to all buildings in Chicago (not suburban Cook County) that:
- Contain any number of units where no owner lives in the building; or
- Contain 7 or more units, whether or not an owner lives in the building.
If the RLTO applies to the apartment, the landlord has 45 days to return the security deposit after the tenant vacates the unit.
What if my lease provides a specific time frame for security deposit return?
Most leases used in Chicago specify a time frame of 45 days for deposit return, so there is no conflict with the RLTO or the SDRA. If the property is subject to either the RLTO or the SDRA, those laws will supersede the lease if the lease provides for a longer time-frame. If the lease provides for a shorter period of time for security deposit return, the tenant should receive the deposit during that shorter time-frame.
If the RLTO and SDRA do not apply to your unit, the time specified in the lease for security deposit return will control the relationship. If neither law applies and no time frame is specified, the landlord will have a “reasonable” amount of time to return the deposit – 45 days would likely be reasonable.
When must my deposit be returned if I break my lease?
Generally, if you legally terminate your lease your deposit must be returned in accordance with the principals set forth above (in most cases 45 days).
However, the RLTO does provide an exception to the 45 day rule where the tenant terminates the lease of the apartment due to fire or casualty damage (e.g. fire, severe flooding, tornado damage, ect.).
Where the lease is properly terminated due to casualty damage, the landlord only has seven days after the tenant provides notice of termination of the rental agreement.
However, the above timelines only apply if the tenant legally terminates their lease. In most instances, tenants that terminate a lease early without the advice of a lawyer make mistakes that result in loss of the deposit for unpaid rent. If you desire to break your lease early, hire a lawyer.
What should I do if my landlord does not return my security deposit in Chicago?
When tenants ask my advice regarding the steps to take to recover their security deposit, I make the following suggestions:
Ask nicely: If the tenant had a good relationship with their landlord, I suggest that they follow-up with the landlord in case the landlord simply forgot. I also ask them to make sure they conveyed their forwarding address to the landlord. The tenant should not make threats, make demands, or try to educate the landlord on the law. A simple, “Hi, it’s been x days and I’m wondering where my deposit is.” should suffice.
Have an attorney make a demand: If the landlord doesn’t respond to a polite request for return of the deposit, an attorney can write a demand letter typically demanding 2x the deposit as a statutory penalty, plus return of the deposit itself, plus attorney fees and case costs. This has been highly effective in getting most cases settled. To schedule a free initial phone consultation with a lawyer, click here.
File a lawsuit: Both the RLTO and the SDRA allow for statutory penalties plus the landlord must pay the tenant’s attorney fees and case costs if the tenant is successful. If the landlord chooses to ignore a demand letter, they will have to defend themselves in a lawsuit.
Tenants in Chicago have robust protection when it comes to security deposit theft. If you want to learn more, this article goes much more in depth regarding Chicago security deposit law,