Illinois Security Deposit Law Less Than 5 Units
I am commonly asked about Illinois security deposit law when there are less than 5 units in the building. This question arises often because the Illinois Security Deposit Return Act only covers buildings of 5 units or more. The answer to this question is complicated and largely depends on where you live and what your lease says. First, let’s look at what is provided in the Illinois Security Deposit Return Act.
Illinois Security Deposit Return Act
The Illinois Security Deposit Return Act is the primary law in Illinois protecting tenants’ security deposits. If you came to this page, you probably know that it is shockingly narrow in scope. The Act only applies to buildings where at least 5 units are owned by your landlord. This leaves many tenants unprotected.
If a tenant is protected by the Illinois Security Deposit Return Act, they are entitled to an itemized list of damages within 30 days, a deposit return within 45 days and paid receipts within 30 days of the itemized list.
If a landlord violates the Act, the tenant is entitled to two times the amount wrongfully withheld and, crucially, attorney fees.
When a tenant has a security deposit dispute in a building of less than 5 units, the first place to look is local law. In Illinois many cities have what we call home rule power – basically the right to run their own affairs so long as they are not expressly prohibited by the state legislature. A few cities have exercised this power by enacting local tenants rights ordinances. I can’t promise this is an exhaustive list, but here are the local laws I am aware of: Chicago, Evanston, DeKalb, Urbana, Oak Park and Mt. Prospect.
Chicago Security Deposit Law
If your apartment is located within the city limits of Chicago (not the suburbs and not unincorporated Cook County), you may be protected by one of the most tenant-friendly laws in the country. Chicago security deposit law applies to property of all sizes throughout the city. The major class of exclusions are owner-occupied properties of 6 units or less. As long as the owner of your unit does not live in the same building as you, your deposit is well protected.
Chicago security deposit law mirrors the Illinois Security Deposit Return Act with respect to the requirements after move out, but also provides additional protections and the penalty for violation is a larger two times the deposit, plus return of the deposit itself, plus attorney fees. If you are interested in Chicago security deposit law, you can click one of the links in this paragraph.
Evanston Security Deposit Law
Evanston security deposit law is similar to the Illinois Security Deposit Return Act except that it applies to nearly all apartments and also sets a very short 21 day deadline for return of deposit and itemized list. Evanston does not have a paid receipts requirement.
If the landlord violates Evanston security deposit law, the tenant has a claim for two times the deposit, plus return of the deposit and attorney fees.
Oak Park Security Deposit Law
Oak Park security deposit law mirrors the Illinois Security Deposit Return Act, but applies to units in buildings of 4 or more units.
Urbana Security Deposit Law
Urbana security deposit law mirrors the Illinois Security Deposit Return Act, but applies to all units.
DeKalb Security Deposit Law
DeKalb security deposit law mirrors the Illinois Security Deposit Return Act, but applies to all units.
Mt. Prospect Security Deposit Law
Mt. Prospect security deposit law is an interesting creature as it sets standards for deposit treatment, but does not appear to have any teeth. Some day the law may be tested in court, but as of now it seems as though the drafters wrote a law with no penalty for violation.
Rights Provided by the Lease
If you are in the unfortunate situation of being exempt from the Illinois Security Deposit Return Act and not in a municipality with a local law, your rights are going to be those provided in your lease. Unfortunately, most leases available online (this is where landlords usually find them) are extremely landlord-friendly.
Almost all leases have a paragraph dealing with security deposits. This provision usually states the purpose of the deposit, why it may be forfeited, and when it shall be returned. Some leases state that the landlord can keep the deposit if the tenant “violates the lease” and others state it can be withheld for damage and unpaid rent. It is also fairly common to see exemptions for ordinary wear and tear. If the lease doesn’t give a time-frame for deposit return, it must be returned in a “reasonable” time. Since all the laws in Illinois (except Evanston) set the limit at 45 days, 45 days is probably a reasonable time-frame.
Sometimes landlords outside of Chicago are very lazy or very ignorant and use a lease specifically designed for Chicago. The language in these leases varies as there are about 5 different forms commonly used in Chicago and different revisions of each (we commonly see a version from the 1980s). Most of these leases specifically list the deadlines under Chicago law, but do not specifically impose penalties or attorney fees. Thus, the landlord may violate the lease by, for instance, failing to give paid receipts, but at most the tenant would have a claim for the deposit itself. Rarely, I do see a lease that actually applies Chicago law in its entirety.
Not only do leases tend to have landlord-friendly standards for deposit treatment, they almost never provide for the tenant’s attorney fees. Almost every non-Chicago lease I have seen says that the tenant shall pay the landlord’s attorney fees if the landlord has to go to court to enforce the lease, but makes no provision for the tenant’s fees – even if the tenant wins. The lack of a right to attorney fees is a huge handicap for tenants because attorneys fees will almost always far exceed the value of even the largest deposits. Without a claim for attorney fees, hiring an attorney isn’t economically feasible.
Thus, if you are not covered by the Illinois Security Deposit Return Act or local law, you will likely have to file a lawsuit yourself for breach of contract. Unless your deposit is massive (over $10,000.00) your case will be deemed a “small claims case.” Small claims rules allow judges to relax many formal courtroom requirements and are more like Judge Judy than O.J. Simpson trials. Moreover, some courthouses have “pro se courtrooms” (for people without attorneys), which are typically staffed by patient judges where less legalese is used.
To get help with filing your own case, the best resource is Illinois Legal Aid Online. Additionally, many courthouses do have self-help desks and even volunteer attorneys.
Hopefully this article helped answer your question about Illinois security deposit law. If your apartment is in Chicago and subject to our local law, I would be happy to speak with you about your deposit claim.
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