What Is Normal Wear and Tear?
Ripped or torn carpeting, gaping holes in the walls, doors hanging off the hinges — when a tenant moves out, some damage goes above and beyond the usual. But as most landlords know, these things are rarely straightforward.
BY KEVIN ORTNER
What do you do about scuff marks on the hardwood flooring? Or nail holes from hanging pictures? What about dirty appliances? Can you charge a tenant to bring the property back into the same condition it was in before they moved in?
Of course, tenants want their security deposit back in full, but as a landlord, you must retain the deposit to apply toward any damage that the tenant is responsible for. When it comes to assessing what issues were caused by normal use and which problems are more excessive, it can get complicated.
When a tenant moves out, it’s up to the landlord to process their security deposit and return it in a timely manner. This deadline varies considerably from state to state, but for most areas, it’s about 30 days.
To further compound the issue, state and local regulations vary considerably on how security deposits should be handled. Not surprisingly, disputes regarding security deposits are among the most common reasons landlords and tenants end up facing each other in court.
To clear up some of the confusion surrounding this issue, here are some guidelines for the typical areas where damage occurs in a rental to help you determine whether it falls under the category of normal wear and tear or is something more serious.
In most cases, you can’t expect the floor to be in pristine condition after a tenant leaves. Carpet naturally has a limited lifetime, especially if it’s a lighter color. High-traffic areas will naturally become worn down, and it’s common to see a few light stains and indentations from furniture. A steam clean, customarily performed in between tenants, should bring carpet back into decent shape. However pet stains, holes, and burns generally go beyond everyday wear and tear. When it comes to hardwood flooring, the same standards apply. Worn or scuffed flooring in areas that receive a lot of traffic is to be expected, while deep gouges or an extensive series of scratches are usually indicative of tenant damage. With tiles or linoleum, it largely depends on the quality of the flooring and what has caused the damage. If linoleum is starting to peel near the door, for example, it’s most likely the result of normal use. Broken or chipped tiles or deep scratches in flooring could have been caused by dropping heavy items or dragging something across the floor and may be damage the tenant could be held responsible for.
Walls and Doors
Faded paint or wallpaper is considered normal wear and tear, and minor superficial damage — such as a few small nail holes, or a hole where a door handle hit the wall — is usually considered normal wear as well. These small issues can easily be repaired and shouldn’t come out of the tenant’s security deposit. However, pen marks all over the walls, or deep gouges or dents that will require more than some quick plaster to repair, are usually considered excessive. Similarly, the cost to repair or possibly replace doors that are hanging off the hinges or sliding doors that have come off of their tracks and been banged around can usually be deducted from the tenant’s security deposit.
Appliances that you supplied with the unit — such as air conditioners, furnaces, stoves, and washers and dryers — all age and will break down eventually. Your job is to determine whether the unit in question wore out on its own or was damaged by the tenant intentionally or by improper use. For instance, if your new appliances are broken and are still under warranty, you may want to find out the cause. For machines that are older than five years old, though, the breakdown could be normal wear and tear. In most cases, you shouldn’t take the cost of replacing appliances out of the tenant’s security deposit unless you can prove that they caused the damage themselves.
One of the age-old landlording questions is deciding whether or not to make your rental pet-friendly. When you let furry friends stay, you’re acknowledging that they may make an impact on a unit. But just because you allow pets in your property doesn’t mean that you have to allow pet damage. Stained carpet, holes in the yard, and scratched or chewed floors, walls, or doors are not generally considered normal wear and tear and can all come out of the tenant’s security deposit.
Dirt and Grime
While you can’t require your tenants to shine the floors on their way out, this doesn’t mean that they have the right to leave your property in a filthy state either. Clogged drains from misuse or neglect; filthy bathtubs, showers, sinks, or toilets; food in the refrigerator or cabinets; a grimy stove; and piles of trash can all be considered excessive, and such in cases it’s not unreasonable for you to charge a cleaning fee. Just make sure to be clear about your expectations for the condition of the rental before your tenants move out, so they know exactly how you expect them to return the property to you.
The best test for these cases is whether the property has been returned to you in a way that’s considered to be reasonable, taking into account the amount of time that the tenant occupied it. For example, if you recently had new carpet installed and the tenant was only in the unit for six months, then the cost of replacing damaged carpet should come out of their security deposit. If, however, the carpet is ten years old, then you can’t expect the tenant to pay for a carpet upgrade simply because it’s worn out.
Finally, when it comes to security deposits, one of the best ways to protect yourself is by being proactive. Make sure you specify in the lease the condition in which you expect the rental to be returned to you. This should help to clear up any confusion and keep everyone on the same page. Another important tip is to always document everything. Always conduct a walkthrough of the unit before the tenant moves in, documenting the condition of the property. We do another walkthrough with the tenant when they move out. Video and photos are one of the best ways to demonstrate the state that the property was in, and will prove to be invaluable when it comes to withholding a security deposit or having to prove your case in court.
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