Wear & Tear Vs. Tenant Damage: A Complete Guide for Landlords

When a tenant moves out of your property, there’s a good chance that they won’t leave it the way they found it. If there’s obvious damage, like holes in the walls, you’ll be able to deduct the cost of the repairs from their security deposit. However, landlords cannot retain any portion of the security deposit to cover repairs or maintenance for normal wear and tear or depreciation of the property.

The law is pretty straightforward regarding security deposits but the problem is that it can be difficult to tell the difference between tenant damage and normal wear and tear. Here are some tips to help you recognize the difference between these two types of damage and why the distinction matters.

What’s Considered Normal Wear and Tear?

Normal wear and tear can be difficult to define; in general, it refers to the inevitable decline of a property’s overall condition due to time and usage.

All rental properties will experience some deterioration over time, even with the most diligent tenants. It’s normal and to be expected. From flooring to appliances, everything eventually breaks down simply by being used. The longer a tenant lives at a property, the greater the wear and tear will be when they move out. Since normal wear and tear is caused by the regular use of the property and is essentially unavoidable, tenants are not legally responsible for covering the cost of these types of repairs.

Some common types of wear and tear you might see at your rental properties include:

  • Scuff marks or worn areas on linoleum
  • Broken pull strings on blinds or curtains
  • Dents or scuffs from door handles
  • Areas of sun fading on curtains, walls, or countertops
  • Cracks in the walls or ceiling

Normal wear and tear should never be deducted from the security deposit, but the property should be refurbished before the next tenant moves in. To cover these costs, make sure you’re planning ahead by budgeting for any minor repairs, maintenance, or cleaning that might be needed for each of your properties.

What’s Considered Tenant Damage?

Unlike normal wear and tear, tenant damage is caused by neglect, abuse, misuse, or accidents. Intentional alterations made without your approval would also fall under tenant damage, as would any damage caused by a tenant’s guests. Some examples include:

  • Large chunks of plaster ripped out of the wall
  • Burns on carpets
  • Pet stains
  • Ripped or missing curtains or blinds
  • Broken windows or missing screens
  • Painting over tile
  • Unauthorized wallpaper
  • Missing fixtures

To help you further distinguish between normal wear and tear and tenant damage, it can be helpful to break things down into smaller categories—especially since the two most common areas of dispute between landlords and tenants regarding normal wear and tear vs. damage are carpet and paint. Here’s a closer look at each of the main areas you should be assessing.

Normal Wear and Tear: Flooring

When trying to decide if damage to your flooring falls under normal wear and tear, consider the material’s durability and longevity.

For example, hardwood floors have an average lifespan of about 25 years. If your flooring is older, you can expect to see some light wear, fading, and light surface scratches. Large holes, gouges, deep scratches, or staining would be considered damage beyond normal wear and tear. Tile also lasts around 25 years on average. Dirty grout surrounding the tiles would be considered normal wear and tear; broken, chipped, or missing tiles is tenant damage.

Carpet generally lasts for about five years; after this time, it should be replaced by the landlord. Normal wear and tear would include worn areas or carpet seams that are starting to come unglued. Holes, stains, cigarette burns, or areas of ripped carpet would be considered tenant damage. It’s worth noting that it’s the landlord’s responsibility to keep the property free of hazards. So, if the carpet has become worn to the point of becoming a tripping hazard, it should be replaced immediately.

Other types of normal wear and tear to flooring include:

  • Scuffs or signs of wear in high-traffic areas
  • Worn areas around furniture
  • Peeling on less durable types of flooring, like linoleum
  • Fading, especially in areas that receive a lot of sunlight

Issues caused by excessive force or neglect, like cracked tiles or broken floorboards, would be considered tenant damage.

Normal Wear and Tear: Paint & Walls

Paint naturally degrades over time; a reasonable lifespan for the average paint job is around three years. Normal wear and tear would include:

  • Peeling paint
  • Areas of scuffed paint
  • Fading from sun damage
  • Ceiling paint issues caused by leaks that have previously been reported (and were not caused) by the tenant

Damage that goes beyond normal wear and tear would include things like unpatched holes, excessive marks or scribbled-on walls, or unauthorized paint or wallpaper.

The walls themselves should last for the lifetime of the home. Normal wear and tear to walls would be things like cracks caused by the building settling. Nail holes are a bit of a gray area. Three or four small nail holes from hanging pictures can generally be seen as normal wear and tear; however, if there are 30 or 40 nail holes in a single wall, this would be considered tenant damage because professional repairs would likely be required to make the wall look presentable for the next tenant. Likewise, large holes, gouges, or other types of wall damage would be the tenant’s responsibility.

Normal Wear and Tear: Appliances

Just like the other items covered, you’ll want to consider the typical lifespan of your appliances when assessing them for damage vs. wear and tear. Most large appliances, like refrigerators, dishwashers, or stoves, last an average of 10-15 years if they’re kept up properly; some may last even longer. If you find yourself replacing an appliance that was purchased a year ago, it could be due to tenant misuse or neglect.

However, appliances can sometimes fail without any apparent cause. This can be difficult to distinguish at times, but tenants shouldn’t be blamed for durability issues. To help your appliances last longer and rule out the potential for disputes, make sure to keep your appliances properly maintained.

Normal Wear and Tear: Plumbing & Fixtures

Plumbing components will naturally wear out over time due to regular use; this includes fittings and washers, which can also cause small leaks when they start to degrade. These components will need to be replaced from time to time as part of normal maintenance. Faucets and showerheads can also become clogged from mineral buildup; this is also considered normal wear and tear.

If there are large stains on the floor or ceiling from unreported leaks or an overflowed tub, this would be considered tenant damage. Other types of damage that the tenant would be responsible for include broken toilet bowls, seats, or lids.

Additional Items and Considerations

  • Windows: Windows last an average of 20 years. Some types of normal wear and tear you can expect to see are light scratches on the glass and worn or loose hardware. Broken glass, ripped screens, or broken hardware should be considered tenant damage.
  • Countertops: Depending on the material, countertops can last 20 years or more. Some common types of wear and tear are scratches and watermarks; chips, stains, or burnt areas would be tenant damage.

As you can see, the distinction between normal wear and tear and tenant damage is similar for each of the categories. If you’re having trouble deciding how to classify something that’s worn or damaged in some way, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How long is this item expected to last?
  • Could this damage have occurred naturally from continuous use? Or was the damage caused by excessive force or neglect?
  • Was the item already old or starting to wear out before the tenant moved in?
  • What type of maintenance does this item need for upkeep?
  • Is the tenant responsible for the upkeep of the item or is it my responsibility?

All of these answers should be fairly clear to you. Your lease should also include a breakdown of what types of maintenance are considered the tenant’s responsibility, vs. the landlord’s, to prevent miscommunication or confusion.

Handling the Security Deposit

So, let’s say you’ve inspected the property and found damage that was clearly caused by neglect or misuse. How should you handle the security deposit? Follow these steps:

  1. Document the damage

First, make sure to thoroughly document all the damage with notes and photos. If you perform move-out inspections, this can be used as proof of the damages. It’s also important to have documentation on file in case a tenant challenges your claims.

  1. Estimate the repair costs

Next, you’ll need to determine how much it would cost to repair or replace the damaged items. Depending on where your property is located, you may need to receive a quote from a third-party repair service; if this isn’t required, you can estimate the average repairs costs. However, be sure that you’re only charging the tenant for the amount of damage they caused, rather than the full cost of the item.

For example, if your tenant damaged a 5-year-old refrigerator that was due to be replaced in five years, you should only charge the tenant for 50% of the appliance’s value. Since half of the refrigerator’s usable life has already passed, the tenant would only be responsible for the remaining expected lifespan.

  1. Return the deposit

Once you’ve determined the estimated costs and deducted them from the security deposit, the remaining balance should be returned to the tenant within the specified amount of time. Depending on your property’s location, this could be anywhere from two weeks to one month.

Discussing Property Damage with Your Tenant

Depending on your relationship with your tenants, discussing property damage can be difficult. You might feel nervous, especially if your tenant tends to be the excitable type; if you have a friendly relationship, you may even feel guilty for bringing up the issue. Many times the damage is caused by accident, so this is something to keep in mind, especially if the tenant has had a clean rental record up until this point.

If your tenant is the agreeable type and the damage was accidental, you may be able to negotiate an amenable plan for the repairs. If they can’t pay for the repairs or their security deposit won’t cover the full amount, a payment plan may be a good solution. Regardless of what you decide, be sure to document everything you discuss and make a contract on how the repairs will be handled or how the payment plan will work.

What if you’re dealing with an aggressive tenant? If the tenant poses a serious threat to you or the property, you may want to consider getting law enforcement involved. Either way, document all interactions with the tenant. If property damage is an ongoing issue, you have the option of making a police report or filing for eviction. Eviction can be a long, arduous process; in some cases, it could even exacerbate issues with an aggressive tenant, so you may want to leave this option as a last resort. If the cost of the damages exceeds the amount of the security deposit, and the tenant remains non-compliant, you may need to take them to small claims court to get what you’re owed.

Steps to Take Before, During, and After Tenancy

The key is having a productive discussion about property damage is to make sure you’ve set up a precedent for this type of conversation from the start of the tenant/landlord relationship. This will make it easy for each party to understand their responsibilities going forward. Here are some steps you can take:

Before tenancy:

Check that your lease agreement includes clear and detailed information about the following:

  • Move-in inspections (including a checklist of every item that will be inspected)
  • Security deposits
  • Move-out inspections (including a checklist of every item that will be inspected)
  • What’s considered normal wear and tear
  • What’s considered property or tenant damage
  • The type of maintenance or repairs the tenant will be responsible for
  • The type of maintenance or repairs the landlord will be responsible for

Including this information in the initial lease agreement will allow you and the tenant to be on the same page on the expectations of the tenancy. Ensuring there are no surprises will make it less likely that you’ll face disputes over the security deposit in the future.

Before the tenant moves in, you should conduct the move-in inspection together. This will allow both parties to take note of any damage that’s already present and include it in the documentation; take photos in addition to written notes, so you have a visual record. When the tenant moves out, you can compare the two sets of photos if needed.

During tenancy

During the tenancy, make sure you’re responding to all maintenance or repair requests from the tenant. Anything that falls under your responsibility should be handled as soon as possible to prevent further damage or more expensive repair costs.

Routine maintenance is also important for the overall upkeep of your property, so you may want to create a schedule to keep things on track. For example, you could ask your tenant if you can stop by every 5-6 months to do a quick inspection of things like plumbing, appliances, central heating, and air conditioning. This will allow you to stay on top of maintenance, monitor the state of the items, and make sure that everything is being used properly.

During the move-out process

When the tenant moves out, you should also complete a move-out inspection with them. Essentially, this is the same process as a move-in inspection, only you’re looking for new damage that wasn’t present before. If you discover damage that you believe was caused by the tenant, make sure to ask them about it; this is an ideal time to remind them that you’ll need to withhold part of their security deposit to cover the repairs.

If you conduct thorough move-in and move-out inspections, there should be few surprises—for you, as well as the tenant—when it comes to the security deposit.

What Happens if There’s a Security Deposit Dispute?

One of the most common reasons for landlord/tenant disputes is a disagreement over what’s defined as wear and tear vs. what’s considered damage. If you end up withholding part of their security deposit for what’s actually normal wear and tear, the tenant may have a strong case against you. The good news is, as long as you can provide a reasonable interpretation of why something is considered tenant damage, rather than normal wear and tear, disputes can often be mitigated.

However, you should be prepared to go to court if the tenant denies responsibility for the damage. If the case goes to court, the judge may ask to see proof of correspondence, including how the tenant was notified about the security deposit deductions. For this reason, it’s important to use certified mail to keep a record of any contractor bids or itemized deductions that were sent to the tenant.

In addition, the judge may want to see proof that the security deposit was held, as well as a copy of the lease. To make it easier to keep track, you may want to consider using a separate bank account to store security deposits separately from other property-related expenses.

Taking Steps to Protect Your Property

It can be stressful to enter your property and see new damage that wasn’t there when your tenant moved in. Hopefully, you now have a better idea of how to distinguish between normal wear and tear and tenant damage. If you’re still having difficulty deciding how to classify a broken or worn item on your property, remember to ask yourself whether it was something that could have happened due to continuous use over time, or whether it was caused by neglect, abuse, or misuse. Remember that accidents happen, too—tenant damage often isn’t intentional.

Before selecting a tenant for your property, make sure all your lease terms are clearly outlined, including how the security deposit will be handled and distinctions between wear and tear and tenant damage. As part of your selection process, you should also be running screenings on applicants to ensure you’re choosing the right tenants. Understanding an individual’s financial responsibilities and rental history can help indicate what you can expect if they become your tenant. Beyond having an iron-clad lease, tenant screenings are one of the best things you can do to protect yourself and your property.

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