Over the course of your time as a landlord, you’ve likely come across tenants that treat your property with little regard for basic cleanliness or respect – it’s why you request a security deposit at the beginning of any tenancy.
Inevitably, you will need to repair damages to your unit from time to time, and if the damage is severe, you will be able to use a tenant’s security deposit to help pay for those repairs.
It’s important to keep in mind what a court considers extreme or excessive rental property damage.
In most jurisdictions, a landlord is responsible for covering the costs of repairing “normal wear and tear” on their own dime.
So, legally speaking, what exactly can a landlord deduct from a security deposit?
Difference Between Excessive Damage and Normal Wear and Tear
You’re within your legal right to withhold a tenant’s security deposit to help pay for anything beyond the broad normal wear and tear definition.
However, normal wear and tear is a relatively subjective concept, and it can be difficult to know what you can and cannot charge a tenant to repair.
Normal wear and tear is generally defined as any damage associated with the regular use of an object – in this case, your rental unit.
Basically, if a door knob has scuffed up the wall behind it or the sun has faded those nice curtains, all of that would qualify as the normal wear and tear of everyday use.
Excessive damage would be the destruction or deterioration of your rental unit resulting from intentional behavior or negligence (and should be grounds for beginning the eviction process immediately).
What Can a Landlord Deduct from a Security Deposit?
As a rule of thumb, you should only deduct unpaid rent/utilities and the repair costs for excessive damage.
You would be within your right to withhold your tenant’s security deposit in order to cover the cost of repairing issues like:
- Cigarette burns in the carpet
- Broken mirrors in the bathroom
- Visible pet stains
- Claw marks on wooden floors
- Filthy or irreparably broken appliances
- Large holes in the wall
You would not be allowed to deduct money from a security deposit to help pay for normal wear and tear damage such as:
- Minor dents or scratches on wall
- Discoloration from sun exposure
- Chipped or peeling wood varnish or paint
- Lightly dirtied carpet from standard use
- Loose tiles or linoleum
- Rusted plumbing fixtures
Use your best judgement when determining whether or not you should deduct from a security deposit.
Some landlords attempt to skirt the rules and wrongfully use a tenant’s deposit to replace old or worn out appliances.
Unless it is clear that they were intentionally damaged by your renters, this would be against the law.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a helpful guideline for determining the life expectancy of certain modern appliances.
Performing a Rental Inspection
In order to determine what you can deduct from a security deposit, you’ll need to perform a rental inspection.
We recommend following this process:
- Perform the inspection as soon as possible after the move out date.
- Bring a notebook and a camera to document your findings.
- Send a list of all the damages in your rental unit, with an itemized statement of the charges.
Landlords are legally required to send the remaining portion of a tenant’s refund as well as notification of the deductions in nearly every state.
Understand what damages you’re allowed to deduct from a security deposit, or you may find yourself paying your tenants up to 3 times the deposit amount, depending on your location.
Repairing Excessive Damage vs Maintenance of Normal Wear and Tear
Routine maintenance of your rental unit should be standard operating procedure before and after any tenancy.
Never charge a previous tenant for regular maintenance of normal wear and tear or any service you typically pay to have done, like professional cleaning.
Determine which of these two rental situations would be considered normal wear and tear:
- Tenant A has only rented your unit for 6 months. The entire carpet is mildewed, and the children’s bedroom walls are covered in crayon.
- Tenant B has been renting from you for multiple years. The carpet in front of the entrance has been worn down by foot traffic, and the paint on the bedroom walls has faded and become slightly dingy.
Tenant A has clearly let your rental unit fall into disrepair in just a few short months. You should have them cover the cost of repainting the walls and replacing the mildewed carpet.
Tenant B has lived in your unit for years, and at that point, a fresh coat of paint along with new carpet should be considered maintenance of normal wear and tear.
When determining whether any damage is excessive or simply from normal wear and tear, ask these questions:
- How long did the tenant rent your unit for?
- Does the damage to the floor, walls, or any other item seem excessive for that period of time?
- Did your cleaners or repairmen state that their job was extraordinarily difficult in any parts of your unit?
As with anything, use your best judgement and err on the side of caution when charging your tenants for repairs.
You may deduct any extra fees that a professional service might charge – for instance, paying more to clean an extremely dirty unit.
How to Protect Yourself
There are a variety of ways a landlord and a tenant can avoid a dispute which might potentially end up in small claims court.
As a Landlord
Thoroughly examine your state’s landlord-tenant laws.
Each state has a unique set of rules and regulations that govern how a landlord may conduct their operation.
Any misstep could result in forfeiting your right to retain any portion of the security deposit or potentially hefty fines. Protect yourself and make sure that you:
- Document and photograph all damages that you expect to repair
- Aren’t charging for normal wear and tear
- Provide receipts for all deductions
Use a checklist to note the condition of all rooms as part of your move-out inspection.
If you are an owner of an affordable housing unit (commonly referred to as Section 8), there are restrictions on how much a landlord is permitted to request for a security deposit.
Due to that fact, HUD offers financial reimbursement to Section 8 property owners in the event of a financial loss through a special claims process.
As a Tenant
You won’t have to worry about normal wear and tear once you decide to move out.
However, if you have caused any excessive damage, it’s best to go ahead and repair it since the costs will be deducted from your security deposit anyway.
Generally, all landlords will submit a statement informing you of the reason for their deductions and the amount that they charged you.
To avoid being surprised by any unexpected charges, you can request a walk-through inspection with your landlord before your move-out date.
You might discover a major problem that went unnoticed during your tenancy, yet will still be considered excessive or the cause of negligence– like water-stained floors underneath a window or mold growth in a rarely used cabinet.
Organizing your entire move with a checklist, or requesting a walk-through inspection, will help make sure that both you and your landlord are on the same page.
Understanding what is considered normal wear and tear, and how it differs from excessive damage, is something every landlord needs to know.
Nearly all legislatures have determined that a landlord is responsible for maintaining normal wear and tear, and tenants should be protected from erroneous repair fees.
With that said, no landlord should accept being taken advantage of themselves, and excessive damage to your property will always be the responsibility of your tenant.