Damage vs Normal Wear and Tear

A lot of our tenant inquiries this week were about security deposits, and the difference between normal wear and tear vs damage. A few landlords were asking about it, too, so it seemed a topic worth investigating further.

The good news: There is a difference.

The bad news: Nobody can really agree on what the difference is.

Normal wear and tear happens over time — in some cases, a year, and in others, over a period of many years. Damage is due to negligence or abuse. Here are a few examples of each:

Carpet will start to wear down in high-traffic areas: the area between a kitchen and living room, or right in front of the main entry to the home. Unless your tenant spilled red wine on the carpet repeatedly, without cleaning it, disassembled auto parts on the living room floor, or had a pottery studio in the dining room — chances are, your tenant isn’t responsible for replacing or cleaning the carpet after they move out.

Also, everything has a time span commonly referred to as a “useful life”. For carpet, it’s estimated by the IRS to be approximately five years in a rental property.

If the carpet in your rental is more than five years old, and shows signs of wear, you can’t charge your tenant for a replacement unless the damage was caused by the tenant and not normal use. Large gashes, tears, or burns would be signs of damage.

Hardwood floors are a little different — they’re not prone to staining or tearing, but they can definitely be damaged. If the floors are brand-new factory finished floors of medium to high quality, they should look as good as new for years after being installed. Scuffs, or wear patterns in high-traffic areas are normal. Burns, gouges, missing planks, or soaked-in pet stains are signs of damage. Laminate flooring tends to wear faster than hardwood, but the same rules apply — large soaked-in stains, deep gouges in the floor, and burns would considered damage.

Tile in a kitchen or bathroom needs to be cleaned regularly, to avoid mildew or grease buildup. Missing or broken tiles, dirty or missing grout — those are signs of damage. A dull finish to tile that was once shiny could be the result of normal wear, or a residue left by cleaning products.

Walls should be free of holes when a tenant moves out, and the paint color should be the same as when the tenant moved in, unless the tenant had permission to change it and leave it after moving. Scuff marks from furniture, signs of wear (especially in a stairwell) are common, and a tenant should not be responsible for repainting the home or apartment. Large holes, unapproved paint colors, or writing on the walls would be considered damage.

Appliances should be left in good working order after a tenant moves out. The stove, microwave, and oven should be clean and free of food debris/old food — same for the washer and dryer. If the appliances are old and/or stop working during the tenancy, it would be the landlord’s responsibility to repair or replace them. Missing appliance doors, crusted food debris and spoiled food in the fridge/freezer, broken shelves or door glass — those are signs of damage.

Windows should be intact, with no missing, cracked, or broken glass or screens.

Bathroom and kitchen fixtures should work properly, and be cleaned prior to moving out. Missing faucet handles, a cracked or missing toilet tank cover and/or seat, a cracked or heavily stained tub or sink — those would be considered damage.

The above should not be considered legal advice, but a simple guideline to help you when making decisions before and after move-out day. You should always consult with an attorney in your jurisdiction if you have legal questions regarding the tenant-landlord relationship.