Understanding Tenant Deductions: Differentiating Wear and Tear from Damages

When determining how much a landlord may deduct from a security deposit, the law specifically leaves out any necessary repairs due to “normal wear and tear.”  Nowhere in the law itself is that term ever defined.  It is left to common sense and good faith for landlords and tenants to work out what this means, with some guidelines based on industry practice and some government publications.  With that in mind, here are some tips for deciding whether a landlord’s proposed deductions would hold up to this standard if brought before a court. 

Regular Use vs. Negligence 

The most crucial factor in deciding whether something is “normal wear and tear” is if the condition was caused by the tenant being negligent or irresponsible in the use of the property.  Carpets, paint, and blinds or shades will fade over time.  Wood or tile floors will be scuffed.  However, if carpets are soiled, or blinds are broken or damaged by children or pets, the landlord finds large holes or an excessive number of holes in walls, broken windows, or missing screens, it is probably safe to say that the tenant was not taking proper care of their home at least on a few occasions. However, it would be important to know if these conditions existed before the tenant moved in, as they can only be held responsible for the conditions they caused.  This also applies to cleaning fees, which must reflect the actual work required and not just the universal service performed by the landlord’s vendor.  Also, just as wear and tear during their tenancy is not the tenant’s fault, neither should they be held responsible for the cumulative wear and tear costs.  For example, if three tenants over the course of ten years used the same bathtub, and the enamel had worn down to nothing over a decade, the last tenant should not bear the replacement cost just because the tub wore out during their tenancy. 

Replacement Costs 

Just because the paint, carpet, blinds, or other parts of the property are damaged due to a tenant’s negligence does not mean they owe the landlord for the complete replacement cost of the items needing repair.  If the tenant has lived in the home for any length of time, the value of the various parts of the home has necessarily decreased.  For instance, landlords are typically expected to repaint the walls of rental units if the prior tenant resided there for two or three years.  If the tenant stayed in the home for two years, or certainly if they stayed for more than three years, they should expect that the landlord will need to have painted anyway.  By the same token, if the landlord installed carpeting with an expected useful life of ten years if the landlord has to replace the carpet after five years, the tenant should only have to pay for half the cost since the landlord could only expect the benefit of five years of use from the carpet under the best of circumstances. 

Whether these costs are reasonable or not may end up being a judgment call based on the specific circumstances.  Sometimes, having the help of an experienced attorney can make the difference between a persuasive demand letter and one that gets tossed in the trash, or a winning small claims case and a waste of a filing fee.