A question I often get from clients with regard to the requirement to return security deposits is “What is the difference between normal wear and tear and tenant damage?” It’s an important question, because the landlord/tenant laws in virtually every state prohibit the use of tenant security deposits for “normal wear and tear” in apartments.
Normal wear and tear is damage that naturally occurs in an apartment due to aging and regular use. It typically results from a resident living in the property and is considered normal depreciation. It is not caused by neglect or abuse of the property. Landlords need to repair normal wear and tear at their own expense – but this is not the case for tenant damages.
Normal Wear and Tear vs. Damage
Normal wear and tear is different than tenant caused damage. Normal wear and tear occurs naturally over time. Damage caused by tenants is not a result of aging but is a result of negligence, carelessness or abuse. Normal wear and tear is required to be paid for by the landlord and tenant damage is not.
Let’s take a look at some examples of types of normal wear and tear and tenant caused damage and the differences between the two:
- Carpet: The average useful life of carpet is five years. Normal wear and tear of carpet would be gently worn carpets that show some worn patches but no holes or stains. Examples of tenant damage to carpet would be pet stains and ripped carpeting. Cigarette burn holes are another example of tenant damage to carpet.
- Hardwood Floors: The average useful life of hardwood floors is 25 years. Fading of such flooring due to sunlight exposure is normal wear and tear, as would light surface scratches. However, deeply scratched hardwood floors or pieces of the hardwood missing would be considered tenant damage.
- Tile: The average useful life of tile is 25 years. Dirty grout surrounding the tiles is normal wear and tear, but broken, chipped, or missing tiles is tenant damage.
- Windows: The average useful life of windows is 20 years. Lightly scratched glass and worn, loose hardware is normal, while broken glass, ripped screens, and broken hardware are tenant damage.
- Countertops: Depending on the quality of the countertop, the useful life can be 20 years or more. All countertops can be expected to have scratches and watermarks, but chips, burnt areas, and/or multiple stains should be considered tenant damage.
- Walls: Walls should last for the lifetime of the structure. Cracks in the walls caused by building settling would be normal wear and tear, but holes or damage from hanging pictures is tenant damage.
- Paint: Most paint has a useful life of three years. Fading paint from sunlight minor scuffing from daily use is normal, but paint that has been scribbled on or unauthorized paint colors should be paid for by the tenant.
The two most common areas of dispute between landlords and tenants regarding normal wear and tear or damage are carpet and paint, so a deeper dive into these areas may be useful.
Normal Wear & Tear vs Damaged Carpet
If the carpet has been in place for five years or longer, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to replace it, since that is generally recognized as the useful life of apartment carpet. If the carpet has light sun damage or is showing signs of wear, that is normal wear and tear and the landlord cannot blame the tenant.
It is the landlord’s responsibility to keep a unit free of hazards. So, if the carpet has worn out over the years and becomes a tripping hazard, it should be immediately replaced and paid for by the landlord. But, if the carpet has been ripped or has excessive fraying, it is the tenant’s fault and the replacement cost may be deducted from the tenant’s security deposit.
Further, if the carpet is stained either by a pet or spilling food, wine, dirt, and more, it is considered tenant-caused damage and may also be deducted from the security deposit. Also, odors from heavy smokers that require replacement of carpet in less than five years could be considered tenant caused damage, although if smoking is permitted, a court could reasonably take the position that this is normal wear and tear for a smoker’s unit. State laws vary on landlord-tenant laws regarding security deposits, but generally, the landlord needs to get a repair quote from a licensed contractor and send the tenant an itemized list of the damage along with a check for the remainder of the security deposit.
Normal Wear & Tear vs Damaged Paint
Peeling paint, sun damage, or a small number of scuffs are considered normal wear and tear and the landlord should touch them up or re-paint between tenants. Ceiling paint usually lasts longer since no one is constantly touching the ceiling. Ceiling paint should be touched up when a leak occurs or on an as-needed basis.
If the paint has holes in it, excessive scuff marks or other marks such as drawings or scribbles, it is considered damage caused by a tenant. In this case, the cost to fix the damage and paint the walls may be deducted from the tenant’s security deposit. You can do this by getting a quote from a licensed contractor and sending the tenant an itemized list of damages, along with a check for the rest of the deposit.
Ultimately, the difference between normal wear and tear and tenant damage must be judged case-by-case. But, damage caused by natural forces or daily use should generally be considered normal wear and tear, while damage requiring more than routine maintenance or replacement is often beyond normal wear and tear.
If challenged by a tenant with regard to the return of a security deposit for damages, a landlord must be prepared to show clearly that the issue goes beyond what would be considered “normal” wear and tear.