What is normal wear and tear in a rental property?

“Normal wear and tear” can be controversial because of the different circumstances people are accustomed to living in. What may appear to be in perfect repair to one person may seem dingy to others.

A crystal clear definition of “normal wear and tear” is important for landlords because of security deposits. If a tenant damages your unit, the security deposit should be withheld to cover the expenses.

Security deposit disputes can be hostile and time-consuming. That’s why it’s best to clearly describe what “normal wear and tear” is, especially in the lease. Your tenants will appreciate that they’re being treated fairly, and that unnecessary deductions to their deposit aren’t being made.

Remember that this guide isn’t a legal document and, as a landlord, you should also familiarize yourself with California’s landlord-tenant laws.

What Can Be Considered Normal Wear and Tear?

An aging process affects all rental properties. Even if your tenants are careful and respectful, your rental property will show signs of normal wear and tear simply as a result of people walking around, using appliances, and living their lives. A landlord will have to fix this normal wear and tear as one of the steps involved in getting your units ready for new tenants.

Part of being an effective, profitable landlord is mitigating this wear and tear. By providing regular inspections and upkeep of your rental unit, small issues will never snowball into costly maintenance problems. For example, a rusty old pipe could start to leak. If not addressed, this pipe could burst, and you would be on the hook for the ensuing flood financially, regardless of the lease agreement.

You can see why it’s clear to distinguish between a rental property’s typical aging process and damage caused by careless or negligent renters, for their protection and that of their landlords.

How to Assess Damage and Wear and Tear

One of the best ways to outline the difference between “normal wear and tear” and tenant damages is to use a checklist during the move-in inspection. This checklist should be comprehensive, checking all known wear and tear issues, such as paint cracking, carpets fading, or bathroom tile eroding.

A clear, comprehensive checklist will give landlords an outline of what shape the rental unit was in before the new tenant moved in. Once a landlord gets used to using a normal wear and tear checklist, it will become like clockwork and they’ll know just what to look for.

Landlords should take photos and videos during all tenant move-in inspections. Some of the terms used to describe wear (“worn,” “faded,” “clogged”) can vary in severity, making it tricky to be objective. Photos and videos will show the exact appearance of the unit, and can be a lifesaver in the unfortunate case that a security deposit dispute is taken to court by a tenant.

Regular inspections by the landlord and good communication with tenants are important ways to stay on top of rental property maintenance and repair. In an ideal world, the difference between “regular wear and tear” and damages caused by poor conduct by tenants would be self-evident. In reality, the difference can be contentious. Here are some concrete examples of what to consider:

Examples of Normal Wear and Tear Vs Damage

One of the clearest ways to illustrate the differences between damage and wear and tear is by describing how different aspects of your property will be affected.

Carpet Condition

Wear and Tear: Normal foot traffic may fade some of the color from a carpet. Areas may become thin, or the carpet may peel up around the corners. The sun and the material of tenants’ shoes or socks will naturally degrade the carpet over time, but this can be combatted through regular carpet cleaning.

Damage: Your tenants will be on the hook for carpet cleaning related to spills or burns in the carpet. The same goes for stains or smells from the pets of a tenant, although the pet deposit may be used to cover this rather than the tenant’s security deposit. It depends on your rental agreement with the tenant.

Bathroom Condition

Wear and Tear: Because bathrooms are typically high-volume zones that are subject to heat and steam from bathing, they age more quickly than other areas. The tub area may become rusty or mildewy. Tiles will fade, sinks and drains may start flowing more slowly. Light scratches and scuffs on tiles and walls are part of normal wear and tear and the tenant is not responsible for it.

Damage: While tile surfaces will fade over time, if anything is chipped or broken it can be classified as damage by the tenant rather than normal wear and tear. The same goes for gratuitous water damage, including large stains on the floor or in corners where water repeatedly pooled without the tenant mopping it up.

Hardwood Floor Condition

Wear and Tear: Hardwood flooring has been growing increasingly popular lately. Unlike carpeting or tile, it looks good as it ages. Typical wear and tear on hardwood floors includes a worn finish, fading, and light scratches that can be sanded away. A landlord cannot charge their tenant for this.

Damage: Deep scratches in the hardwood count as tenant damages, as they’re usually caused by improper furniture moving. Water damage, large dings or chips, or permanent stains are also tenant damages that should result in security deposit penalties when the tenant moves.

Normal Wear and Tear: The Bottom Line

Whether you self-manage your property or hire professionals, part of the process of property management is using care and diligence to maintain units to help them retain their value. As a property owner, you can’t expect a property to take care of itself, especially if your tenants are families with young children or pets.

Tenants have a role to play in unit upkeep as well. Making sure they’re aware of the importance of changing air filters or preventing water damage in the bathroom is a way of letting them assist you.

Tenants are responsible for respecting your property and not causing damages through neglect or prohibited activities. Landlords are responsible for upkeep and maintenance, and for inspecting your property thoroughly during tenant turnover. By knowing exactly what state your property is in, you’ll have a clear understanding of who caused what damage.

To protect yourself from tenant damages and costly legal battles, be sure to create detailed leases that outline exactly who is responsible for what. When the tenant moves, this will also help your tenant accept your deductions to their security deposit to cover repair costs and cleaning fees, which can even be a month’s rent or two. The terms are clear when the tenant’s security deposit conditions are outlined in the rental agreement.

If you want help managing your property, PURE Property Management is the top property management company in the San Diego area. Get in touch today to learn about how we can protect your property and maximize your earnings.

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