Is Normal Wear and Tear Different Than Damage?

Learn when you can keep a tenant's security deposit

Old wooden window damaged by weathering, flaking paint, Stuttgart, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany
••• Olaf Kruger / Getty Images

Landlords are responsible for maintaining rental properties, but there is a certain amount of deterioration that is expected to occur as property ages. This is known as wear and tear. Neither the landlord nor the tenant is responsible for this normal deterioration. Damage done to the property is a different story, however, and the person responsible for causing the damage also is financially responsible for fixing it.

Defining Normal Wear and Tear

Normal wear and tear is the expected decline in the condition of a property due to normal everyday use. It is deterioration that occurs in the course of living in a property. It is not caused by abuse or neglect.

Examples of normal wear and tear might include:

  • A couple of small stains on a carpet
  • A couple of scrapes or dings in a wood floor
  • Color of carpet or hardwood fading due to exposure to sunlight
  • Dirty grout
  • Loose door handles
  • Silver finish on bathroom fixtures beginning to wear away

Wear and tear can be defined further as deterioration that can be reasonably expected to occur. It is normal, for example, for there to be some scuffs in the paint after a tenant moves out of a unit. The scuffs in the paint would be considered normal wear and tear. The hole in the wall would be considered damage.

Defining Damage

Damage is not naturally occurring. It is harm that affects the value, usefulness or normal function of property. This damage can be committed on purpose or through neglect.  

Examples of damage might include:

  • A smashed bathroom mirror
  • A broken toilet seat
  • A hole in the middle of a door
  • Damaged or missing door handles/locks
  • Carpet soaked with pet urine

Damage can be defined further as issues that are unexpected. For example, it is not normal or expected for there to be a large hole in a bedroom wall after a tenant moves out of a unit.

Why Normal Wear and Tear Is Important

Wear and tear is a term commonly used when dealing with rental properties, and trying to determine the difference between normal wear and tear and damage to a rental unit often becomes an issue when a tenant moves out and is looking for his security deposit to be returned. A landlord cannot make deductions for normal wear and tear, but a landlord can make deductions for damage to the property.

These issues can lead to disputes between tenants and landlords. A tenant might believe a security deposit is his or her property and should be returned to her at the end of the lease. She paid her rent on time and has not broken any terms of the lease, so she expects the security deposit to be returned in full. 

The landlord's goal, however, is to make sure the rental property is maintained in good condition. If he believes the tenant has abused the condition of the rental property in any way, he will take deductions from the tenant's security deposit in order to fix this damage. 

Walk-Through Inspections

Walk-through inspections are one way to avoid security deposit disputes. A landlord and new tenant should walk through a property prior to the tenant moving in. Pictures should be taken to document the condition of the rental unit. Many lease agreements include a checklist of rooms, appliances, fixtures, etc., where tenants should note the condition upon moving in.

Both landlord and tenant should sign the document, acknowledging that they agree with the current condition.

When the tenant is moving out of the rental unit, the landlord and tenant should again walk through the property to document any changes to the condition of the property. Pictures again should be taken. 

The landlord can point out any issues he has with the current condition of the property and explain why he will be taking deductions from the tenant's security deposit to cover those damages. The tenant can agree with or dispute the landlord's findings.

Landlord Responsibility to Maintain Unit

Every landlord has the responsibility to maintain their rental properties by following building codes, making needed repairs, providing proper trash receptacles, and providing running water.

If damage at the rental property is caused by the landlord's failure to properly maintain the property, then the landlord cannot take deductions from the tenant's security deposit, even if the damage is inside the tenant's unit. For example, if a roof leak has caused the drywall in a tenant's ceiling to start to collapse, this damage is the landlord's fault, not the tenant's.