We’ve all heard the phrase “normal wear and tear” but what exactly does it mean? Merriam-Webster defines it as: “The loss, injury, or stress to which something is subjected by or in the course of use; especially normal depreciation.”   More plainly, normal wear and tear is the expected decline in the condition of a property due to normal everyday use that happens naturally over time caused by living at a property, not by neglect or abuse.  Damage, on the other hand, is harm done to a property that affects the value, usefulness, or normal function of the property and is not naturally occurring.

It is important to know the difference between normal wear and tear and damage because landlords are responsible for repairing issues caused by normal wear and tear and tenants are responsible for damage.  Discussed below are common issues that often straddle the line between normal deterioration and damage.

Routine Maintenance/Repairs

Cleaning

Many San Diego landlords have their property professionally cleaned in between tenants.  This is considered routine maintenance and the cost should not be passed onto your tenant. Where the cost of cleaning can be passed onto a tenant is when you are charged extra due to filthy conditions caused by that tenant’s neglect. In that case, although you cannot charge for the entire cost to clean you can charge the tenant for anything above the normal cleaning fee.  However, if you do not have the property professionally cleaned in between tenants and instead rely on the tenants to clean, you need to provide them with clear cleaning guidelines well in advance of their move out date. At Patrize Properties, we include a clause in our lease agreement that requires a tenant to leave the property.)

Carpet

As with carpet cleaning, you can pass this routine maintenance cost onto the tenant as long as the carpet was cleaned before they moved into the property. If the carpet is stained to a point where normal carpet cleaning does not work you can charge the tenant for the remaining life expectancy of the carpet if there is any. For instance, if the carpet is 5 years old or older it is most likely your responsibility to pay for the cost to replace despite any damage since 5 years is the expected useful life of carpet.

Paint

When it comes to paint, peeling paint, sun damage, and small scuffs are generally considered normal wear and tear whereas large holes, excessive scuff marks, or scribbles on the walls are considered damage.  If the property was freshly painted at move-in and the tenant left the walls excessively dirty, stained or painted a different color then you can probably charge them the cost to repaint. However, keep in mind that it is typical to repaint a property every 3-5 years so if the tenant lived at the property that long repainting would most likely be considered routine and you would not be able to pass on the cost to repaint, despite any damage.

Cracked Tiles and Broken Hardware

When it comes to cracked tiles or broken hardware determining what is normal wear and tear largely depends on their age at the time of move-in.  If the bathroom tiles were already showing signs of age then a few cracked tiles during the course of a year might be natural and would most likely be considered normal wear and tear.  However, if there are many cracked or missing tiles or the tile was brand new when the tenant moved in, cracks would most likely be considered damage and would, therefore, be the tenant’s responsibility.  This same standard applies to doorknobs, drawer pulls, and appliances.

Light Bulbs

Every lightbulb in a property should be working when a tenant moves in and should be working when a tenant moves out since it is customary for tenants to replace ordinary light bulbs during their tenancy.  However landlords are typically responsible for replacing special bulbs, such as long fluorescent tube lights, because these bulbs are designed to last for years, are difficult to handle, and can be a liability if they break.

Pet Damage

Tenants are responsible for damage done to your property by their animals.  Stains on the carpet from urine or excrement, holes in the yard from digging, and chew marks on any surface are never normal wear and tear.  If you allow pets in your rental, you can require pet security or better yet, charge pet rent to offset the cost of repairing any damage a tenant’s pets may cause.

“Useful Life”

Appliances, paint, and carpet all have life expectancies that typically span several lease terms.  Because of this extended “useful life”, you cannot charge a tenant for the total cost of replacement unless the damaged item was brand new at the time it was damaged.  Even though you cannot charge the total replacement cost you can charge the tenant for the remaining life expectancy that existed at the time the item was damaged.  For example, if carpet has a five-year life expectancy and a tenant heavily damaged the carpet two and a half years into its life, you can charge the tenant 50% of the cost to replace it.  HUD has a helpful list of common items and their life expectancies:

Item Life Expectancy
Hot Water Heater 10 years
Carpeting 5 years
Air Conditioning Units 10 years
Ranges 20 years
Refrigerators 10 years
Interior Paint – Enamel  5 years
Interior Paint – Flat  3 years
Tiles/Linoleum  5 years
 Window shades, screens, blinds  3 years

How to Document Normal Wear and Tear

Evaluating the extent of deterioration that occurred during a tenancy depends on knowing the difference between the condition of the property at the time of move-in and move-out.  To save yourself headaches at move-out and to protect yourself and the tenant, you should take photos and videos of the property and complete a damages checklist at move-in to refer to at move-out.  Photos and video clearly document the condition of the walls, carpet, and appliances so you have evidence if you need to keep a portion of the security deposit to cover damage beyond normal wear and tear.

Conduct Regular Maintenance

One way to prevent damage is to stay on top of maintenance issues as they arise.  By conducting regular inspections of your property you can see if there is a small issue that could cause big damage, such as a leaky sink or leaky windows.  If a tenant alerts you to an issue that needs attention, address it immediately; it is much less expensive to fix an issue while it is small instead of waiting until it becomes a big problem.

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