Common Sense Approach to Security Deposit Deductions
There’s no question that security deposit deductions spark disputes between landlords and tenants.
Landlords are allowed to deduct for those items that qualify as damage, but not for normal wear and tear. Those terms are vague and mean different things to different people. What’s more, the amount to be deducted can be difficult for a landlord to calculate.
Taking a common sense approach to what can — or cannot — be deducted from a tenant’s deposit can lessen the risk of a legal dispute.
Costs of cleaning
A landlord can charge an exiting tenant the costs to return the unit to move-in condition.
However, the landlord cannot automatically charge each tenant for cleaning major items like carpets, walls, curtains, or windows. First, the landlord must assess whether the tenant completed any or all of those items, and adjust the deductions accordingly.
The landlord cannot charge for any repair or cleaning if the unit was in that condition when the tenant moved in.
Likewise, the landlord cannot charge for stains or other signs of wear that have been building between tenants.
Carpeting is a landlord’s worst enemy, and the source of many security deposit disputes. Simple wear-down of carpeting, which is quite common, is not deductible from the deposit. Large tears or other signs of damage are. The question remains: How much can the landlord charge?
In the event the carpet must be replaced due to damage, the courts typically require the landlord to prorate the deduction based on the life expectancy listed on the carpet. So if the last tenant caused enough damage that the carpet has to be replaced, the carpet is 8 years old with a 10-year rating, and new carpeting will cost around $1,000, the tenant is only on the hook for about $200 — or two years worth of wear. Only if the carpeting was brand new could the landlord argue that the tenant owes the whole replacement value.
Interior paint normally lasts about three years. A common sense approach to deducting for painting would be to prorate the amount based on that measure. If the tenant lived in the property for a year or less and damaged the walls so that they require repainting before a new tenant could move in, then a deduction may be in the ballpark of two-thirds the actual cost.
If the paint is not damaged beyond normal wear — nicks in the corners, tiny pin marks — than no deductions are warranted.
Items like ceiling damage that are unusual, generally warrant a full-cost deduction. This would include any damage caused by modifications, like the loss of window screens or replacement of light fixtures. An important guideline to follow is whether you would be able to rent the unit to another tenant without making the repair. It also is important to consider whether you have fixed similar items in other units in the past.
Many disputes over deposit deductions could be avoided with advance notice of what is required, and the opportunity for the tenant to fix any action items before they move.
Provide a move-out checklist or itemized cleaning list to remind the tenant of how the unit looked when they moved in. Prior to the final walk-thru, offer to do a preliminary inspection and point out what work remains.
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