Is $450 Cleaning Charge Legal?

by Robert Griswold

Carpet cleaningQ: I recently vacated my apartment and am in a dispute with the resident manager about the proper charges for cleaning and repairs.

We had a three-bedroom unit, and I lived there for two years with my spouse and our four young children.

I don’t think we damaged the property significantly or that the cleaning needed is unusual after the length of time we lived there, especially for a family our size.

The resident manager walked through the apartment a few days before we moved out to assess the condition and said that there would be some charges, but we thought they would be minor. We just received our accounting paperwork for our security deposit and were expecting the majority of our $1,000 deposit to be returned. But the manager has charges totaling nearly $1,500 and says we owe them money.

When I called she said we left the property in horrible condition and she expected that we were going to thoroughly clean the property upon vacating. We admit we were too tired from moving (plus it isn’t easy with four young children), but we also thought that the overall condition was reasonable in light of “ordinary wear and tear.”

They claim it cost $800 to completely repaint our apartment, and they are deducting $600 from our deposit. Then they are deducting the entire $450 they paid to clean our apartment. There was an additional charge for unpaid rent and some other damage, which we really can’t dispute. We acknowledge that there were some holes in the walls and some crayon marks in the kids’ rooms. Actually all of the walls were pretty dirty because the landlord uses a flat paint and not a family-friendly enamel that can be scrubbed without taking off the paint.

But to make us pay for the majority of the painting seems unreasonable. The unit wasn’t clean enough to move someone else in, but $450 seems like a lot. We have read your prior columns and did ask for receipts, which were provided, and agree with what they told us on the phone. But we still are wondering if all of this is legal?

A: Security deposit disputes are the No. 1 problem in landlord-tenant relationships. Many owners or resident managers see a tenant’s security deposit as a source of additional income that’s theirs for the taking. However, as a business practice, returning the security deposit in full is actually much better for the owner.

I always advise landlords that they can minimize arguments with former tenants and avoid small claims courts by making only fair and reasonable deductions and providing the security deposit accounting and any refund within the legally required time limits.

I am not sure in your case if the charges were unreasonable based on your own admissions about the damage to the rental unit. It seems the only charges you dispute are the painting and the cleaning. There is a difference in how each of those items should be addressed, in my opinion. The painting is subject to ordinary wear and tear, while the cleaning is not. Legally, the landlord is entitled to charge you for damages beyond ordinary wear and tear. But virtually all disputes over security deposits revolve around this elusive definition.

It’s not always easy for the landlord to be able to tell the difference between ordinary wear and tear and more serious damage that they can legally deduct from a tenant’s security deposit. The standard definition of ordinary wear and tear in most states is deterioration or damage to the property expected to occur from normal usage. The problem then is what’s considered to be normal usage, and judicial decisions vary from state to state and court to court. If you ask 100 small claims court judges or commissioners, you’ll likely receive nearly 100 different interpretations of this definition.

The bottom line is that there are no hard and fast rules on what constitutes ordinary wear and tear and what the tenant can legally be charged. I would think that dirty or smudged walls around light switches or minor marks on the walls would be expected. However, crayon marks and holes in the wall clearly are damage that will require repairs and repainting. I do not think that you can excuse the damage by claiming the landlord should have used enamel or oil-based paint throughout the entire rental unit. Such paint is typically used only in kitchens and bathrooms and does hold up better, but flat paint is the standard for bedrooms and other living areas.

So I would think that the landlord had the right to charge you for the holes in the walls and the damage to the painted surfaces. It is subjective if the $600 out of an $800 painting bill is your responsibility, but you could try to contact them and see if they will reconsider and reduce the deduction or try your luck at small claims court.

But let’s now talk about the cleaning charge before you race off to the courthouse. Although state laws vary, typically the only lawful deductions from a tenant’s security deposit are for cleaning, damages beyond ordinary wear and tear, keys and unpaid rent. Note that cleaning is separate from the “damages”, as cleaning is not subject to any allowance for ordinary wear and tear. You are required to clean the rental unit to at least the level of cleanliness that existed at the time you moved into the property. So that means you need to thoroughly clean all parts of the unit, including the kitchens and bathrooms.

While the charge of $450 for a three-bedroom apartment could be high, it certainly is possible based on your own description of the way you left the apartment. You asked for receipts so it is likely that this charge can be authenticated by the landlord if you were to challenge it in small claims court. My suggestion is to contact the landlord and if you were a great tenant who paid the rent in a timely manner and didn’t cause any problems maybe they will be willing to compromise on the painting charges and at least agree that you do not owe them any money and you can just call it even for your $1,000 security deposit.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of “Property Management for Dummies” and “Property Management Kit for Dummies” and co-author of “Real Estate Investing for Dummies.” E-mail your questions to Rental Q&A at [email protected]. Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

Copyright 2009 Inman News

See Robert Griswold’s feature, Partial Rent Payments Spell Trouble.

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