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Putting a price on odor problem

Rent it Right by Janet Portman, Inman News baking cookies Q: When our tenants moved out, we inspected their apartment for damage. We discovered that all of the draperies and curtains, as well as the rug, smell strongly of cooking spices (I think it’s curry). These tenants must not have used the kitchen fan nor opened the windows — the place really reeks. Can we deduct from their deposit the cost of replacing these items? We think the tenants were selling what they made — we saw a food truck parked in front of the unit several times. —Dort and Walt H. A: Landlords may use the security deposit to cover damage that goes beyond normal wear and tear; and they can use it to perform needed cleaning. On the second item, a few states, such as California, specify that the tenant must leave the unit as clean as it was when the tenant moved in. Other states aren’t as specific as to the meaning of “clean,” leaving landlords, tenants and often judges to resort to their own definitions.

In your case, the question is whether the “scented” window coverings and rug are damaged beyond normal wear and tear; or, alternately, whether the odor renders them unclean. If I were a judge, I’d want to know whether normal ventilation, including the use of the kitchen fan, would have prevented the problem.

Does the kitchen fan have enough power to really move the air into the flue, and is the flue clean and unclogged? Is there enough cross-ventilation to let the rooms air out? If you can say that prior residents left the unit without lingering cooking odors, that’s some evidence that normal cooking would not result in the issues you’re now dealing with.

Now let’s consider your suspicion that your tenants may have been running a commercial operation, perhaps supplying food to a food truck. First, does your lease specify that the premises may be used for residential purposes only?

If so, and if your tenants were in fact using the kitchen for a commercial enterprise, you could have stopped the whole thing by insisting that they comply with the lease or move out.

It’s too late to send a “cure or quit” notice; the tenants are already gone. But if you end up in court, be careful how you use this evidence of commercial cooking. The tenants’ violation of the lease clause does not in itself entitle you to deduct from the deposit the amount you need to replace coverings and rugs.

It does, however, relate to whether the damage goes beyond normal wear and tear. “Normal” tenants use the kitchen for family meals and occasional entertainment; they do not use it for producing commercial quantities of food. This alone might move your tenants’ cooking, and its consequences for the coverings and rugs, out of the realm of normal use.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at


Copyright 2010 Janet Portman 


See Janet Portman’s feature, Higher Risk, Higher Deposit.

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  • taj

    I would at the very least deduct the cost to shampoo the carpet and have the curtains and all dry cleaned… and also probably for a bottle of febreeze or two as well. If there is no other damage then the deposit will most likely cover that. You can make the argument that the cost to clean is above the normal wear and tear because you would not have had to do so much cleaning if it were an average tenant. Hope this helps.

  • brassservices

    Did they use spiced candles or burn incense sticks that might have caused the smell, and you’re assessing it’s origin wrongly?

    Could the family have had their extended family over each night for a large communal meal during rough economic times, and the “roach coach” was one of their family members’ transportation modes when coming off work?

    Might they have been cooking non-commercially for their local church as a function of charity?

    Any one of these would be a sufficient defense to an accusation to the contrary by you, the landlord, and, even with a no-commercial use clause in the lease, could be the basis of a claim of harassment or discrimination against the landlord if not handled with ginger gloves.

    Be careful in assuming things, observe, and ask questions first, before issuing any notices that could bring liability to the doorstep of your client, the homeowner.

  • ksingh

    Rent a shampooer from HD for $29 with drapery attachments and shampoo the entire carpet, drapes, curtains, kitchen floor using hot water in the machine. Paint a few kitchen walls over, clean the filter in kitchen hood and air the apartment.

  • Edward DiPaolo

    Could someone who “shuts- in” and smokes like a powerplant be held to the same
    standards? I was glad to rid myself of that tenent, but spent a lot of time and money removing the ashtray odor that lingerd for months.

  • In the many years we have dealt with rental properties we learned that in some cultures it is common to use a lot of curry in cooking and that this and other odor issues such as from a pet that may be present after a tenant vacates should be addressed in all your agreements. Sometimes a thorough cleaning and deodorizing by a professional company may be required and we have be able to justify charging a tenant for it. Febreze does work too.

  • Joseph

    I would take the curtains to a dry cleaner and try to remove the smell. Deduct this charge from the tenants security deposit. Next time do not provide tenants with curtains, drapery. I leave all the windows free of coverings when I show and rent the units. I tell the potenial tenants it is up to them on what type of window coverings they want and it will be out of there own pocket. I offer to install the coverings so that they do not damage the wall or window frame. I have found that most tenants don’t like the coverings I have and take them down to put up what they want. So I eliminate the hassles of cleaning them.

  • Joseph

    To eliminate smoke from cigarettes, I state in my add “No Smokers”. If I find they are smoking in the house I will evict. Also in the state of Calf. we can deduct from the tenants security deposit to clean the house due to cigarette smell damage.

  • Joseph

    Brassservices, must be a lawyer. Everyone is out to defend the poor helpless tenant aganist the money hunger landlord. Who cares how the smell got on the drapes. The smell was not there when they moved in, the tenant must be to remove the smell when they leave.

  • Virginia

    I advise my tenants when they sign the lease that if the apartment is not as clean and as empty as when they moved in, they will not get their deposit back. Period. If I have to spend extra money to rid the apartment of terrible odors, I will send the tenant an invoice to cover that expense.

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