How To Determine Reasonable Charges for Tenant Damages

What To Deduct From the Security Deposit

Home inspector explaining damage and repairs to homeowner
Photo:

Getty Images / Steve Debenport

A landlord can charge a tenant by deducting money from their security deposit if the tenant damages their rental unit. Understanding the rules can help you determine what reasonable charges are tenant damages, so they'll be more likely to hold up in mediation or small claims court. This could happen if the tenant refuses to pay or accept responsibility for the problem.

Key Takeaways

  • It’s critical to inspect the unit with your tenant prior to their move-in date so you can jointly assess the condition of the property and have them acknowledge the condition in writing.
  • Most states don’t impose a limit on how much a landlord can charge for damages, but you should be able to justify the expense of making repairs.
  • Landlords can’t charge for normal wear and tear, such as thin spots in carpeting near the front door that appear after five years.
  • Most states require that you provide tenants with written notice before you make deductions from their security deposits for damages or any other purpose.

Inspect the Unit Before Tenants Move In

One of the most crucial factors involved with being able to charge a tenant for damage actually occurs before the tenant moves in. The move-in inspection documents the condition of the rental property at the time a tenant takes possession of the property, including any existing issues. Consider making a checklist that will help serve as proof that the unit and fixtures were in good condition when the tenant moved in.

Note

The tenant must sign the move-in inspection checklist, stating that they agree with the condition of the property and/or citing anything they disagree with.

Factors To Consider When Determining Damage

Repairs tend to be so specific that it can be difficult to put together a standard list of potential repair costs for your property. One tenant might flush a diaper down the toilet and cause the entire main sewer line at the property to back up. Another might do the same thing and only cause the toilet to temporarily overflow. But that could cause water damage to the ceiling of the tenant on the floor below.

Whatever happens, you should investigate each repair to determine the specific cost. Here are a few factors you'll want to take into account.

  • Age of the item: Was the item that was damaged brand new, or had it been in the property for several years?
  • Original cost of item: How much did the item cost when it was originally purchased? Was it a $20 smoke detector or a $500 vanity?
  • Repair or complete replacement: Does the repair involve fixing a small part of the item or replacing the whole thing? Will you just be replacing the vanity top or will the entire vanity need to be swapped out?
  • Length of time to complete repair: Does the repair simply involve going to the store to get a replacement part, or will it be a four-day process to retile the bathroom floor?
  • Special skills needed: Will you have to hire someone to complete the repair, such as a licensed plumber or electrician, or can you do the work yourself?

Check Your State's Security Deposit Laws

Keep in mind that security deposit laws can vary by state. For example, Florida's statutes clearly delineate exactly what a landlord can potentially deduct from a security deposit, and it requires 30-day notice to the tenant.

You Can't Charge for Normal Wear and Tear

Landlords can charge tenants for damage caused, but they cannot charge tenants for normal wear and tear. Normal wear and tear occurs because of ordinary use, while damage occurs because of abuse or neglect.

Examples of Wear and Tear vs. Damage

Consider these examples of wear and tear versus damages.

Wear and Tear
  • Loose doorknob

  • Cabinet door won’t fully close

  • Shower needs to be recaulked

Damage
  • Broken tiles

  • Stains on carpet

  • Large holes in drywall

Get Various Contractor Estimates

You may want to get two or three estimates from different contractors for repairs that require you to hire someone else to do the work.

Note

You can provide the tenant (and the court, if necessary) with a copy of these contractor quotes so they understand how you arrived at the repair cost.

You can also use websites like HomeAdvisor to get an estimate of the average costs in your area. Its True Cost Guide may help you with estimates. HomeWyse also allows you to estimate material costs, installation costs, and maintenance costs in your ZIP code.

Provide Copies of Receipts

You must give tenants a copy of the receipt for materials and labor used to complete the repair if you charge them for it. You must provide them with a good-faith estimate of how much it will cost to complete the repair if you haven't yet completed it.

Give an Itemized List of the Damage You Charged For

You must provide the tenant with an itemized list of all damage and the cost of each repair when you take deductions from their security deposit. The list must be included when you return the security deposit amount owed back to the tenant. You must include any relevant receipts or estimates for work.

You must also send them a written notice of the damage they've caused at the property and an invoice giving a breakdown of the amount they're responsible for paying if you discover the damage during their tenancy. Again, you must include any receipts, and actual or good-faith estimates.

Pros and Cons of a Standard Cleaning and Repair List

Some landlords include a list of standard repair costs in their lease agreements. This list details different types of damage and how much you'll charge the tenant to repair it. You might state "Replacing Missing Smoke Detector: $40" or "Replacing Broken Glass in Window: $150." But there are pros and cons to this approach.

Pros
  • Tenants will be aware from the start how much specific damages will cost them.

  • A tenant will know that it will be difficult to dispute these charges in court if they sign this repair list.

Cons
  • You could limit yourself to collecting the amount cited on the list, even if the repair turns out to be more extensive.

  • Tenants may not treat the premises with care if they think the amounts that you're charging are small and nothing to worry about.

Pros Explained

The upside to using a repair cost list is that tenants will be aware of how much you'll charge them for specific damage. The tenant might have a hard time disputing the cost of such repairs in court if they signed the repair list and agreed to these amounts as part of the lease,

Cons Explained

The downside is that you may have a hard time being able to charge more than the amount on the list if the repair turns out to be more extensive than expected. And tenants may not be as careful or worry about thoroughly cleaning the apartment when they move out if they feel the amounts you charge for such repairs are small.

The Bottom Line

Being a landlord is likely to involve cleaning up tenants' messes or accidental damage to your units from time to time, but you should be able to fix the problem if you're prepared for calculating how much to charge them to repair or replace damaged items. You should be able to fix the problem—or be ready to represent your case in court—if you're familiar with local tenancy laws.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the most a landlord can charge for damages?

Most states, such as Washington, don't impose a specific limit for how much a landlord can legally deduct from a security deposit for damages. The amount must usually just be considered reasonable and documented in writing.

Can a landlord charge for wear and tear?

Landlords can't charge for normal wear and tear. Carpets, appliances, cabinets, and woodwork simply wear out after years of use. This is to be expected and it's not considered to be "damage."

Can landlords charge you for cleaning?

Again, it can depend on state law. For example, Massachusetts doesn't allow landlords to charge for carpet cleaning, but this rule applies only to "routine" cleaning. It probably would not apply if you allowed your child to fingerpaint on the flooring.

How long after you move out can a landlord charge you for damages?

Most states have deadlines by which a landlord must return a security deposit less any charges for damages. Landlords have 30 days in New Jersey.

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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Fannie Mae. "Becoming a Landlord," Page 25.

  2. Fannie Mae. "Becoming a Landlord," Pages 28-30.

  3. Florida Legislature. "83.49 Deposit Money or Advance Rent; Duty of Landlord and Tenant."

  4. Montgomery County, MD Department of Housing and Community Affairs. "What Is Ordinary Wear and Tear?," Page 9.

  5. State of Connecticut Department of Banking. "Rental Security Deposits."

  6. Washington State Legislature. "RCW 59.18.260: Moneys Paid as Deposit or Security for Performance by Tenant—Written Rental Agreement To Specify Terms and Conditions for Retention by Landlord—Written Checklist Required."

  7. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "Find Out What Landlords Can Use Security Deposits For."

  8. New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. "Security Deposit Law N.J.S.A. 46:8-19 Through 26," Pages 2, 4.

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