What Are Damages to a Rental Property?

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In landlord-tenant relationships, the difference between normal wear and tear and damages is a common area of dispute. Many leases and some state laws specify that the tenant is responsible for paying to correct or repair damage, as opposed to normal wear and tear, and that deductions from the security deposit may be made by the landlord to address this issue. Rarely does a lease define wear and tear versus damage, however.

Wear and Tear

States and leases have varying definitions of what is regarded as wear and tear. According to the California Department of Consumer Affairs, examples of normal wear and tear include moderate dirt or spotting of carpet and drapes and minor marks or nicks in walls. The Minnesota Department of Housing lists fading, peeling and cracked paint as well as faded and carpet worn thin as characteristic of normal wear and tear. Rental Housing On Line includes broken and frayed pull strings on blinds, broken electrical switch and worn tile as normal wear and tear. Ultimately, if a difference of opinion between a landlord and tenant on this topic cannot be resolved, a small claims court judge can decide the issue.


Rental Housing On Line lists tears, stains and holes in carpet as damage. They distinguish "badly scratched" flooring from scuffing, the former constituting damage. The California Department of Consumer Affairs specifies "large" rips and "indelible" stains to carpet as damage. The Minnesota Department of Housing lists "gaping" wall holes, "seriously damaged or ruined" wallpaper and missing fixtures as damage. It notes that many items have predictable life spans, such as five to seven years for carpet and three years for blinds, such that if the item has already outlived its useful life the landlord is responsible for replacement without charges to the tenant.

The Move-in/Move-out Checklist

In addition to disagreeing over what is normal wear and tear and what is damage, landlords and tenants sometimes disagree about who is responsible for damage. Tenants might claim the damage was present before they moved in. Landlords may claim the opposite. A checklist filled out and signed jointly by landlord and tenant at move-in and move-out is a tested means of avoiding such disputes. If the landlord doesn't provide a checklist, the tenant should do his own and mail a copy of it to the landlord, noting all existing damage.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Plus a Security Deposit

Another smart move by both landlord and tenant is documenting the condition of the unit with photos, preferably time and date stamped. The party who takes the photos should send a copy to the other, putting him on notice of the documentation. Just as good fences make for good neighbors, checklists and photos make for good landlord-tenant relations. And if all else fails, photos will come in very handy for a small claims court judge deciding whether damage has occurred.


About the Author

Mary Gallagher runs Mary Gallagher Planning (mgaplanning.com), an urban planning and consulting business in San Francisco. She is the former assistant planning director for San Francisco and planning director for San Mateo. Gallagher has been writing about real estate, development and land use for numerous websites since 1995. She holds a master's degree in historic preservation planning from Cornell University.

Photo Credits

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