A tenant’s lease is up, and the landlord finds the now vacated unit in a state of disrepair. The landlord notifies the tenant of the issues and advises the tenant that the security deposit will not be returned. The tenant fires back a response that there is no damage—just “normal wear and tear.” Who’s right? Ultimately, it depends on the nature, extent, and cause of the damage cited by the landlord.

What falls under normal wear and tear?

Normal wear and tear refers to the expected deterioration that results from a tenant’s everyday use. Some examples would include worn carpet, small scratches on walls and flooring, dirty grout on floor tiles, and fading of blinds/curtains on account of sun exposure. These things happen in every home and are not signs of a tenant’s negligence or abuse of the property.

Montgomery County, Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs has a guide available that provides excellent examples of the distinction between ordinary wear and tear and damage.

How can disputes about normal wear and tear be avoided?

In the state of Maryland, a landlord may not hold back a tenant’s security deposit to pay for touch-ups or replacements necessary on account of normal wear and tear. Further, “If the landlord withholds any part of your security deposit, they must send you a written list of damages, with a statement of what it cost to repair the damages, by first-class mail to your last known address within 45 days after you move out. If the landlord fails to do this, they lose the right to withhold any part of the security deposit.

You have the right to be present when the landlord inspects your rental unit for damages at the end of your lease, if you notify the landlord by certified mail at least 15 days prior to moving of your intention to move, the date of moving, and your new address. The landlord must then notify you by certified mail of the time and date of the inspection. The inspection must be within five days before or five days after your move-out date. The landlord must disclose these rights to you in writing when you pay the security deposit. If not, the landlord forfeits the right to withhold any part of the security deposit for damages.” More information on this topic is available on the Maryland Attorney General’s website.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office also put out a guide to assist students living off campus in Baltimore. One of the key recommendations made for avoiding disputes around security deposits is:

Ask the landlord for a written list of any damages that already exist in the rental unit. You are entitled to receive a written list of existing damages within 15 days of taking occupancy, but you must request this list from your landlord. It is also a good idea to make a complete inventory of damages on your own. Give a copy to your landlord and keep a copy for yourself. This prevents you from being held responsible for damages when you move out and having your security deposit withheld.”

Overall, the easiest way to avoid disputes about wear and tear is to include language in the lease that uses your state or municipality’s definition of “normal wear and tear” to draw a clear distinction between what damage the tenant will and will not be held responsible for upon the end of the lease terms.

What if a tenant’s security deposit doesn’t cover damages to the property?

If a tenant has been negligent or has abused the property to such an extent that the damage cannot be repaired with the funds included in the tenant’s security deposit, the first step is to make sure that all damage is documented and repair costs are accounted for. Next, be sure to notify the tenant of charges and request that they pay the balance. If a negative response is received, or no response is received at all, you may take the case to small claims court to have a judge rule on the matter.

Renovation and rehab projects are necessary to keep your property in tip-top shape

Ultimately, any property owner is going to be hard pressed to purchase a property and never have to do any maintenance work. It’s always a good idea to make minor repairs to rental units between tenants so that these projects can remain minor in nature and small in scope. If a tenant does knowingly damage the property and refuses to take responsibility, then it’s completely fair to pursue legal recourse in order to resolve the issue. In many cases when there have been several cycles of tenants in and out over the years, landlords may consider refinancing a rental property (especially if it has appreciated in value over time) to receive cash out which can be used to make such renovations. If that’s something you’re considering, we can help! Otherwise, keeping clear and open lines of communication with your tenants is a great way to avoid abuse or neglect of your property.