Normal Wear and Tear
Just want to mention that it's always a good idea to keep all communication with the tenant in writing. When your property is damaged and the tenant agrees in writing to a payment schedule and then defaults on his or her promise, there is no way the tenant can show up in Court and say "It wasn't me, I didn't do it. It was like that when I moved in."
By agreeing to a payment schedule they have acknowledged responsibility for the act and cannot deny the existence of the damage. If they do, the Judge will surely have follow-up questions of his/her own. Though I agree that tenants should be held responsible for their actions. I would be very careful with encouraging a tenant to do his/her own wall painting. What was a few crayon paintings on the wall will grow into a problem with the carpeting having to be replaced because the tenant did not have the common sense to cover the carpet before painting, or toppled the paint bucket in the process. Of course this same tenant will express to you that it was your fault, after all, you should have known better and they were working at your insistence.
We discussed what to do about tenant damages. Somewhere, probably in the nightly meetings of bad tenants, where they get lessons on how to live for free and trash rental properties, they learned the catch phrase "normal wear and tear." Thus, when you complain about, repair and bill them for the damage they did, like a broken record the rationalization and alibi "normal wear and tear" will come out of their mouths. If you don't know what normal wear and tear really is, sometimes you can actually get sucked into their version of the truth. That's why this week's Tip of the Week is an explanation of what normal wear and tear really is.
A hole in a plaster wall, a broken window, crayon marks on the ceiling, cabinet doors torn off their hinges--those are obviously above and beyond normal wear and tear. But how about a worn place in the carpet, what about tiles on the kitchen floor cracked or missing? That is where the tenant can claim that he doesn't owe a dime of the security deposit, because that was just normal wear and tear and you can't charge him for that.
What follows is a list of common things you will find around the house that a tenant might have some affect on and a range of life expectancy. For vinyl and wall-to-wall carpets you should get a pretty good idea of the life expectancy when you buy it, but for other items you may not.
A rule of thumb to follow, whenever there is a question about who should pay for damage, is that the landlord should pay. In this article, however, I will attempt to remove some of the question and possibly enable you to get an better idea of when you should deduct money from the security or cleaning deposits.
The first step in determining wear and tear is good record keeping. You need records, as complete as possible, of when you purchased items and/or when you installed them. If you don't have a starting point, you certainly will have no way of knowing with any accuracy how long they should be expected to last.
If the fixtures or appliances were in place when you bought the property, try to find out from the seller their history. Many times the previous owner will have all the warranty and product information, including manuals.
The other vitally important thing to have is the tenant move-in checklist, signed by the tenant. Without that, the tenant can claim, often successfully, that whatever the damage was, it was there when he or she moved in.
In addition to that, some damage is the fault of the landlord for not checking the property regularly. As you well know, you cannot expect a tenant to take care of a property the way the owner does. Tenants just don't notice things that can do major damage to a building.
For example, few tenants would think anything about earth to wood contact. They will shove dirt up against the side of a house and not even notice when the wood on the side of the house starts to rot. That is the fault of the landlord. A tenant will probably not notice a bad roof until it leaks, despite the fact that it shows all the signs of being on its last legs.
There is simply no way you could collect damages from a tenant for dry rot due to earth-to-wood contact: you should have seen it. Once you have noticed that a tenant is piling dirt against a building, though, it is up to you to tell him not to do it anymore. Once you do, and you have left a paper trail proving that you have, then the tenant would have some responsibility. Even so, it is up to the landlord to take care of his investments.
When a tenant moves in, make it clear to him or her that you want to be notified of damage and that you don't want things let go.
How tenants damage things
Dishwashers--they use the dial to run them through their cycle. This will strip the timing mechanism. Dishwashers should be allowed to run through their cycles fully, not set to rinse again or dry again. Since a dishwasher should last between five and twelve years, if the control knob breaks before that, it is above and beyond ordinary wear and tear.
Water heaters--do not wrap them in an insulating blanket, no matter what the environmentalists claim. Doing so voids their warranties and the Underwriter's Laboratory certification. The insulating blanket makes them too hot and can overheat the wiring. If a tenant wraps a water heater, thinking they are saving energy, and the water heater goes out, that is beyond ordinary wear and tear. Tenants will sometimes drain an electric water heater without turning the electricity off. That will burn out the elements. Water heaters last from eight to twelve years. Burnt out wiring or elements are beyond ordinary wear and tear.
Ranges--gas ranges will last indefinitely. About the only thing a tenant can do to damage one is break a knob, and it happens. But accidents happen, and it is probably ordinary wear and tear.
Electric ranges, on the other hand, do not last as long, about 15-20 years. Tenants will remove elements to clean and not put them back in properly, shorting out either the element or the entire wiring on the stove.
Furnaces--It is important to change the furnace filter once a month. Leave a dirty filter in and risk ruining the fan motor. If necessary, get the tenant a supply of filters with the instruction to change it the first of every month, whether he thinks it needs it or not.
Driveways--Concrete is damaged by something known as "point loading." That happens when a heavy vehicle is parked on the same spot for a long period of time or over and over. Eventually that weakens the concrete in that spot and it cracks. The cracks radiate out from the spot of the point load. If your tenant has a heavy vehicle,, ask that he park it in different places on the driveway. Point load damage could be considered above and beyond ordinary wear and tear.
Cabinets--most tenants will not pick up a screwdriver and tighten a screw that is coming loose. Many don't know what a screwdriver is. Then, when the door comes loose from one hinge, they will let it hang from the other one. Cabinets should last for 20 to 30 years. If they are damaged from tenant neglect such as that, it is above and beyond ordinary wear and tear. It doesn't cost a tenant anything to tighten a screw. At the same time, though, a periodic inspection would probably have discovered a loose cabinet door.
Floors, hardwood, tile, vinyl--You know what the life expectancy is when you buy the flooring, and it varies by quality. If you buy cheap vinyl, and a tenant's high heel pokes a hole in it, you got what you paid for. But if a tenant drags something sharp across the floor and scratches or cuts the flooring, that is above and beyond ordinary wear and tear.
Doors (hinged)--tenants have been compared to teenagers: if something doesn't work the first time, force it. Things get caught in doors, such as broom handles on the hinge side of the door, and then the door gets sprung. Screw holes are stripped and hinges get bent. Doors last indefinitely, if used properly. Damage to them is above and beyond ordinary wear and tear.
Doors (sliding)--These come off their tracks, and despite the fact that it is easy and costs nothing, tenants don't put them back on their tracks. Then they come loose and get banged around, damaging the tracks so they have to be replaced. Take the cost of damage out of the security deposit.
You can't be there all the time to watch to see that a tenant doesn't do anything stupid or destructive. Previous landlords can often give you some insight on how well a tenant took care of a property. Some tenants are simply unconscious: they don't mean to do any harm, they just have no way to connect what they have done with the damage. One of the mysteries of life.
Deciding whether damage is beyond ordinary wear and tear often boils down to a landlord basically, deciding if something was used in a way it wasn't designed for. If it wasn't, it is damage which should be paid by the tenant.