While most landlord-tenant relationships are cordial, sometimes there are situations where conflict results. Property damage liability tends to be one of those areas where disagreement ensues. As a landlord, you entrust that your tenants will take good care of your property. At the same time, your tenant assumes that you will be fair and just.
If you currently have rental property, you may want to brush up on your rights and responsibilities as it relates to rental property damage. Understanding what you can and cannot do, and more specifically, whether or not you can recover damages from a tenant will ensure you maintain your property to the best of your ability.
Normal Wear and Tear Versus Damage
While tenant-landlord laws vary from state to state, in almost every case, the tenant has a legal duty to let the landlord know immediately if the property they rent has been damaged. However, ‘damage’ is a tricky word, because some depreciation is expected, and ‘normal wear and tear’ is not considered damage.
What is normal wear and tear? Things like worn out carpet, scuff marks or chips on painted walls—damage that occurs over time—and with regular use is normal. What is not normal wear and tear is more serious damage, like a hole in the wall or a deep stain or burn on the carpet. Normal wear and tear is expected and costs to repair minor damage cannot be recovered by a landlord.
Rental lease agreements often earmark a portion of the tenant’s security deposit as non-refundable, to be used specifically to repaint, clean carpets etc. when a tenant moves out.
Handling Tenant – Caused Damage – Itemized Bill Versus Lawsuit
Maybe a baseball shattered a glass picture window, or a dog left deep scratch marks on a bedroom door. If your rental property has been damaged, and a tenant takes responsibility, great! But, more often than not, coming to terms with damage isn’t always so straightforward.
In general, tenant-caused damage is repaired using funds from the security deposit. If the cost to repair exceeds the security deposit, an itemized bill can reflect the difference. In the unfortunate event there is disagreement between yourself and your tenant over who should be liable, resolving the issue becomes more complicated.
A number of states allow landlords to sue tenants for damages in small claims court. However, tenants also have the right to countersue over a damage dispute, and they often do.
Landlord Insurance Offers Protection
Rather than sue your tenant for damage, there is another option. Landlord insurance can provide protection against accidental damage to your property. Dwelling coverage—which is often included in an insurance policy—can pay for the costs of many accidental situations, like a kitchen fire for example. It’s important to understand limitations and exceptions—not all accidents or damage can be covered.
Speaking to a professional with hands-on experience dealing with landlord insurance is a smart way to ensure you are informed about the options available to you.