Normal wear and tear vs. property damage: A landlord’s guide

While it’s unreasonable to ask tenants to keep your rental property as pristine as it was when they first moved in, there is an expectation that they treat it with a certain level of respect and care. But what constitutes normal wear and tear and what can be classified as excessive wear or property damage? In this guide, we’ll walk you through the difference between the two, the importance of security deposits, and how tenant screening can help minimize any wear and tear you may incur.

January 12, 2024

5 min read


When a tenant moves out of your rental property, there’s a good chance it’s not going to look the same as it did when they first moved in. As a landlord, you should always plan to do some light maintenance repairs and deep cleaning in order to prepare the property for the next tenant. 

This level of normal wear and tear is expected from the majority of tenants. But for many landlords, there’s always the possibility of a renter going beyond what’s considered reasonable and the risk of significant property damage. In this article, we’ll dive into the difference between repairs for normal wear and tear and those needed for extensive property damage. We’ll provide examples of both, tips for ensuring your properties are well maintained, and how security deposits and tenant screening can minimize future damages.

What is normal wear and tear?

Normal wear and tear generally refers to the expected deterioration of a rental unit as a result of the tenant’s everyday use. This can include things like loose doorknobs, worn out carpet, and minor scratches on the walls and floors. Because this type of wear is unavoidable, tenants generally aren’t held responsible for this kind of damage. 

Examples of normal wear and tear in rental properties

While the specific damages that can be classified as normal wear and tear varies by state and jurisdiction, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides a list of examples that includes:

  • Fading, peeling, or cracked paint
  • Small chips in plaster 
  • Nail holes, pine holes
  • Worn or faded carpet 
  • Worn or scratched enamel in bathtubs, sinks, or toilets
  • Dirty or faded lamp or window shades

What is tenant property damage?

On the other hand, tenant damage calls for more significant, costly repairs and is the result of neglect or abuse, both accidental and intentional. Depending on the severity of the damage, tenants may be eligible to lose their security deposit, receive a notice to vacate, or face eviction. Unlike normal wear and tear, this type of destruction can’t be fixed with minor repairs or even deep cleaning and may even render a rental property uninhabitable.

Examples of tenant property damage

The HUD also provides a list of examples of the types of tenant damage you might encounter over time, including:

  • Gaping holes in walls or plaster
  • Seriously damaged or ruined wallpaper
  • Doors ripped off hinges
  • Broken windows
  • Holes, stains or burns in the carpet
  • Missing fixtures

How landlords can maintain their rental unit

While normal wear is inevitable, you as a landlord have a responsibility to keep their rental property in good condition for current and future renters. Whether that’s including an inspection checklist in the lease agreement to performing routine maintenance checks, here are a few best practices for you to keep in mind to protect your rental property. 

Require a security deposit

In addition to collecting rent, it’s a good idea to also ask for a security deposit at the start of a tenant’s lease. Think of a security deposit as a form of insurance that you can use to repair property damage in addition to covering unpaid rent. Keep in mind that state laws dictate how much you can charge for a security deposit, what you can use it for, and how long you have to return the deposit if there is not property damage. In California, for example, landlords have 21 days to return all of a tenant’s security deposit if there are no deductions. California landlords can only use funds from a security deposit to clean the rental property, repair damage outside of normal wear and tear, and restore or replace furniture included in the rental. 

Perform routine maintenance

Another way to maintain your rental property is conduct regular maintenance such as routinely updating appliances, ensuring your building is up to code, and keeping all utilities in working order. Set up a maintenance request workflow for your tenants and be sure to respond to all inquiries in a timely manner. Regularly checking up on and fixing minor issues in your rental property can help you minimize any clean up or repairs required after your tenant moves out. It also gives you an opportunity to check in on the property while it’s occupied and address any issues before they spiral out of control. 

Conduct walkthrough inspections

For every rental property, it’s a good habit to include a walkthrough inspection before and after the renter moves in. Take the time to photograph and document the condition of your unit, including the undamaged parts as well as any damages, before and after a renter’s lease. This will ensure you have proper evidence if, after your tenant moves out, you need to deduct from their security deposit for repairs. Make note of any issues in the tenant’s lease agreement so they’re aware of what damages were there before they moved in.

Create a damage charge list

After you conduct your inspection and document any damages caused by the tenant, you’ll want to create a detailed list of the issues you found and the cost associated with repairs. Send this list to the tenant as soon as possible so they know what you intend to deduct from their security deposit.

Security deposit FAQs: What can be deducted?

We’ve gone over the different types of damages and the importance of requiring a security deposit, but what exactly can you withhold from a renter’s deposit? Generally speaking, if there is no damage to fix then you’re legally obligated to return the entire security deposit back to your former tenant. While the specific deductions are defined at the state level, here are some general FAQs regarding how you can use your renter’s security deposit. 

Can a landlord charge for normal wear and tear damage? 

State laws restrict landlords from deducting for normal wear and tear but they are allowed to use funds for cleaning fees. In California, landlords may only deduct for repairing damage other than normal wear and tear. 

How much can landlords charge a tenant for damages?

Most states don’t have a specific limit for how much landlords can charge for damages, only that the amount must be considered reasonable and itemized in a receipt. 

How much can a landlord deduct from a security deposit?

While the deduction amount may vary state by state, landlords are allowed to deduct from the deposit for any property damages and cleaning fees required after a renter moves out. If a landlord withholds the entire security deposit, they must provide the tenant with a detailed charge list that includes the price of all repairs and replacement costs. 

Are nail holes considered normal wear and tear or damage?

According to the HUD, nail holes in the walls are considered normal wear and tear. However, it’s reasonable to classify large screw holes or multiple nail holes that cause damage to the paint or drywall as property damage. 

The role of tenant screening in preventing property damage

When it comes to protecting your rental property, one of the best things you can do is to take preventative measures and thoroughly screen prospective tenants before they move in. A comprehensive tenant screening solution can help you identify tenants who not only can meet your financial expectations but also demonstrate they are responsible and respectful. 

Understanding the benefits of tenant screening

Thoroughly screening prospective tenants will give you a better understanding of their background and identify potential red flags before you agree to hand over the keys to your property. A typical screening report will include an applicant’s full credit report and score, background check, and rental history report, giving you a holistic view of your tenant. 

How tenant screening can minimize property damage

During the tenant screening process, you’ll gain access to an applicant’s financial, rental, and criminal history. In addition to understanding an applicant’s ability to afford rent, you’ll also see if there are any behavioral red flags to watch out for in a prospective tenant. Eviction related proceedings reports, for example, will often show any tenant judgements for possession and money as well as unlawful detainers. Tenant screening can help you back up any gut feelings you may have about a renter candidate and even unearth issues that may encourage you to pass on certain applicants. 

As a landlord, you know that normal wear and tear is to be expected. But more significant damage, including the destruction of property, can pose a headache that keeps even the most experienced landlords up at night. With a deeper understanding of what constitutes normal wear versus tenant damage, as well as what steps you can take to mitigate or even prevent such issues, you can be confident in renting out your next vacant unit. 

Don’t let renters take you by surprise. Make sure you know exactly who you’re renting to before you sign on the dotted line when you use RentSpree’s Tenant Screening to find your next renter today.


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