Know Your Rights: How Much Can a Landlord Charge for Damages?

Learn about the types of damages landlords can charge for and the limitations on the repair costs.

By
Nichole Stohler
|
Last Updated
November 29, 2023
Know Your Rights: How Much Can a Landlord Charge for Damages?

How much can landlords legally charge for repairs when tenants leave cracks in walls or permanent stains in carpets? Can property management companies bill tenants for a complete room repainting after a few scuffs appear?

Whether you're a landlord or a tenant, if you've ever asked yourself these questions, this guide will offer definitive answers, providing insight into financial rights and responsibilities regarding repair charges along the way.

We'll examine what costs landlords can pass on for repairs resulting from tenant damages, as well as tenant protections against excessive charges. So, if you want to learn what exactly distinguishes appropriate charges from normal wear and tear when it comes to tenant-caused damages, let's dive in.

What tenants need to know about damage costs

Renters are legally protected by laws that impose constraints around excessive charges for property damages. Tenants should understand their rights, the difference between considered normal wear and tear and property damage, and options for disputing charges if they believe them to be inaccurate or unreasonable.

What is the maximum amount a landlord can charge for property damage?

The amount a landlord can legally charge a tenant for property damage depends on state laws and local regulations. Through these rules, states and municipalities ensure that landlords charge reasonable, justifiable amounts based on the extent of the property damage.

In some states, landlords can deduct repair costs directly from the tenant's security deposit. These deductions should accurately reflect the expenses incurred to fix damages attributable to the tenant's actions or negligence.

For minor issues requiring basic cleaning, landlords typically can only charge small fees. However, extensive repairs or cleaning generated by the tenant may warrant charges from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on the specific circumstances.

Normal wear and tear versus property damage

Tenants and landlords should understand the difference between property damage and normal wear and tear in rental properties. Here's a breakdown of the distinction between the two:

Normal wear and tear

Normal wear and tear refers to the natural decline of a rental property that happens over time with regular use, even if the tenant has taken reasonable care of the premises. Examples of damages considered normal wear and tear include:

  • Faded paint or wallpaper.
  • Minor scuffs or scratches on the flooring from regular use.
  • Worn-out carpet from regular foot traffic.
  • Gradual appliance wear resulting from regular use.
  • Loose door handles or hinges due to regular handling.

Unlike property damage, normal wear and tear is unavoidable and does not warrant charges or deductions from tenants' security deposits. Landlords are responsible for taking care of these repairs as part of regular maintenance and should not hold tenants financially accountable for them.

Property damage

Property damage encompasses any harm or deterioration beyond ordinary wear and tear caused to a rental unit. It includes any actions or incidents that significantly damage the property and require extensive repair, such as:

  • Broken windows or doors.
  • Stains or burns on carpets or furniture.
  • Large holes in walls.
  • Damage caused by pets, such as discoloration from pet accidents.
  • Water damage due to negligence or accidents.

In such cases, the tenant is responsible for repairing or compensating the landlord for the damages. Tenants may be charged for the cost of repairs or replacement, depending on the scope of the damage.

Disputing charges for damages

If you're a tenant who believes the amount your landlord is charging you for property damages may be inaccurate or unreasonable, here are some steps you can take to formally dispute those charges:

  • Review the lease agreement, local landlord-tenant laws, and local housing authority regulations to fully understand your rights and responsibilities surrounding property damages. Since landlords can only legally charge tenants for damage beyond reasonable wear and tear, they may have to demonstrate tenant negligence.
  • Ask for documented proof of the damage, like photographs, inspection reports, or repair estimates. Request an itemized list detailing costs.
  • If there are pre-existing damages from when you moved in, gather proof of the move-in condition reports or documentation of any preexisting flaws.
  • Notify the landlord in writing of the dispute and request mediation via professional arbitration. If you're unable to reach an agreement, you might consider taking your landlord to small claims court for a judgment on fair damage costs.

Landlord responsibilities and best practices

Now that we've covered key considerations for tenants, it's equally important for landlords to have clarity when assessing and charging for property damages to be sure they act fairly and legally.

Determining tenant damage costs

If your property is damaged, how do you fairly determine repair expenses to charge tenants? Consider the following factors to calculate costs:

  • Condition and expected lifespan: Account for the item's age, expected total usable life, and normal wear-and-tear at the time of damage. A 5-year-old carpet reaching the end of its lifespan will have a lower value than a brand-new one.
  • Original item cost: Refer back to initial purchase prices or receipts as a cost baseline for the item. If the tenant damages an $800 refrigerator, use that price point to anchor repair vs. replacement decisions.
  • Repair vs. full replacement: Inspect and determine if fixing components is reasonable or if replacing the entire unit is necessary.
  • Required labor and materials: Factor in all of the costs for DIY fixes or hiring an outside company.

Notifying tenants of charges for damages

If your rental property is damaged, you should follow these communication protocols to best address the problem with tenants:

  1. Document the damage: Take photographs or videos that show the extent of the damage and can serve as evidence during discussions with the tenant.
  2. Review lease agreement: Check the lease agreement to understand the rights and responsibilities of both parties regarding property damage and repairs. Confirm that you are within your rights as a landlord to raise the issue.
  3. Notify the tenant in writing: Write a formal letter explaining the property damage. Provide details about the damage, its location, and any potential consequences. Create a tenant damage charge list for the estimated costs.  Inform the tenant that you may deduct repair expenses from their security deposit per the terms of the lease agreement.
  4. Request immediate action: Ask the tenant to address the damage promptly by arranging repairs or contacting their renter's insurance provider.
  5. Keep a copy of the correspondences: Make sure to keep a copy of the repair notice for your records. Sending the letter via certified mail or with proof of delivery provides supplemental documentation.

Strategies for managing apartment damages

While documenting and recouping costs for repairs is important, preventing disputes around property damages helps to reach a resolution more quickly and peacefully. Proactive policies and open communication allow landlords and tenants to manage situations around property damage successfully.

Open communication

Both landlords and tenants should establish a clear line of communication and promptly report any issues or concerns related to damages.

Consider establishing a streamlined procedure for landlords and tenants to process maintenance requests through an online portal or mobile app. This type of accessible, user-friendly system allows tenants to immediately report damages as they occur.

Move-in and move-out inspections

Move-in inspections should be a collaborative process, with both the landlord and the tenant conducting a walk-through of the rental property together. This gives tenants the chance to understand maintenance responsibilities and ask questions directly.

When the tenant moves out, any new damages can be identified and documented through these joint reports. The reports serve as liability records, documenting damage responsibility and providing evidence in case of contested liability when repairs are needed.

Clear lease agreements

The lease agreement should establish landlords' and tenants' rights and responsibilities regarding property damages. It should outline the tenant's obligations to maintain the property, report damages on time, and be held accountable for any damages caused by their negligence.

Landlords should verify that the lease agreement complies with local laws and regulations to avoid legal complications. Consider having an attorney review the lease terms regarding damages and the tenant's security deposit.

Ongoing property inspections

Aside from move-in and move-out inspections, landlords should consistently leverage property inspections to identify and address potential damages. Conducting intermittent inspections allows you to assess the property's condition and identify maintenance issues early on.

Can a landlord bill you for damages?

Property damages may happen despite both the landlord's and tenant's best intentions. When damages strike, how can both parties handle repairs and associated costs fairly?

For tenants, the keys are distinguishing destruction from ordinary wear, referencing local laws limiting charges, and formally disputing unreasonable bills. On the landlords' side, they should aim to recover warranted expenses without impacting cooperative rapport with tenants.

Establishing open communication channels, detailed documentation procedures, and clear lease agreements lays the groundwork for smooth coordination between tenants and landlords when managing property damages.

How much can a landlord charge for damages? FAQs

Are tenants responsible for damages caused by natural disasters or unforeseen events?

Tenants are not responsible for damages caused by natural disasters or unforeseen events beyond their control. Renters' and landlord insurance should cover these costs.

Can a landlord charge you for repairs in California?

In California, landlords can charge for repairs if the damage exceeds normal wear and tear. They cannot charge for repairs due to regular use or aging of the property.

Nichole Stohler

Nichole co-founded Gateway Private Equity Group, with a history of investments in single-family and multi-family properties, and now a specialization in hotel real estate investments. She is also the creator of NicsGuide.com, a blog dedicated to real estate investing.

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