The Ultimate Guide to “Normal Wear and Tear”

Written on September 19, 2016 by , updated on November 1, 2017

Normal Wear and TearThere’s a phrase in landlord-tenant law called “normal wear and tear” and it’s very difficult to define.

Georgia law (where I live) attempts to define it as such:

Okay, I got it. Landlords can’t remodel the property on the tenant’s dime. They need to return the security deposit as long as there are no damages beyond normal wear and tear.

Sounds good … until you really start to think about it!

Related: What Can I Deduct or Withhold From a Security Deposit?

What Exactly Is “Normal Wear and Tear?”

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“I know it when I see it.”

Normal wear and tear is often as nebulous as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark: “I’ll know it when I see it”.

But that excuse wouldn’t hold up in your local landlord-tenant court. Is there a more accurate way to know what is considered normal wear and tear? It’s a bit of both really.

Although there is a dictionary definition of the phrase, it’s still unclear as to what the term actually means. Merriam-Webster’s definition of wear and tear:

So here we go again … normal depreciation to a tenant might not be so normal to a landlord. There are slobs and neat freaks in this world, and both think the way they live is “normal.” And we wonder why there are often tensions between landlords and tenants!

Texas, might have the most specific definition that I’ve seen:

Here’s our guide as to what you can safely assume is normal wear and tear, based on a guide from HUD:

Normal vs. Excessive Damage

Normal Wear & Tear:
Landlord's Responsibility
Excessive Tenant Damage:
Resident's Responsibility
A few small nail holes, chips, smudges, dents, scrapes, or cracks in the wallsGaping holes in walls from abuse, accidents, or neglect. Unapproved paint colors or unprofessional paint jobs. Dozens of nail holes which need patching and repainting.
Faded paintWater damage on wall from hanging plants or constant rubbing of furniture
Slightly torn or faded wallpaperUnapproved wall paper, drawings, or crayon markings on walls
Carpet faded or worn thin from walkingHoles, stains, or burns in carpet. Food stains, urine stains, and leaky fish tanks are never "normal".
Dirty or faded lamp or window shadesTorn, stained, or missing lamp and window shades
Scuffed varnish on wood floors from regular useChipped or gouged wood floors, or excessive scraps from pet nails
Dark patches on hardwood floors that have lost their finish over many yearsWater stains on wood floors and windowsills caused by windows being left open during rainstorms
Doors sticking from humidityDoors broken, or ripped off hinges
Warped cabinet doors that won’t closeSticky cabinets and interiors
Cracked window pane from faulty foundation or building settlingBroken windows from action of the tenant or guests
Shower mold due to lack of proper ventilationShower mold due to lack of regular cleanings
Loose grouting and bathroom tilesMissing or cracked bathroom tiles
Worn or scratched enamel in old bathtubs, sinks, or toiletsChipped and broken enamel in bathtubs and sinks
Rusty shower rod or worn varnish on plumbing fixturesMissing or bent shower rod or plumbing fixtures
Partially clogged sinks or drains caused by aging pipesClogged sinks or drains due to any stoppage (hair, diapers, food, etc.), or improper use
Moderately dirty mini-blinds or curtainsMissing or broken mini-blinds or curtain
Bathroom mirror beginning to “de-silver” (black spots)Mirrors caked with lipstick and makeup
Broken clothes dryer because the thermostat has given outDryer that won’t turn at all because it’s been overloaded, or the lint trap was never cleaned out.
Worn gaskets on refrigerator doorsBroken refrigerator shelf or dented front panels
Smelly garbage disposalDamaged disposal due to metal, glass, or stones being placed inside
Replacement of fluorescent lamps - or any light bulb designed to last for years of continuous useReplacement of most common light bulbs

Damage vs. Regular Maintenance

Whatever you do to ready the place after one tenant moves out and before a new tenant moves in constitutes routine maintenance. Here are some examples:

1. Cleaning

If you have the entire unit professionally cleaned between tenants, you can’t charge the prior tenant to clean, because cleaning for you is routine maintenance.

But if the tenant never cleaned the place the entire three years they lived there, for example, and you are charged extra by the cleaning service because of the filthy condition, you could probably keep the extra charge, but not the entire charge, for the cleaning.

If you expect them to clean the house prior to moving out, be sure to put this requirement in the lease, and even provide them a cleaning guide with your expectations.

Related: How to Get Your Tenants to Clean Regularly in 5 Easy Steps

2. Carpet

If you like to steam clean the carpet between tenants, then you can’t charge the prior tenant since you normally clean the carpet anyway.

But if the tenant stained the carpet so badly that normal carpet cleaning doesn’t work, you can probably charge to replace the carpet – or at least to cost to replace the remaining life expectancy. That’s right, you typically can’t charge the full replacement for carpet unless it was already brand new.  If the carpet were so old and worn out that it needed replacing anyway, you can’t charge your tenant.

Listen to a related podcast episode:

3. Paint

If you just had the unit painted, and the tenant left the walls really dirty, let their children draw on them, or tried (and failed) painting them themselves, you’ll need to repaint sooner than you normally would have. In this case, you can probably deduct the cost to repaint from the security deposit.

But if your tenant has lived in the unit for 3-5 years or more, a paint job is probably routine maintenance, meaning that you could not deduct money to paint.

Related:

4. Light Bulbs

A rental unit should be fully equipped with working light bulbs with a tenant moves in. Likewise, they should replace them when they burn out, and they should ensure every light bulb is working properly upon move-out.  After all, that’s how it was given to them.

In my opinion, any long fluorescent tube lights, or any light bulb designed to last for years of continuous use, should be replaced by the landlord. Plus, fluorescent tube lights can be dangerous if broken, and could be a liability if you rely on your residents to replace them.

What is “Useful Life?”

Since all products have a specific life expectancy (typically determined by the manufacturer), a landlord or manager can’t charge a tenant the full replacement cost of the item unless it was brand new at the time it was damaged.

For example, if a tenant’s dog damaged a five-year-old carpet beyond repair, and its life expectancy is 10 years, then the landlord could only charge the tenant 50% of the cost to replace the carpet.

HUD has a list (Appendix 5D) of various items, and their life expectancy:

ItemLife Expectancy
Hot Water Heaters10 years
Plush Carpeting5 years
Air Conditioning Units10 years
Ranges20 years
Refrigerators10 years
Interior Painting - Enamel5 years
Interior Painting – Flat3 years
Tiles/Linoleum5 years
Window shades, screens, blinds3 years

Importance of Before and After Photos or Videos

It’s important for both landlords and tenants to take before-and-after photos or videos of the unit. That way, both sides have proof should they need it.

If you, as a landlord, intend to keep all or part of the security deposit, you’d better be able to show the pristine condition before the tenant moved in and the trashed condition at move-out time. Otherwise, whatever you do to ready the place for the new tenant would probably fall under normal wear and tear.

And tenants, if you wish to prove that you left the place in the same condition in which you took it, considering normal wear and tear, take your own before-and-after photos or videos in case your landlord tries to wrongfully keep the security deposit.

Related: Record a Video of the Move-in/Move-out Inspection

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89 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Isabel

    After normal use the oven knobs came lose and fell off. Does this count as wear and tear?

  • Ruth

    I ived in my apartment (2 bedrooms) for 8 years I downsized to a 1 bedroom in same complex. They sent me a statement I owe money for carpet cleaning. Shouldnt carpet be changed after 8 years of wear and tear?

  • Lynne

    I lived in my apt unit for 7 years and moved to another larger unit same complex. I have $600 deposits on 1st apartment and $350 on new one. Management has not returned my deposit or an itemized statement, now 31 days after move out. But orally said that because I smoked it cost them $250 in Special primer to eliminate the smoke smell. Is this fair and can they withhold my deposit like this?

  • Stephen E Sage

    T.U. Terrific attempt to clarify wear & tear. Normal lifespans & replacement scheds. are well-taken. My view diverges from a notion that all tenancy subjects be subsumed under W&T. I use an engineer’s & physics point of view, w/ heaping TBLS of empathetic reality checks. A tenant family & visitors who “live their way” manifest natural by-product such as dirt, negligent damage, wear, dirt, accidental damage, & dirt. Did I mention dirt? Some clean up; some don’t. What’s missing is a sep. category… something like “Dirt, Rubbish, Damage, Wear, Trash, Smudges” aka “Dirt”. A wall w/smudges is NOT W&T. It is lived life w/o clean up after oneself. Door latches wear; Frigs break; but I’d not allow escape f. clean’g w/o cost.

  • Deborah

    I recently mo Ed out if a rental and it has been more than 21 days and I have not received my deposit back my kabdlord says the deposit can’t be returned until I pay for the gutters to be cleaned I move$ out if the rental on Oct1st I had a ,ease until March2916 the lease states afte4 that U. Hold rent every 60 days but says the original lease is still in force which requires a 69 dY. Otice I gave 6 weeks notice so the landlord is deducting 2 weeks ren5 from my deposit.

  • Megan

    So the rental I am in is very bright colours and there is a few chips on the walls with kids and furniture it can’t be helped is this under wear n tear???

  • Stephanie

    I’ve rented a room with 1 dog, for 2 1/2 years. She sheds a lot. I attempted to contain the shedding by sweeping the hard wood floors 2-3 times wk. I was 1st quoted $400 a mo rent. Then they decided that because of my dog, it should be $450. A year later the landlord bred his dog and because I did most of the clean up/care, they gave me a puppy and sold the others. My puppy made a couple stains on the hardwood floors. Their dog(s) made others. Their child also made stains. Now I am moving. I vacuumed the dog hair from the floor vents but they say the dander/dust in them is my responsibility too. The filter was recently changed and there are no clogs. Are they right? I am taking care of puppy stains. What is normal wear and tear here?

  • mumei

    What about outdoor maintenance like shrub trimming, tree trimming and branch removal, gutter cleaning, etc?
    For plumbing, what if the cause of a clog cannot be determined? The (current) tenants did not cause the issue, but the landlord does not consider it normal wear and tear.

  • Bill Havey

    The landlord replaced a particle board kitchen counter-top covered with Formica with a “Absolute Black Granite” counter-top after the 10 yr. lease ended. The landlord deducted the 100% of the granite counter-top cost from the security deposit. According to HUD guidelines, kitchen counter-tops have a 5 yr. life expectancy. I believe I should pay the cost of an equivalent counter-top, not the cost of a huge upgrade. What can I do in this situation?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Bill,
      I can’t speak to this particular situation, but I don’t think you should have to pay for a brand-new countertop. This one is worth taking up with HUD or, if they can’t help you, small-claims court. Speak to the landlord first to see if you get anywhere. If not kick this one up a notch.

      • Bill Havey

        Hello Laura

        Good news on this security deposit. After learning about the issues involved with “normal wear and tear” I contacted the management office person cited in the letter included with the return of the partial security deposit. She was most helpful and after only one day I was informed that management agreed with me that I should be financially responsible for replacement of existing Formica counter-top, not the upgrade to Granite. I will be receiving a second check for the difference in cost, which reduces the amount withheld from the security deposit by 2/3 !.
        Thank you for the encouragement on this.

        • Laura Agadoni

          Hi Bill,
          Great news, and thank you for the update! Generally, landlords cannot charge tenants for upgrading their rental properties. Glad you followed through and were successful.

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