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The Question of Normal Wear and Tear

System - Tuesday, August 4, 2020
Property Management Blog

The Question of Normal Wear and Tear
How do we determine what qualifies as “normal wear and tear” in a rented out living unit? This question is both parts important to address, and difficult to answer. Many property managers today agree that the ambiguity of this topic makes the challenge of settling a security deposits dispute one of the more difficult tasks that they must contend with. If property managers wish to properly handle these disputes, then the issue of “normal wear and tear” must be addressed.

Defining “Normal Wear and Tear”
In a practical setting, “normal wear and tear” is a challenge because there is no clear-cut definition for this phrase in legislation. This is because “normal” can be a very subjective adjective, and our understanding of it can vary widely, depending on if we are the property owner, the property manager, a judge, an attorney, a vendor, or the tenant. While the laws that govern the security deposit vary from state to state, the term “normal wear and tear” generally describes the allowable amount of use of a rental unit without the tenant being financially responsible for repairs and maintenance. This is natural wear and tear that we can expect to find in any rented-out unit after the tenant has moved on.

In a court setting, we typically find that the burden of proof for proving the “normal wear and tear” status of any property damage falls on the landlord. And often, the law generally rules that the tenant is not responsible for these costs because they are normal maintenance. Neither courts nor legislators have defined exactly what “percentage” of all maintenance costs are the owner’s responsibility; this adds to the ambiguity surrounding what defines wear and tear as being “normal”.

How is a landlord to navigate the challenges surrounding “normal wear and tear”? Here are some steps that landlords can take to reduce the likelihood of confronting the issue of “normal wear and tear”:

  • Make sure your property is in very good condition before any tenant moves in. Document the initial condition of the unit in writing and with pictures, and have the tenant agree and sign to the condition of the property.

  • Be realistic about the condition of your property. Is the current carpet in new and good condition? Or is the quality bare minimum? Plan to accept what items will not stand up to tenant charges when they move out, such as worn-out carpets.

  • When a tenant moves out, consider the length of their stay. The amount of wear and tear that you will be left with will differ greatly, depending on if the tenant was there for six months or five years. If the tenant has occupied the property for a long time, then the costs of maintenance and repair will likely be higher when they move out. Additionally, the types of damage that come from normal wear and tear will be different for tenants who occupied a space for a longer period of time.  

  • Identify the problems that are actual “damage”. Normal wear and tear – such as heavy soil, black marks, or dye stains – is not filth. “Normal wear and tear” also does not cover negligence, such as mildew collecting on walls, or failure to report a toilet leak that caused damage. It does not apply to abusive use of utilities either.

  • Use common sense – more often than not, it is not worth going to court to fight over, say, carpet cleaning when the tenant has been in the property for three years.

The best thing a landlord can do to distinguish between “normal wear and tear”, and tenant-liable damage, is to look for the types of wear and tear that arise repeatedly over time, across different tenants. This damage is most likely going to be “normal”, and thus, not liable to the tenant. Damage that arises sporadically is more likely to be tenant-liable. If a landlord does come across some damage that looks unusual and significant, it is always best for them to communicate with their tenant through their landlord, before taking the situation to the courtroom unnecessarily.

At Dave Poletti & Associates, we guide our clients through issues such as these, so that the burden of knowing how to deal with something like wear and tear becomes a whole lot more manageable.  


Dave Poletti & Associates
1455 NW Leary Way Suite 400, #440
Seattle, WA 98107

Phone: 206.286.1100

Email: office@davepoletti.com

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