Few phrases in a rental contract cause as much conflict and confusion as "normal wear and tear". What does it mean? Who determines "normal", and how can tenants protect themselves from a landlord's interpretation of this very subjective term?
These days, there's a lot at stake. Security deposits can amount to thousands of dollars, and a good referral from a landlord is all but required to secure a rental in the future. As a tenant, you want to ensure you get your gold star and a full deposit refund... preferably, with accrued interest.
What is the Legal Definition for "Normal Wear and Tear"?
The phrase has been in use for at least a hundred years, as evidenced in a 1918 issue of The Harvard Law Review. But somehow, there's still no concrete definition for "normal (or ordinary) wear and tear."
We checked with the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, and as it happens, even they had to refer to Nolo.com whose Plain English Law Dictionary defines the term as "Damage or loss to an item (such as a table) or element of a room (such as the floor) resulting from ordinary use and exposure over time." According to this source, more wear and tear is acceptable after a longer tenancy, and the condition of a unit upon move-in also affects the definition of "normal wear and tear".
OK, maybe we've cleared up the definition of "normal"—sort of—but now we're stuck with "ordinary use and exposure." And according to a 2015 Harvard study on unenforceable and misleading clauses in residential rental contacts, even Nolo's rental contract template failed to specify the landlord's responsibilities in regards to "wear and tear".
According to The People's Law Library of Maryland, "'Ordinary wear and tear" is considered common sense rule. For example, a landlord may not charge a tenant to replace a carpet that is worn from use over time, or to repaint walls that have small holes in the walls where pictures were hung. (The) condition of the property at the time it was rented, and how long the tenant lived on the property are also relevant factors."
Ok... Common sense. We all know that that's subjective. Ordinary and normal? All still technically open to interpretation. But at least we're getting somewhere. But where does that leave you, as a tenant, when you want to comply with the terms of your lease? Should you just give up, burn down your rental, blow off your substantial deposit, and just live in an RV the rest of your life?
Not at all. In fact, as your best online resource for tenant-landlord relationships, we at VerticalRent highly advise you put your matches away and learn how to protect yourself from arbitrary rental contract clauses.
Contracts Aren't Written in Stone: Agree On Your Own Definition
Have you ever heard the term, "contract negotiation"? It's not reserved for corporate buyouts, municipal construction bids, or prenuptial agreements. Any time you enter into a contract, you have a right to make adjustments to protect your own interests. That means you can work with your landlord to define "ordinary wear and tear" right down to the letter so there's no confusion when it's time for you to move out.
One of the reasons the phrase is so arbitrary is because every rental property has its own amenities, and any given unit might be in a different condition. Even a brand-new apartment or home has its flaws because there are always "bugs" to be worked out, and contractors aren't above making mistakes.
Your rental contract should make reference to a detailed checklist signed by both you and your landlord upon move-in, and in a few minutes, we'll discuss other means of documenting the condition of your rental at this time as well as when you're ready to vacate the premises. But before you sign that lease and accept the keys to your rental, you'll want to make sure you and your landlord are on the same page.
Before You Sign That Lease... Document Everything
Insist on a move-in inspection with your landlord in which you point out any visible damage—no matter how minor—to appliances, surfaces, structures, fixtures, and flooring. Are there any bad smells? Is the decorative molding firmly affixed to the walls, and the tile properly grouted? Is there any evidence of pest damage, mold, condensation accumulation, or settling? Do the windows all work? Are there leak stains under or near the plumbing fixtures?
Take lots of photographs of every room, paying close attention to existing cosmetic or structural damage. Download your images and scan your paperwork to a hard drive, and keep them organized for the duration of your occupancy.
Ask your landlord to provide a date (give or take a month) when the carpet was installed, window hangings cleaned, and the unit last painted. You might ask when the furnace and water heater were last serviced, and find out who's responsible for routine maintenance. How does the landlord expect you to maintain the carpets? If there's a schedule for shampooing? If they require you to use an approved company, put it in writing. You might even negotiate to share the cost of scheduled cleaning since professional care prolongs the life of the unit's flooring.
Most landlords expect to paint and re-carpet a unit after a certain period of occupancy. Ask your landlord if you're required to paint upon move out, or whether you're allowed to decorate with your own paint colors, and ask them to provide their timeframe for carpet replacement.
Insist they provide you with the names and numbers of repair professionals in case there's an emergency appliance failure or structural damage, regardless of fault.
By taking these steps, you're clarifying what's expected of you during your tenancy, and by asking your landlord to put in writing their preferred service providers, they're shouldering some of the responsibility of the unit's condition when you're ready to move out. You want to establish a clear "starting line" before you move in because as soon as you sign your contract, the clock starts ticking.
Before You Hand Back the Keys... Document Everything Again
We recommend requesting a walk-through upon giving notice so you have advance warning of any potential threats to your deposit. Schedule another landlord inspection for the day you vacate the property. The latter inspection, during which you should also be photographing like a paparazzi, is your opportunity to present your case for a full and expedient deposit refund. Read our blog for more tips on getting your security deposit back!
Tenant-Landlord Agreements are Built on Clear Communication
The strongest relationships are those in which we know what to expect of the other, and vice-versa. You're not being too demanding when you insist on setting down the ground rules and following through with recordkeeping. In fact, a good landlord will appreciate your interest in maintaining the standards they expect, and they'll respect you for protecting your own interests. The purpose of your security deposit is, after all, to encourage you to leave the unit in a condition specified by your lease contract, not to pad your landlord's pockets... because nobody wants to deal with the aftermath resulting from a poor interpretation of "normal wear and tear".
About the author
Matt Angerer is the Founder and President of VerticalRent. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics that help Landlords, Property Managers, and Renters across America. He is particularly interested in helping renters understand their local marketplace, pick the best places to live, and find an awesome roommate. Since 2011, VerticalRent has grown to service over 100,000 landlords and renters across America.