What can a landlord collect if a tenant damages a property?

Most of the time, when an apartment is rented, the tenant pays a security deposit that can be applied if he or she damages the property. Usually, unless the lease says otherwise, the tenant is liable only for damage to the property…not for ordinary wear and tear. The landlord is typically supposed to maintain the property and perform routine upkeep.

Security deposits are normally a small matter, but in some cases, tenant damage can be a big issue. Two recent cases at opposite extremes show that it’s important to speak with an attorney if you have any questions or concerns.

In one case, a Tennessee landlord leased a house and 25 acres to a married couple. The couple had two dogs, and the wife apparently also kept some horses on the property. Significantly, the couple also agreed in the lease to return the property in the same condition in which they received it. This was important, because while a tenant usually isn’t liable for ordinary wear and tear, this couple agreed to maintain the property even if it suffered the typical effects of use.

The couple paid $1,500 a month for the house and land. But when they moved out, the landlord claimed the property had deteriorated. For instance, the landlord provided photos showing that the pasture and barn area had lush grass at the beginning of the lease term, but many bare spots when the tenants left.

The case went to court, and after reviewing the photos and other evidence, a judge ordered the couple to pay almost $16,500 to restore the property to its original condition.

In another case, a man rented a townhouse in rural upstate New York to a woman for 12 years. When the woman died, the man sued her estate for more than $58,000 in alleged damage to the apartment…including broken parquet floors, cracked bathroom and kitchen tiles, chipped countertops, nail holes in the walls, broken appliances, a dirty refrigerator, a deteriorated driveway and a missing cabinet drawer.

When the case went to trial, the man acknowledged that he had performed virtually no maintenance on the townhouse during the 12 years of the lease, or during the previous eight years when he had lived there.

The court sided with the woman’s estate, finding that the vast majority of the problems with the townhouse were the result of ordinary wear and tear. A landlord cannot simply fail to maintain a building for 20 years and then perform a complete renovation at the tenant’s expense, it said.

After a trial, the court awarded the landlord nothing more than the cost of the materials for a new floor, plus $62 to replace the missing cabinet drawer.

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