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What Is "Normal" Wear and Tear?

It's not an exact science, but there are federal guidelines to help determine what constitutes reasonable wear and tear in a rental.

Landlords can deduct money from their tenants' security deposits after they move out to compensate for any damage caused to the unit. They can't, however, deduct for what's called "normal wear and tear"—the gradual deterioration of a rental over time due to the impact of someone living there. (It's also sometimes referred to as "ordinary" or "reasonable" wear and tear.)

It's a notoriously nebulous term, usually left undefined by state law. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) did, however, put together a list of specific examples.1 Although their guide was created for those landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers—and therefore must submit their deductions to the government for approval—it serves as a helpful benchmark for all landlords and tenants in determining the limits of normal wear and tear.

Normal wear and tear includes cleaning and minor repairs

After one tenant moves out, there's a good chance that the landlord will need to clean and make some minor repairs before the next moves in. That process is not a valid reason to deduct from the security deposit. As HUD notes, the “costs an owner incurs for the basic cleaning and repairing of such items necessary to make a unit ready for occupancy by the next tenant are part of the costs of doing business.”2

Examples of normal wear and tear include:

  • Fading, peeling, or cracked paint
  • Slightly torn or faded wallpaper
  • Small chips in plaster
  • Nail holes, pin holes, or cracks in wall
  • Door sticking from humidity
  • Cracked window pane from faulty foundation or building settling
  • Floors needing coat of varnish
  • Carpet faded or worn thin from walking
  • Loose grouting and bathroom tiles
  • Worn or scratched enamel in old bathtubs, sinks, or toilets
  • Rusty shower rod
  • Partially clogged sinks caused by aging pipes
  • Dirty or faded lamp or window shades

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it does offer a helpful guide in determining whether an issue is normal wear and tear—or something more serious.

Tenant damages require more extensive repairs

Tenant damages, unlike normal wear and tear, are considered a valid reason to deduct from a security deposit. HUD distinguishes between the two concepts: “Tenant damages usually require more extensive repair, and at greater cost than ‘normal wear and tear,’ and are often the result of a tenant’s abuse or negligence that is above and beyond normal wear and tear.”3

Examples of tenant damage include:

  • Gaping holes in walls or plaster
  • Drawings or crayon markings on the wall
  • Wallpaper that owner did not approve
  • Seriously damaged or ruined wallpaper
  • Chipped or gouged wood floors
  • Doors ripped off hinges
  • Broken windows
  • Missing fixtures
  • Holes in ceiling from removed fixtures
  • Holes, stains, or burns in carpet
  • Missing or cracked bathroom tiles
  • Chipped and broken enamel in bathtubs and sinks
  • Clogged or damaged toilet from improper use
  • Missing or bent shower rods
  • Torn, stained, or missing lamp and window shades

Landlords should also consider the lifespan of household items

The concept of normal wear and tear depends on the fact that most major items in a rental unit won't last forever—time and repeated use will eventually cause them to wear out. Below are HUD's estimate for the life expectancy of certain items that are often present in a rental unit:4

  • Hot water heaters: 10 years
  • Plush carpeting: 5 years for a family, 7 years for elderly tenants
  • Air conditioning units: 10 years
  • Ranges: 20 years
  • Refrigerators: 10 years
  • Enamel interior paint: 5 years for a family, 7 years for elderly tenants
  • Flat interior paint: 3 years for a family, 5 years for elderly tenants
  • Tiles/linoleum: 5 years for a family, 7 years for elderly tenants
  • Window shades, screens, and blinds: 3 years

These are generalizations, of course, not hard and fast rules. If one of these items was in good condition at the time of move-in, and there is evidence that a tenant damaged them in a way that exceeds normal wear and tear, a deduction could be reasonable—even if the item was past its "life expectancy."

Next steps

In some states, landlords are required to return a tenant's security deposit within a certain period of time—or they can't make deductions at all. Read more about the laws in your area.

[1] "Special Claims Processing Guide," HUD

[2] Appendix 5C, "Special Claims Processing Guide," HUD

[3] Appendix 5C, "Special Claims Processing Guide," HUD

[4] Appendix 5D, "Special Claims Processing Guide," HUD

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.