What To Do if a Tenant Damages Your Property

  • Apr 09, 2024
  • 6 min read
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When a tenant damages your rental property, a profitable asset can become a liability overnight. And let’s face it, it’s hard to be truly prepared for this part of being a landlord. Tales of tenants transforming living spaces into aquatic havens, dogs digging holes through walls, and mistreated appliances are not uncommon.

However, there are proactive steps you can take to protect your real estate as well as make repairs so you can rent your unit again and return it to profitability after tenant property damage.

Let’s start by defining actual damage, as tenants are allowed reasonable wear and tear from everyday life. While there may be some variance from state to state, Cornell Law School defines “normal wear and tear” as follows:

“Reasonable wear and tear is the damage to property resulting from ordinary use and exposure over time. Also referred to as ordinary wear and tear or natural wear and tear. The term is commonly used in landlord-tenant law to limit the tenant’s liability for damage to the property.”

Normal wear and tear happens over time, like fading paint or worn carpets. Think of it as your rental aging gracefully. On the flip side, actual damage is broken windows, burn marks on the carpet from smoking, or large holes in the walls. The difference between damage and typical wear from everyday use is the cause of the damage.

Proactive Damage Control Strategies

While there are no guarantees that you won’t end up in unfavorable situations like property damage or eviction proceedings with a tenant, there are a few things you can do to head off any potential issues regarding damage to your rental.

Thorough New Tenant Screenings

One of the best ways to deal with tenant property damage is to proactively screen tenants thoroughly to avoid the situation in the first place. While this is not always possible, keep in mind your diligent and consistent tenant screening process can help you steer clear of anyone with a less than stellar reference from their landlord, unfavorable credit check, previous criminal charges (especially with anything property related), and eviction histories.

A Comprehensive Rental Agreement and Maintenance Expectations

A solid lease agreement is your first line of defense and the backbone of your rental business. It sets clear expectations and legally binds you and your tenant to specific terms.

To craft an airtight lease, include responsibilities for both parties, maintenance specifics, payment details, and any rental-specific rules. Think of it as setting the stage for a smooth tenancy journey.

Make it very clear and direct so that if the time comes, there’s no deliberation on expectations. Be sure you are within applicable laws.

Regular Maintenance Checks and Open Communication

Regular maintenance checks are essential. Spotting problems ahead of time will spare you headaches down the road.

Additionally, fostering a transparent dialogue and a good relationship with your renters is vital. When they feel at ease to report minor issues, it helps prevent major problems in the future. Be upfront about maintenance responsibilities from day one.

Finally, save all receipts and invoices related to repairs. You’ll need these for tax purposes or if disputes arise with tenants.

Landlord Insurance Policy

Landlord insurance protects your rental and gives landlords personal liability coverage for protection against things that are your fault, like a tenant slip-and-fall accident due to broken furnishings. A good policy will also protect your real estate in the event of fires, extreme weather, and tenant issues.

Picking the right landlord insurance policy isn’t just about price; it’s about peace of mind.

Ensuring Security Measures in Rental Properties

Smoke detectors are required by law, but they need to be functional to do their job. Making sure they are consistently working, along with carbon monoxide detectors, is essential.

If it’s in the budget, beef up exterior security systems so you can keep an eye on your rental. It also enables you to save video footage that you could use later to prove incidents.

When Your Tenant Damages Property

Despite best efforts, most landlords will likely encounter damage from a tenant and possibly even have to go through an eviction process. People have different standards of living; what’s ok for some might not be ok for others, resulting in unforeseen damages.

What should you do?

Documenting the Damage Thoroughly

Document everything. Take photos or videos of every scratch and dent. This serves as your tangible evidence. You will also most likely have to itemize any repairs you make due to tenant damage, so you’ll want to keep good records of what was wrong and what you did to rectify everything.

Inform your tenant in writing about the mess they made. Be clear and specific. Detail the damage, include photos, state repair costs, and give a deadline for response or payment.

Handling Criminal Damage and Total Destruction

Walking into your unit only to find it wrecked is never a good feeling.

When a tenant destroys your real estate, alert the cops and keep a detailed record of it all. For total destruction, contact your insurance company ASAP and consider legal action if needed.

Deducting Damages From a Security Deposit

You can use security deposits to fix tenant damage to your rental property. That is what they are there for. You may have to give a tenant the chance to make things right first. Some states require a walk-through of the unit prior to the tenant vacating the property in order to give them the opportunity to rectify damages and avoid charges. Be sure to look into what your state allows.

What sorts of damage can you typically charge back to your renter and deduct from a security deposit? Things like:

  • Broken pipes and flooding caused by inappropriate items being flushed
  • Broken appliances (microwave, oven, refrigerator, etc.) from abuse
  • Broken doors, windows, and fixtures
  • Pet Damage

Other things in addition to damage that you can typically deduct from a security deposit include:

  • Big messes (you can charge a cleaning fee)
  • Oversized items or personal belongings removal
  • Unpaid rent
  • Lease break fees

As a reminder, your lease agreement should also already spell out what counts as damage in alignment with local laws.

If the damage exceeds the amount of the tenant’s security deposit and the tenant doesn’t pay what you’re demanding, you may need to garnish the tenant’s wages, among other legal consequences. While this can be a hassle, it’s often necessary to recoup your losses and legal fees.

You can file a lawsuit in small claims court without attorney fees. It’s designed for disputes like these—when the repair costs make your wallet weep but aren’t high enough to warrant a blockbuster courtroom drama. Most small claims are under $2500 and the court fees are minimal. You’ll need to find out what your state mandates for your type of case, as some have dedicated landlord-tenant courts.

Pursuing further legal action in small claims court is a process. You’ll want to act quickly in order to make sure you fall within statutes of limitations, as well as call your local small claims court to find out any details and file your claim. Gather your documentation, including:

  • Your tenant’s application
  • The signed lease agreement
  • Bills for repairs
  • Photos of the unit in its original condition as well as the damages
  • Itemized log of damages and dates

Organize your documentation and your landlord’s account of the events for the court hearing. Then, the judge will make a decision, hopefully in your favor.

Contact All County Property Management For All Your Property Needs

Remember this: stains can be cleaned, and carpeting and windows replaced.

However, avoiding damage from your tenant is all about staying one step ahead. Having a seasoned, expert property manager to handle the tenant screening and renting process can make a huge impact and relieve a lot of stress for landlords.

All County Property Management has nationwide experience across all aspects of rental management, and we would love to help you with yours! Call us today to find out what we can do to make your life easier and get your rental investment working for you.

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