NYC Living

What is "Normal Wear and Tear" on Rental Property?

Moving is expensive – there is the broker’s fee, first month’s rent, last month’s rent, there are the movers to pay, the van to rent, new furniture to buy. The list builds up fast. The silver lining in the painful and costly process of moving in NYC is that usually you get your security deposit back from your old place, which can then be used to finance the security deposit at your new place. Getting your security deposit back is sort of like finding a thousand bucks in the back pocket of the jeans you haven’t worn since last year, except instead of being able to blow it freely, you most likely need to apply it towards your next lease.

New York City Moving Truck
(Source: 12th St David via Flickr Creative Commons)

Why would a landlord withhold your security deposit?

This delicate equation of shuffling the funds of one security deposit to the next, however, gets thrown off when and if your landlord withholds your security deposit. While we’d like to think that getting your security deposit returned is a just a matter of exchanging your keys for a nice, big check, that’s rarely how it works. While some landlords are accommodating and return the security deposit in a timely and fair manner, others do not. Many landlords will ding you for damages that exceed normal wear and tear and retain parts of the security deposit on those grounds, while others may simply withhold it without reason.

What’s reasonable and what’s not when it comes to withholding security deposits?

Both situations are incredibly frustrating and can put your back up against a wall, especially if you’re on a tight budget. In truth, there is little you can do you prevent your landlord from withholding your security deposit without reason. Unfortunately, it’s probably just a sign that you’ve got a lousy landlord which you probably knew before the security deposit issue came up. Hey, it’s probably part of why you are moving out anyway. That said, there are measures you can take to prevent your landlord claiming you left your apartment in a state that exceeds normal wear and tear. Here are some tips.

  1. Take photos when you move in. Take photos of the state of your apartment when you move in, both of entire rooms as well as minor detail. Pay special attention to areas that are likely to get a lot of wear and tear such doorways, the area behind doors where the doorknob bangs into the wall, floors and the area around the kitchen sink. If there is something that looks like a potential liability, document it with a photo and in writing. Make sure your landlord has acknowledged it at the outset of your lease so he doesn’t claim it was your fault when you move out.
  2. Take photos when you move out. Same deal here. Document everything, especially the self-incriminating stuff. If you notice a potential damage, you can be sure that your landlord will too. It’s better that you have your own documentation of these issues so it’s not his word against yours. His word, most likely, will frame you as more culpable than you actually are. Unless you have your own evidence to refute his claims, he can exaggerate the damage and extract a larger penalty from your security deposit than is warranted.
Moving Truck with Manhattan Mini Storage Advertising
(Source: Kevin Prichard Photography via Flickr Creative Commons)

What does “normal wear and tear” actually mean?

So you’ve got photos to support you, but what if your landlord claims that the damages you’ve done exceed normal wear and tear and grounds for withholding your security deposit regardless of your portfolio of pictures? Well, what does ‘normal wear and tear’ even mean in the first place?

The definition can be hard to pin down and is subject to interpretation, but the general rule of thumb is that normal wear and tear includes natural deterioration resulting from typical use over time. It does not cover direct damages that you may have caused because you broke something or because you ignored an issue that got worse over time. This is not the criminal justice system where there are multiple degrees of culpability. Whether you were the direct perpetrator with intent or a passive witness to a crime, you’ll be liable and penalized for the crime if it happens under your watch. The crime in this case being damage to your apartment.

If the analogy to the criminal justice system seems like a stretch, keep in mind that there is case law that often is used to guide the determination of “normal wear and tear.” See below for a summary.

What counts as normal wear and tear

  • Holes in the wall from hanging pictures
  • Walls and ceiling that have been covered with a single coat of paint
  • Faded paint or wallpaper
  • Chipped paint
  • Dirty windows
  • Worn countertops
  • Lightly scratched floors
  • Worn carpet due to aging
  • Worn tile or linoleum floors
  • Worn hinges or locks
  • Worn or dysfunctional electrical sockets
  • Dust

What counts as damages

Damages are actual things in the apartment that you break such as a window or make a hole in the wall. See below for specifics.

  • Gouges in the wall
  • Wallpaper and thick paint coatings that you put up while occupying the apartment
  • Broken windows or torn screens
  • Curtains or blinds that you took down must be returned when you move out otherwise they will be considered stolen
  • Burns on the countertop
  • Stained carpets due to pets, red wine, etc.
  • Pervasive pet smells throughout the apartment – if the smell is so overwhelming you can’t ignore it, that is likely to count as a damage.
  • Excessive mildew in the bathroom; excessive dirt or grime on the stove or fridge. If you can’t get it off in your pre-move clean, it will likely be deemed a damage.
  • Broken faucet handles
  • Alterations and improvements made to the apartment without your landlord’s consent will likely count as a damage. Most leases state that the apartment must be returned to a pre-alteration state when you vacate. (Note: Your landlord can waive this provision, but you would need to get his permission and get it in writing first so you don’t get dinged in the end.

Your landlord does not legally have to give you the chance to fix damages that he observes even if you are present during the final walk-through. That said, arrange for it to take place before you hand over the keys in the off chance that he’s nice and is willing to negotiate with you.

Yes, you should clean your apartment before moving

In all cases you should thoroughly clean your apartment before vacating. That means more than just a sweep of the floors and a squirt of Fantastic on the fridge. Think about the state you received the apartment in and the state you hope to receive your next apartment in. You want it clean and sparkly, right? As best you can, try to leave your current place that way. Sure, we hear you, moving is a busy and stressful time and the last thing you want to do after a long day of moving is hang out in your empty apartment cleaning it up for the next guy. But three hours of thorough cleaning can save you unwarranted dings on your security deposit which could translate to hundreds of dollars of withholdings. Landlords can be ruthless. If you don’t have the time or energy, consider hiring a cleaning service. The $100 bucks you invest in that could save you a lot in the long run.

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Mariela Quintana

Mariela Quintana has worked on StreetEasy's marketing and editorial teams for three years. She has covered topics relating to all things local real estate and is ceaselessly curious about New York City's history, architecture and neighborhoods. She has lived in the city for all but eight months of her life. It was a rough eight months.