Normal Wear and Tear vs. Damage: What’s the Difference?

“Normal wear and tear” can be a complex phrase to unpack, and as a result, it can be difficult for both landlords and tenants to determine whether or not damage to their unit qualifies as normal wear and tear, or damage that can be deducted from the tenant’s security deposit.

When evaluating normal wear and tear and damage, landlords have to decide whether or not they believe the damage was a result of negligence, abuse, or carelessness. However, even the assumed definitions of these terms can differ from person to person, which can lead to misunderstandings between the landlord and their tenants.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at some deterioration that is commonly recognized as normal wear and tear, and other things that are commonly recognized as damage, plus, we’ll cover tips for mitigating confusion between tenants and landlords to ensure a smooth deposit return process. Let’s get right to it!

What is Normal Wear and Tear?

Normal wear and tear typically refers to the deterioration of an apartment or house that naturally occurs when occupied. To help figure out what is considered normal wear and tear, here is a list of some examples:

  • Ripped wallpaper

  • Cracked or peeling paint

  • Faded or scuffed walls and floors

  • Dirty or faded lamps and window shades

  • Clogged sinks as a result of old plumbing

What is Excessive Wear and Tear (Damages)

However, sometimes a rental will be left in conditions that far exceed that which falls under ‘normal wear and tear,.’ Here is a list of some examples that may be considered as excessive damage:

  • Pencil, pen, crayon, marker, etc. markings on walls and floors

  • Large holes in walls or ceiling

  • Broken windows

  • Heavily damaged or ruined wallpaper

  • Holes, stains, and burns in carpet

  • Damaged sink or bathtub, such as a chip

However, even with examples, it can be difficult to come to a consensus as to what should be considered normal wear and tear versus excessive damage. In fact, miscommunication on this with your tenants may result in a court case. In order to avoid this and protect yourself, it is best to include a detailed list of what will be considered normal wear and tear versus excessive damage in your lease agreements. This way, both you and your tenants will know what to expect when it is time for them to move out.

What cleaning is expected from landlords?

Apartments require different types of maintenance and upkeep throughout their use and lifetime. Some of this cleaning is performed by tenants as they live in the unit, but other types are performed by landlords between tenants. Some of those kinds of cleaning include:

General cleaning

As a landlord, you are required to get units professionally cleaned in between tenants. This means you must outsource the job to a certified cleaning company rather than doing it yourself. This will ensure that the unit is properly and thoroughly cleaned before a new tenant moves in.

As a landlord, you are not allowed to charge your tenants for this cleaning fee. However, if you are charged extra for the cleaning due to negligence from the tenants, for example if they did not clean the unit during their tenancy, then you are able to forward this extra charge to them.

Carpet cleaning

When it comes to carpet cleaning, you are not required to outsource this task and can do it yourself. However, similar to general cleaning, you are not allowed to charge your tenants for this cleaning unless there is excessive damage to the carpet that they have caused.

If the carpet is severely damaged and cannot be cleaned, you are able to charge your tenant for the remaining life expectancy of the carpet. However, you cannot charge the tenant for a replacement carpet unless the damaged carpet was brand new when the tenant first moved into the unit.

Overall, carpet can often lead to a number of difficulties and complications when it comes to its upkeep and maintenance. For this reason, you may want to consider replacing your carpet with a different, easier to manage flooring such as vinyl.


If you find that your walls contain an excessive buildup of dirt, painting, or drawings, you will be able to charge your tenant for the necessary repairs. However, if the tenant has lived in the unit for three or more years, you are unable to charge them for a repaint regardless of the damage. This is because landlords are required by law to repaint a unit every three years.

Light bulbs

When a tenant first moves into a unit, the landlord is expected to ensure that all light bulbs are in working condition. However, throughout the tenant’s stay, it is their responsibility to replace the light bulbs when necessary. It is also their responsibility to ensure that all light bulbs work when they vacate the unit.

Being transparent in your lease agreements

Being clear on what will be considered normal wear and tear versus excessive damage is essential in a lease agreement. Not only will this help save you time in the future, but it will also legally protect you in the event that your tenant disagrees with a repair they have been charged for.

Some of the things you should consider specifying in your lease agreements are:

  • How the inspections will work upon moving in and moving out

  • What type of cleaning tenants are expected to do upon moving out

  • What will be considered normal wear and tear versus excessive damage - What the procedure will be if you discover excessive damage after they have moved out

After a tenant has moved out, if you discover excessive damage to the unit, it can be useful to document this damage through photos and videos. In fact, it is best if you are able to document the condition of the unit before the tenant moves in along with the condition of the unit once the tenant moves out. This will help you to review the damages made to the unit, compare it to how the unit looked before the tenant moved in, and decide whether the damage is considered excessive or not. Additionally, it can serve as protection in the event that you find yourself in court with the tenant for damages done to the unit.

Outerbridge Law Can Help Settle Damage Disputes

If you are a landlord or a tenant and are involved with a dispute about normal wear and tear, don’t assume that the case will automatically work out for you. The definition of normal wear and tear can be highly subjective and open to interpretation, meaning getting the compensation you deserve, or your security deposit, can be very difficult to do.

Fortunately, Outerbridge Law P.C. is here to help. Outerbridge Law can help you determine whether you have a case, identify and define the damages, and prepare arguments. To learn more and schedule a case consultation, contact Outerbridge Law today.