There’s a phrase in landlord-tenant law called “normal wear and tear,” and it’s very difficult to define.

Georgia law (where I live) attempts to define it as such:

“A landlord cannot retain a security deposit to cover normal wear and tear that occurs as a result of the tenant using the property for its intended purpose.”

Okay, I got it. Landlords can’t remodel the property on the renter’s dime. They need to return the security deposit as long as there are no damages beyond normal wear and tear.

Sounds good…until you really start to think about it!

What exactly is “normal wear and tear?

Normal wear and tear is often as nebulous as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark: “I’ll know it when I see it.”

But that excuse wouldn’t hold up in your local courthouse. Is there a more accurate way to know what is considered normal wear and tear? It’s a bit of both really.

Although there is a dictionary definition of the phrase, it’s still unclear as to what the term actually means. Merriam-Webster’s definition of wear and tear:

“The loss, injury, or stress to which something is subjected by or in the course of use; especially normal depreciation.”

So here we go again…normal depreciation to a renter might not be so normal to a landlord. There are slobs and neat freaks in this world, and both think the way they live is “normal.” And we wonder why there are often tensions between landlords and renters!

Texas might have the most specific definition that I’ve seen:

“…deterioration that results from the intended use of a dwelling…but term does not include deterioration that results from negligence, carelessness, accident or abuse of the premises, equipment or personal property by the tenant, by a member of the tenant’s household or by a guest of the tenant.”

Here’s our guide as to what you can safely assume is normal wear and tear, based on a guide from HUD:

Normal vs. excessive damage

Normal wear and tear: landlord’s responsibilityExcessive damage: renter responsibility
A few small nail holes, chips, smudges, dents, scrapes, or cracks in the wallsGaping holes in walls from abuse, accidents, or neglect. Unapproved paint colors or unprofessional paint jobs. Dozens of nail holes which need patching and repainting.
Faded paintWater damage on wall from hanging plants or constant rubbing of furniture
Slightly torn or faded wallpaperUnapproved wall paper, drawings, or crayon markings on walls
Carpet faded or worn thin from walkingHoles, stains, or burns in carpet. Food stains, urine stains, and leaky fish tanks are never "normal."
Dirty or faded lamp or window shadesTorn, stained, or missing lamp and window shades
Scuffed varnish on wood floors from regular useChipped or gouged wood floors, or excessive scraps from pet nails
Dark patches on hardwood floors that have lost their finish over many yearsWater stains on wood floors and windowsills caused by windows being left open during rainstorms
Doors sticking from humidityDoors broken or ripped off hinges
Warped cabinet doors that won’t closeSticky cabinets and interiors
Cracked window pane from faulty foundation or building settlingBroken windows from action of the renter or guests
Shower mold due to lack of proper ventilationShower mold due to lack of regular cleanings
Loose grouting and bathroom tilesMissing or cracked bathroom tiles
Worn or scratched enamel in old bathtubs, sinks, or toiletsChipped and broken enamel in bathtubs and sinks
Rusty shower rod or worn varnish on plumbing fixturesMissing or bent shower rod or plumbing fixtures
Partially clogged sinks or drains caused by aging pipesClogged sinks or drains due to any stoppage (hair, diapers, food, etc.), or improper use
Moderately dirty mini-blinds or curtainsMissing or broken mini-blinds or curtain
Bathroom mirror beginning to “de-silver” (black spots)Mirrors caked with lipstick and makeup
Broken clothes dryer because the thermostat has given outDryer that won’t turn at all because it’s been overloaded, or the lint trap was never cleaned out.
Worn gaskets on refrigerator doorsBroken refrigerator shelf or dented front panels
Smelly garbage disposalDamaged disposal due to metal, glass, or stones being placed inside
Replacement of fluorescent lamps - or any light bulb designed to last for years of continuous useReplacement of most common light bulbs

Damage vs. regular maintenance

Whatever you do to ready the place, after one renter moves out and before a new person moves in, constitutes routine maintenance. Here are some examples:

1. Cleaning

If you have the entire unit professionally cleaned between renters, you can’t charge the prior renter to clean, because cleaning for you is routine maintenance.

But if the renter never cleaned the place the entire three years they lived there, for example, and you are charged extra by the cleaning service because of the filthy condition, you could probably keep the extra charge, but not the entire charge, for the cleaning.

If you expect your renters to clean the house prior to moving out, be sure to put this requirement in the lease. You can also provide a cleaning guide with your expectations.

2. Paint

If you just had the unit painted and your renter left the walls really dirty, let their children draw on them, or tried (and failed) painting the walls themselves, you’ll need to repaint sooner than you normally would have. In this case, you can probably deduct the cost to repaint from the security deposit.

But if your renter has lived in the unit for three to five years or more, a paint job is probably routine maintenance, meaning that you could not deduct money to paint.

3. Carpet

If you like to steam clean the carpet between renters, then you can’t charge the prior renter since you normally clean the carpet anyway.

But if the renter stained the carpet so badly that normal carpet cleaning doesn’t work, you can probably charge to replace the carpet—or at least the cost to replace the remaining life expectancy. That’s right: you typically can’t charge the full replacement for carpet unless it was already brand-new. If the carpet was so old and worn or that in needed replacing anyway, you can’t charge your renter.

4. Light bulbs

A rental unit should be fully equipped with working light bulbs when a renter moves in. Likewise, renters should replace light bulbs when they burn out, and renters should ensure every light bulb is working properly upon move-out. After all, that’s how the unit was given.

In my opinion, however, the landlord should replace any long fluorescent tube lights or any light bulb designed to last for years of continuous use. Plus, fluorescent tube lights can be dangerous if broken and could be a liability if you rely on your residents to replace them.

What is “useful life”?

Since all products have a specific life expectancy (typically determined by the manufacturer), a landlord or manager can’t charge a renter the full replacement cost of the item unless it was brand-new at the time it was damaged.

For example, if a renter’s dog damaged a five-year-old carpet beyond repair, and its life expectancy is 10 years, then the landlord can charge the renter only 50 percent of the cost to replace the carpet.

HUD has a list (Appendix 5D PDF) of various items and their life expectancy:

ItemLife expectancy
Hot water heaters10 years
Plush carpeting5 years
Air conditioning units10 years
Ranges20 years
Refrigerators10 years
Interior painting, enamel5 years
Interior painting, flat3 years
Tiles and linoleum5 years
Window shades, screens, blinds3 years

Importance of before-and-after photos or videos

It’s important for both landlords and renters to take before-and-after photos or videos of the unit. That way, both sides have proof should they need it.

If you, as a landlord, intend to keep all or part of the security deposit, you’d better be able to show the pristine condition before the renter moved in and the bad condition at move-out time. Otherwise, whatever you do to ready the place for the new renter would probably fall under normal wear and tear.

And renters, if you wish to prove that you left the place in the same condition, considering normal wear and tear, take your own before-and-after photos or videos in case your landlord tries to wrongfully keep the security deposit.