One of the most basic — and at times most confusing — issues for renters and landlords is understanding the obligation of both parties to maintain the property in good condition.
For landlords, this means responding to tenant requests for maintenance and repairs in a timely manner. And for tenants, it’s about keeping the rental unit in a condition comparable to how it was received, aside from normal wear and tear.
Different interpretations of the term “normal wear and tear” can lead to different opinions when the time comes to refund a deposit.
The discussion should begin with the property-condition checklist. It’s quite simple: Without a signed property-condition checklist, a landlord cannot legally collect or charge a deposit paid by the tenant for damages.
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If a checklist has been completed, the issue becomes who’s responsible for what during the tenancy, and what “normal wear and tear” actually means.
An experienced landlord will expect some wear and tear in a unit during a tenancy. Minor things such as small marks on the walls, a drippy faucet, carpet that is slightly worn in high-traffic areas or broken hinges will show up over time.
While these are all inconveniences that should be addressed before a new tenant moving in, such defects would not constitute actual damage and cannot be charged to the tenant.
Properly discerning between minor wear and actual damage is key for tenants to consider. State law requires that tenants “restore the premises to their initial condition, except for reasonable wear and tear or conditions caused by failure of the landlord to comply with his or her obligations” (RCW 59.18.130).
Actual damage to a property beyond normal wear is the responsibility of the tenant. That includes problems such as deep gouges or large holes in a wall, or stained carpets resulting from a spilled drink or pet damage.
Another statute, RCW 59.18.060, contains clauses that require landlords to maintain the premises, including electrical systems, plumbing and any supplied appliances. These include common appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines, as well as microwaves and other smaller items.
Some landlords make the mistake of providing extras such as a microwave for the convenience of the tenant, considering them throwaway items for which they’re not responsible. But they are, and that responsibility cannot be waived by inserting a clause or addendum in the lease.
However, while the landlord-tenant act requires landlords to maintain all appliances that they supply, the tenant is on the hook to cover the cost to repair an appliance that fails because of his or her negligence.
Some landlords require the payment of nonrefundable fees up front. These are separate from any deposit, and they are required to be labeled for specific items.
Among the most common nonrefundable fees is for cleaning. When charging such a fee, both parties should note that RCW 59.18.130 (10) states, “The tenant shall not be charged for normal cleaning if he or she has paid a nonrefundable cleaning fee.”
The end result of all costs should be included on a deposit refund statement, postmarked by the landlord within 14 days after the tenant vacates the property.
Sean Martin is the director of external affairs of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, a not-for-profit association of more than 5,000 landlord members statewide. Rental Resource is the organization’s biweekly column. For more information for landlords or tenants, visit rhawa.org.