LandlordFilter: How to assess damage that cannot be reasonably repaired?
August 6, 2018 9:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm a newbie landlord. I own a rental house, and my first tenant just moved out. There is damage, and I need help figuring out how much of the damage deposit to refund.

Some damage can be repaired (e.g., gouges in walls). That seems straightforward: get it fixed by a market-rate handyman and take that out of the deposit.

But some damage can't be easily fixed. There are two large (5" x 5") dark stains in the granite counter top, which are definitely not present in my "before" photos. I understand there are poultice solutions which might get it out, but also might etch the counter top. Not sure I want to try that. There are also large black stains (dye or ink?) on one section of hardwood floor, which seem to have penetrated into the wood and are impervious to cleaning attempts. It's an old floor whose finish has plenty of ancient scratches, but these marks are conspicuous.

So, MetaFilter, how would you approach the assessment of this kind of damage as a landlord? It's important to me to be fair, but also not to be a pushover.

Also, in case it matters (and I think it does), this tenant is doing well financially, and whatever I decide will not cause them hardship.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl to Work & Money (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Their finances don't really come into play here; it's about the damage to your property.

I would have someone independent give you quotes for repairs/replacements, have them submit those quotes to you in writing, and send your previous tenant an itemized list (including those same quotes) along with the reduced deposit, and a letter spelling out clearly (1) what the damage was, and (2) how much you have retained to cover it. You should also send along before/after photos.

*Also, the dark black stains in the floor may be water damage from a potted plant. Include the cost of refinishing/replacing that section of flooring in your quotes.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:22 PM on August 6, 2018 [7 favorites]

This FAQ on deposit returns from the Seattle Dept of Construction and Inspections may be helpful to you.
posted by epj at 9:31 PM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Stone and wood are both porous. You are responsible to keep the floors finished and sealed + notify the tenant in the lease about maintaining the granite countertops, including how often to apply sealant and which liquids (usually acids like lemon juice) are especially harmful for the exact type of countertops you have.

As described, the damage to the floors and countertops sound like normal wear and tear, even without the special countertop instructions in the lease.

You should check the laws for your jurisdiction, but in general and as you describe it... (a) the floors need to be refinished (usually by law every 10 years, check your jurisdiction) and you seem unaware the countertops require regular maintenance, either way both damages seem firmly "wear & tear" type repairs.

You can always try to charge for the damage, but if your tenant disputes the charges in small claims court you probably wouldn't prevail. Check your local laws and call the relevant .gov landlord tenant helpline to double check.
posted by jbenben at 10:14 PM on August 6, 2018 [11 favorites]

You don't say how much the deposit is. Bit if it's a few hundred bucks, they forfeit it now. That's what it's for.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:14 PM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I disagree that this is normal wear and tear.

Generally, you can establish cost by the cost to replace, and then discount by the time you'd already gotten to use it. Say for floors, you'd expect to replace them in 20 years, and have had 10 years of use already. If the damage would lead you to replace the entire floor, you'd charge them for half of it.

It might be easier to get estimates for replacing a section of floor, and a section of the granite.
posted by Dashy at 10:25 PM on August 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Assuming for the sake of argument here that you gave the tenant a move-in checklist that said something like "no stains on countertop", and properly notified them of where the deposit was being held, and will be getting their deposit or statement of costs within the 21 days required, so you are legally allowed to retain any of the deposit:

In order to withhold any of it you need a statement outlining why you have held each dollar amount. If you think the tenant won't care and won't argue no matter what, then you could just itemize it as something like "$100 - reduced value of kitchen countertop". If you think they will care, then you need to get professional quotes to itemize with.

As to whether it's wear and tear or not, I have never used a granite countertop and don't know what could cause the stain you mention. It certainly sounds like it could be caused by failing to clean it regularly and you could hold it for that, but if it turns out that putting a hot dish on the granite caused it, that might turn into "normal wear and tear" because people do put hot things down in the kitchen. When you get in a professional to estimate repair/replacement cost, you should also get their opinion on how it was caused.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:49 PM on August 6, 2018

OP - the landlord and tenant laws for your jurisdiction specify the process (like providing notice and receipts) for withholding $$ for repairs from the deposit. Usually it requires actual repair receipts, not guestimating or making up an amount for depreciation. In my jurisdiction I must perform the repair and provide a copy of the vendor invoice. Check with your jurisdiction. Usually there is a .gov helpline. Look it up and call them.

I also want to clarify that stone countertops require regular maintenance and instructions specific to the type of stone. Folks falsely assume stone countertops are indestructible - they are not. OP, if you did not indicate care instructions in the lease about the counters (and especially if you did not know this care info yourself ) ethically you should get a professional opinion on whether your stains are legally wear and tear.

You describe floors that are past due for professional maintenance, check the laws in your jurisdiction on genuine hardwood floors in rental units. Is the varnish or polyurethane worn off the floors in many spots? If so, the stain you describe is nearly unavoidable. If the floors were recently sealed, get a professional estimate, perform the repair, and deduct the repair amount from the deposit.

The law is usually pretty clear. Letting you know that your expectation around porous surfaces like wood floors and stone countertops for rental units sounds unreasonable in my professional experience and under the law in my jurisdiction. You sound like you want to do the right thing. The right thing is to follow the law. Get familiar with landlord tenant laws in your jurisdiction and keep up with regular maintenance. You can't go wrong with that.
posted by jbenben at 12:16 AM on August 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

There are also large black stains (dye or ink?) on one section of hardwood floor, which seem to have penetrated into the wood and are impervious to cleaning attempts. It's an old floor whose finish has plenty of ancient scratches, but these marks are conspicuous.

I agree with the earlier poster that these are likely water stains (which often appear black on wood floors). These can happen either on floors where the finish is old and worn, or on floors with a natural oil finish (instead of a hard polyurethane) even when it's brand-new (as I discovered when I knocked over a water bottle immediately after having my floors refinished).

A refinishing company should be able to tell you whether that section can be refinished or needs to be replaced (I've seen pretty bad water stains that could just be sanded out) and give you an estimate. However, if I were your tenant, I'd probably try to dispute the charges because I do think this is borderline normal wear-and-tear, it may be partly due to the worn finish, it causes no harm other than the aesthetic, and it is pretty normal for old wood floors to accumulate water stains here and there (in every building I've rented in with radiator heat there are usually remnants of old water stains around the radiators where they've leaked at some point).
posted by enn at 3:55 AM on August 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm pretty anti-nickle-and-diming tenants for normal wear and tear, but I have to disagree that large dark stains on either counters or floors are necessarily normal wear and tear. (I'd say it depends on the definition of "large.") I've lived in apartments with granite countertops for the last 5 years and also disagree that it's a "special" surface, and hardwood floors sure as hell aren't - both are bog standard for any new build or recently (last 10 years) rehabbed apartment in my city. The granite is the cheapest stuff you can get from Home Depot, but it's still granite.

I've never left large dark stains on either a countertop or a hardwood floor, and my current apartment has original 1890s (refinished) hardwood and I live with pets. I think it's fair to get estimates for repair and proceed accordingly. The floor can probably be refinished. It's hard to say what's reasonable to charge without knowing what the actual fix might cost - it may be that you eat some of the cost yourself, or it may be that their deposit covers it, or it may be that the repair is so expensive you decide it's not worth fixing and you don't charge them.
posted by misskaz at 4:18 AM on August 7, 2018 [14 favorites]

Not all granite countertops need to be treated with kid gloves. Most types of granite don't need to be sealed more than once, if ever. OP, to see if your countertops are especially porous, try this water test. If you have the first scenario, you may have unwittingly put your tenants at a disadvantage if the counters weren't properly sealed the first time and annually thereafter.

You don't say how long your tenants were in the house. Was it a year? The damage doesn't seem normal to me for a year of tenancy. Five years? Ten years? It sort of depends on how long they were there. But I'll also second misskaz in that I've never left dark stains of any kind in my past renting phase of life, nor in my current home that I've owned for over 20 years.

I think you need to look at the laws of your jurisdiction before you bill your previous tenants for the damage/repair.
posted by cooker girl at 5:42 AM on August 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

But some damage can't be easily fixed.

Are you actually going to fix the damage? That's not clear from your question. If you don't plan to use the sums withheld to make the repairs for which you withheld the sums, you should make sure you're legally entitled to do so.

This seems to be a really specific legal question, so it would be worth it to look into the law of your jurisdiction. Also not a bad idea to speak to a lawyer if your research doesn't provide clear answers. In fact, if you plan to be landlord for quite a while, speaking to a lawyer now could be a smart investment.
posted by kapers at 7:57 AM on August 7, 2018

I’ve been a tenant for over ten years now, always in units with wood floors, and yeah depending on the size of the stains this does not sound like normal wear and tear to me.

Normal wear and tear = small scratches, loss of polish, scuffs, small dings. Gigantic water stains that permanently discolor the floor? Nah. Puddles of water on wood floors is not part of normal tenanting.

Although another factor I’d consider is how long the tenant has been in the space. Normal wear and tear for 1 year could look very different from 7 or 15 years. If they’ve been there for many years they get more leeway for this kind of thing in my opinion.
posted by forkisbetter at 8:55 AM on August 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

Gouges in the walls are normal wear and tear. I don't know about legally, but ethically, I don't think you should keep any deposit funds that you aren't using for repairs. In other words, you should only withhold some of the deposit if you've actually spent it on getting these things repairs. Your former tenant might ask for receipts.
posted by purple_bird at 9:17 AM on August 7, 2018

I'm late for thread-sitting! Clarifications:
  • There was a signed move-in check list, and the damage deposit has been held as prescribed by law and will be returned before the legal deadline.
  • The tenant lived there for one year
  • This damage definitely happened during that one year (it's not on the move-in list, and pre-move-in photos clearly show the areas in question, undamaged)
  • There are scuffs and scratches and dings that I'm writing off as normal wear and tear, but IMHO this particular damage goes beyond.
  • The damage deposit is $3000 (in this market, for this property, this is typical)
The premise is that repairing the damage would cost so much that it doesn't make sense to do it. E.g., replacing the entire counter for $10K just to get rid of a stain would be unreasonable. I am separately following that assumption up with estimates from natural stone and wood floor experts, but let's take it as axiomatic for this discussion.

So I had expected to take some amount (hundreds?) to compensate and coming up with that number was what this question was about. Answers here are making me rethink that (including the legality), so thanks.
That leaves me with two unfortunate options: (1) eat the damage, charge tenant nothing, or (2) repair the damage at expense that exceeds the deposit and take the whole thing. I don't like either of those options, and the tenant definitely isn't going to like (2). I'm going to try harder to just get these buffed out or something.

Regarding porous surfaces and sealing: Yes, neither surface has been recently sealed/finished. But also, these stains are egregious. Think "somebody spilled dark liquid and let it sit for a good long while". This had been a rental property for ~10 years before I owned it, and there is nothing else remotely like these stains. I don't think sealing would have prevented it. Whether or not the care of granite counters (wipe up spills immediately) warrants special contractual instructions or is common sense is an interesting question.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:08 AM on August 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the update.

Quick story: a significant stain where liquid soap spilled and went unnoticed for 20 min, soaking into a floor in need of refinishing, eventually faded on its own over a number of years - much to my surprise. You would probably have judged the floor finish to be FINE at the time of the spill, to have enough protection on it. To this day the finish looks nice if you don't have reasonable experience to really judge. Plus, there are a ton of fancy cleaning products that make hardwood floors look in better shape than they are in terms of the condition of the finish. Higher end cleaning products may have masked the need to have the floors in your question refinished.

Anyway... It's possible to have a professional jig saw out your stained floor board and replace it, but that might ultimately not be required. We don't know yet. However, you are mistaken that the condition of the floor finish is not related to the stain. Around 10 years is when you have to start being careful if the original finish was only 2 coats, instead of a more robust 3 or 4 coats. Most contractors do 2 coats unless the customer requests and pays for more coats. If this job was not done while you owned the property, you kinda don't know how long the original finish was engineered for. It really sounds like you're at the point it needs to be redone.

Your former tenant sounds accident prone, ABSOLUTELY! Sadly, the condition of the finish upon move-in is a significant factor here. The good news is there are a bajillion cool ways to fix or hide problems in wood floors now or when you go to refinish them. Spot fixes, like jigging out the effected boards, are better suited to broken wood or extensive termite damage, without pics I'm hoping this is not required.

Ask your tenant how the stain occurred. Armed with the cause you will be able to proceed.

You might consider refinishing the floors now or in the future and charging (with an estimate or receipt provided to the tenant from your vendor) if there is any extra charge for mitigating that spot.

See if you can find out what substance caused the stain.

Re: the countertops... I know some stone can be prone to stains and need regular care. I can't speak to your granite, but similar to the floors, you will very likely be able to mitigate the stain depending on what caused it without replacing the counters. Do you have the receipts from the job on file? Can you call the installer or at least correctly identify exactly what type of granite you have? If so, you can get professional advice or search up solutions online.

Both of these stains are common for rentals and usually don't require thousand$ in repairs. Pics and/or another question centered on how to perform the repairs might be your next step.

Usually owners don't have floor refinishers fix a small floor stain, ditto have the granite guys come back to fix a counter stain. Usually owners get advice and fix it on their own or have a handyman do it, paying for the repairs out of the deposit and supplying the receipts to the tenant with the remainder of the deposit.

One caution: some handymen are excellent, some may make the problem worse with a DIY solution. If you hire someone to fix one or both stains, be sure your research whatever process they might apply.

I have not seen your stains, but I can't imagine it would cost more than $500 total to have a handyman do it. It depends on the cause of the stains, obviously, but I'm telling you just kinda off hand what I guess would be the total based on my experience and your description.

(If I have not convinced you to refinish your floors before re-renting the house, let me do that now. At least 3 coats of the final finish. It's worth it.)
posted by jbenben at 12:36 PM on August 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Whoops! Considering the market you are in, $800 to $1200 for a handyman if the required repairs turn out to be minor. *fingers crossed*
posted by jbenben at 12:48 PM on August 7, 2018

Think "somebody spilled dark liquid and let it sit for a good long while".

Since I haven't seen the stains, I could be wrong, but I don't think that's necessarily true, even if the stain is dark. Google images of cooking oil stains on granite. They appear dark. I would bet that's what you're dealing with. And if the granite was not sealed, it didn't necessarily have to be more than a few minutes before it was cleaned for it to soak in.

As an experiment, let some water sit on the counter. How long does it take to soak in? That's the timeframe in which you're expecting a tenant to be on top of cleaning in the midst of cooking.

My last apartment had granite countertops, same stone in kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen countertops had been sealed, and we didn’t have issues with staining. The bathroom countertops had not been sealed. Water splashed on the surface left dark stains (temporary, as they evaporated in ~6 hours). Once, I spilled an oil based soap on the countertop. Even though I wiped it up within minutes, it left a permanent stain. I was able to minimize it with a baking soda poultice, applied a couple of times over the course of a week. But you could still see it if you knew where to look.
posted by Kriesa at 6:49 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a follow up, both issues were able to be fixed at a total cost of $450, so my premise turned out to be incorrect.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:02 PM on September 6, 2018

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