- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2001

It pays to know your tenant/landlord law if you decide to continue renting instead of buying a home.

With most rentals, the tenant is required to place a security deposit with the landlord as well as the first (and sometimes last) month's rent. This can add up to thousands of dollars and would be worth the renter's time and energy to assure he knows his rights so the security deposit is returned once the lease is over.

Generally, a security deposit is supposed to pay for unpaid rents or charges and repair of tenant-caused damages in excess of normal wear and tear to the property. Most security deposit disputes center around what is "normal wear and tear."

Colorado tenant law faced that head on and defined it as "that deterioration which occurs based upon the use for which the rental unit is intended, without negligence, carelessness, accident, or abuse of the premises or equipment or chattel by the tenant or members of his household or their invitee or guests."

In other words, normal wear and tear might be worn tracking in the carpet, while things outside normal wear and tear would be nail holes in the walls, stains on carpets, and mold on grout.

Other states don't even address a definition and each state's laws differ. Some will define it, others won't. But if we let common sense reign, most people understand what normal wear and tear is and what it isn't.

One landlord I read of recently apparently doesn't understand this path of common sense. He owns only one house. In fact, he hopes to demolish the house standing there now to build his own dream home in the future.

Meanwhile, he rents it out. Being a high-ranking dot-com executive, his dreams were dashed when the technology sector took a hit in the past year. Now he's nickeling and diming the tenants.

When the tenants moved in, they said that some of the flooring in the sunroom was dry rotting and that they feared falling through the floor. The tenant, being a construction foreman, fixed it at cost for the landlord.

In addition, the water heater would frequently send discolored water through the system while the tenants were there. Not being complainers, they mentioned it to him once, but he never got around to replacing it.

They lived with it by running the water till it cleared.

As the time came for them to move, they "broom cleaned" the house per the lease agreement and waited for the return of their $1,000 security deposit. The landlord, however, deducted the cost of a new water heater.

In my opinion, this is not a deductible expense from the security deposit. Real estate investors shouldn't lay the burden of regular maintenance on the shoulders of their tenants. Nevertheless, during the lease negotiation, tenants should find out what the security deposit covers and what portions of it are refundable.

As you move into an apartment or rental house, your best protection of the security deposit is to conduct an extensive walk through, documenting any and all defects — even nail holes in the walls. Note stains on the carpet, chipped paint, water spots under sinks, dripping faucets, age and condition of appliances, etc. Then when you move out, if the landlord deducts for any of the above items, you have ammunition to protect your refund.

If you don't receive a full deposit, what should you do? First, determine what the deduction covered. Look over your lease and see if the landlord had the right to cover that expense with your security deposit. If not, then determine what your rights are via your local or state tenants law.

A good resource is Tenant.net (https://tenant.net/index.html), a site featuring New York and New Jersey tenant rights. The site also has a database of tenants rights information on its front page.

M. Anthony Carr has written about real estate for the past 12 years. Send comments and questions via e-mail (manthonycarr@erols.com).

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