Being a landlord is stressful and challenging at times. The move-out inspection and subsequent security deposit disbursement even more so. You may have had wonderful experiences with a tenant that always paid on time. You may have baked them apple pie for the holidays and sent birthday cards to their children.
However, when they move out and it comes time to assess the condition of the property (and return the deposit), that is all water under the bridge. Fights over security deposits is a “favorite” in small-claim courts throughout the country. Fights can and do get personal and in the end it is about being right – not over getting the $200 that one originally was arguing about.
So, lets assume your client had a dog, your hardwood floors “looked fine” before they moved in, and the floors are now full off small tiny claw-scratches throughout. You want to deduct money to refinish the floors (about $2/sqft if they can indeed be refinished) and the tenant says the floors were that way. They say they will take you to court if you don’t give them the whole deposit. They did note “some scratches on floor” on the move-in sheet from 2 years ago and also say you should have expected some normal wear and tear – especially since you allowed a 80 lbs dog to begin with.
So, what do you do? As a landlord this is going to be hard to prove unless you can get pictures of the scratches which are evidently from the dog (pattern of the paw – 3-4 scratches in tandem). Your pictures will also need to show that the scratches are all around the house and the move in sheet will hopefully not say that there were scratches in some rooms where there are scratches now. Also, if you have excellent pictures clearly showing the floors without scratches from before they moved in you would strengthen your case.
If you are going to fight this and they are threatening to sue, you do need to get an attorney right now. This might scare them off from going to court altogether. However, this will not be cheap for you and it will be stressful and you will end up paying as much money probably as the deposit. Judges and courts are unpredictable and a lot depends upon the procedure followed (notices etc) and the evidence submitted – which is why you need an attorney.
Also – it may be unreasonable to charge them the replacement cost of the entire hardwood floor for scratches that the dog made. Keep in mind that a judge will be looking at normal wear and tear and some scratches from an 80lb dog that you permitted to live in the home might appear to some judges to be normal wear and tear. So, at most, you could charge them a fee for the damage, but how much, how do you determine it? Hard to say …
As an attorney told us recently based on a recent real-world security deposit case: “Nothing a lawyer likes better than a client with principles and money.” So, swallow your pride and try to work it out – going to court will not make anyone happy in the end and will likely cost you more money.