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), all that is 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 usually ends up 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 then say they will take you to court if you don’t give them the whole deposit back. 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 specific damage by a specific dog 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. If you do 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 need to get an attorney right away. This may scare the tenants from going to court altogether. However, an attorney will not be cheap (maybe $1000 depending upon the case), 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 – this is why you need an attorney. Still, even if you have all the documentation and proof – you could still loose. Some judges and jurisdictions are very pro tenant.
It may be unreasonable to charge tenants the replacement cost of the entire hardwood floor for scratches that the dog made. Keep in mind that a judge will be looking at wear and tear from an 80lb dog that you permitted to live in the home. Some judges may look at this as 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.” There are some attorneys who can be very helpful at times like these. 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. One of our clients get around this by charging a $250 non-refundable pet fee per pet up front. If there is excessive damage he uses the general deposit to pay for the damage.