The Common Law

Security deposits

Summer is a typical time to change rental units in Austin. This week's column addresses common disputes over security deposits.

My lease says my landlord cannot deduct "normal wear and tear" from my security deposit. What is "normal wear and tear"?

Residential leases typically include a "normal or reasonable wear and tear" clause, which allows the tenant to avoid responsibility for some damages to the rental property. Texas law defines "normal wear and tear" as deterioration that results from the intended use of a dwelling, including breaking or malfunction due to age or deteriorated condition. Alternatively, "normal wear and tear" does not include deterioration to the rental property that results from negligence, carelessness, accident, or abuse of the premises by the tenant. From a practical standpoint, this means that the tenant will not be responsible for things that wear out due to normal and expected usage but will be liable for a negligent or careless act that causes damage. For example, a tenant should not be responsible for paying to replace hallway carpet that has become worn due to normal traffic. But, the same tenant could be responsible for paying to replace the carpet if the tenant caused it unnecessary permanent damage (insert any number of possibilities like spilling paint on the carpet, tearing the carpet while moving furniture, etc.).

I almost always get in a fight with my landlord over the security deposit – what can I do to better protect myself?

Protecting your security deposit starts before you ever move in. Read your lease. Ask for an explanation of any lease provision that you don't understand. Before moving in, inspect the rental property and make a detailed list of everything damaged, broken, or malfunctioning. Show the list and corresponding problems to the landlord. If possible, have the landlord sign the list, indicating an understanding of the problems. Keep the list until the end of the lease as a precautionary measure, in the event that the landlord tries to deduct one of these items from the security deposit. Report problems to the landlord as they arise. Meet with the landlord before it's time to move out and discuss the landlord's upcoming inspection of the premises. For example, it's good to understand the landlord's definition of "clean," so that you can leave the rental unit in that condition (security deposit deductions for cleaning expenses are often disputed between landlords and tenants). Also consider walking the rental property with the landlord after you have moved out to address any of the landlord's concerns. Most important, be sure to take photos of the property after you have moved out and cleaned it in the event of a dispute.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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