Q: What counts as “normal wear and tear”? Do I really have to pay for recaulking the tub for the first time in six years?

A: “Normal wear and tear” (or “ordinary wear and tear”) refers to deterioration in the condition of the landlord’s property that is to be reasonably expected from “normal” use. Many leases require the vacating tenant to leave the premises in “good condition, subject to normal wear and tear.” “Good condition” generally means as good as it was at the start of the tenancy. But the tenant is not required to maintain the premises in precisely as good a condition. That would be unreasonable, since virtually all household items have a limited “useful life,” and therefore deteriorate even with the best of care. Thus the concept of “normal wear and tear” is closely related to the concept of “depreciation.”

Conversely, if any tenant action (or inaction) is inconsistent with “normal use,” and that misuse has damaged the property, the landlord is not required to absorb the cost of repair or replacement. Rather, the tenant must compensate the landlord for property damage beyond normal wear and tear. According to case law, examples of damage due to normal wear and tear include nail holes, minor scratches and marks on the walls or floors, and worn carpet. Examples of damage beyond normal wear and tear include tearing down walls or fixtures without the landlord’s consent, and filth caused by the tenant’s failure to clean.

Regarding bathtub recaulking, sources are somewhat inconsistent as to how often this needs to be done. Still, there are other considerations. The tenant could be responsible if he or she damaged the tub, or failed to adequately clean it, allowing mold to grow. But the tenant should not be held responsible for problems caused by factors outside his or her control. That includes poor caulking materials chosen by the landlord or the lack of proper ventilation (i.e., a fan).

Upon moving in, the tenant should photograph any disrepair with a timestamp and provide copies to the landlord. That should help prevent unfair charges for damage.

If the tenant has caused damage beyond normal wear and tear to an aged item, the tenant should not be charged for an expensive new one. Rather, the tenant should be charged only the difference in the value immediately before and immediately after the damage occurred. If factors outside the tenant’s control contributed to the damage, then the charge should be adjusted accordingly.

The landlord may not use the security deposit to repair or replace items damaged only by normal wear and tear. The District strictly regulates how the landlord must handle tenant security deposits.

This column is for informational purposes only. Contact the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate if you have any questions about a specific dispute with your landlord.

About the Advocate

The D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate is an independent agency of the District government providing legal assistance, policy advocacy, education and outreach services to District renters. Learn more and contact the agency at ota.dc.gov or 202-719-6560. The office says it is the first tenant advocacy voice within any state or city government in the U.S.