The discussion about whether something is fair wear and tear or damage is not new. One of the problems is that ‘fair’ is a hard term to pin down. One of the downsides of open ended, non-specific language is that it’s open to interpretation. This means that people are going to have completely different opinions as to what constitutes ‘fair’ or ‘reasonable’ wear and tear. The other, more practical, part of the problem is that what seems ‘fair’ or not will change when there’s a possibility that someone else will have to pay for it.
Property owners have a right to want their property vacated in good condition. However, it’s unreasonable to expect people to use a space for living in without leaving a mark anywhere on it. And even a property that is maintained diligently will suffer from environmental damage like paint fading or flaking. But how much is reasonable, or how much is the tenant’s responsibility?
What is fair wear and tear?
First and foremost, the definition of fair wear and tear may vary slightly depending on which part of Australia you live in. The Queensland Residential Tenancies Authority states:
Normal use and ageing may affect the condition of a rental property over time. At the end of a tenancy the tenant must return the property to the same condition it was in at the start of the tenancy. Fair wear and tear should be considered when assessing the condition of the property.
This means that the property should be returned in the same condition it was rented out in, but with consideration for normal wear and tear. So while the house should be fundamentally the same, it’s unlikely to be in exactly the same condition. This may mean that carpet and/or curtains have faded, or that flooring may be more worn than before.
The key point made by the RTA is that wear and tear is typically caused through unintentional action or through the normal incident of a tenant’s occupation. How much is reasonable will depend on how long the tenant has been in the property. There’s going to be a lot of difference between what a house looks like after a six-month tenancy (and what’s reasonable) compared to a ten-year tenancy.
Damage through intentional action or neglect
The corollary to this idea of fair wear and tear is that damage caused outside of the ‘normal incident of a tenant’s occupation’ is likely to be considered damage. This can refer to deliberate or accidental damage. For example, someone punching a wall is obviously damage, but so is someone slipping over in the house and accidentally putting their fist through the wall. Holes in walls are not considered normal wear and tear (although you could possibly argue a door handle on an unstoppered door might be).
Also, if damage that is the result of tenant neglect occurs to the property (i.e. there’s a problem that they know about but they don’t tell you about), the responsibility may be on them for not disclosing the problem, although that will be hard to prove. Saying that a pipe broke because the house is old may absolve the tenant of responsibility, but not if they wait three months before telling the property manager. That three months of damage is due to neglect, not wear and tear.
Ultimately, the question is whether it’s possible that the damage occurred as a result of ‘normal’ use of the property. What a tenant might argue as wear and tear is possibly going to be different to a landlord, and sometimes that will be due to factors that you couldn’t have known without living in the house yourself.
At the end of the tenancy, accusations about damage and whether it’s reasonable or not (or whether it was there at the start of the tenancy) can get ugly. The best way to head these off is to do a thorough property inspection with detailed photos and descriptions before a new tenant moves in. An experienced property manager will do this automatically, as well as ensure that photos are identifiable after the fact (so you know which wall you’re looking at!). Remembering that each party has a different point of view will help make discussions about blame, and financial responsibility, much more civilised.