REAL ESTATE

Beyond the Security Deposit: When Can Your Landlord Sue You for Property Damage?

When can your landlord sue you?

When can your landlord sue you?  (Feverpitched)

Sometimes, when you're a renter, things just happen. The kids color on the wall. The pinot noir spills on the beige carpet. Your (totally approved!) shar-pei scratches up the hardwood floors. Do your assorted slip-ups mean your landlord is going to kick you out -- or worse, kick you out and sue you?

It depends.

Your landlord has the legal right to charge you for property damage -- and it could potentially cost you more than just your security deposit. But… on the other hand, landlords are people too (really!), and they might not be sweating the small stuff as much as you think.

To know where you really stand when you move out, you have to understand the scale most landlords use when faced with damages.

Sure, there are some exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, this is what you can expect when you (inevitably) goof up.

When you're free and clear

Unless you're some sort of wizard (or noncorporeal being), wear and tear is going to happen while you're living in your rental. Scuffs on the wall, worn carpet in front of the door, small nail holes -- these minor issues aren't really something your landlord can get too worked up about.

"Landlords can deduct for damage, but not for normal wear and tear," says Brian Davis, landlord and co-founder of SparkRental.

Problem is, the line between "wear and tear" and "damage" can be difficult to draw, leaving you to panic when anything happens.

"As a general rule, damage is caused by one avoidable incident -- whereas normal wear and tear is gradual and unavoidable," Davis says.

When it's only a deduction from the security deposit

Real problems arise when you start costing your landlord money. Again, we're not talking about minor damage, like accidentally scratching the glass on the oven door. But bigger issues that are difficult (and costly) to fix will -- at the very least -- get deducted from your security deposit when you move out.

"If tenants break something in the house, it's damage," says Davis. "If tenants put a hole in the wall, it's damage. If tenants burn holes in the carpet or scratch up the hardwood floors, it's damage."

When you'll get billed extra for damages

If the damages exceed your security deposit, your landlord might have two options, depending on your state's landlord and tenant laws. First, they could sue you. Second, they could send you an itemized bill for the repairs.

This is where things get tricky. If it's a lawsuit, you won't always get sued right away.

"It largely depends on the cost of the suit and how much the landlord thinks he/she will recover," Loving says. In other words, most landlords aren't going to sue you if the cost of repainting and cleaning went $50 or $100 over your security deposit; it just wouldn't be worth it.

For itemized bills, landlords could have to act quickly and carefully to stay within the law.

"Some states give deadlines for landlords to send a bill, but others don't," Loving says.

If you do get a bill, it should come with an itemized list, receipts, estimates, or other documentation that proves the cost. If it doesn't, challenge that too. And if you get a bill months after the fact, don't pay before you know your rights.

"You should check your own state's laws to see whether the landlord missed a deadline to bill you after you vacated," Loving says.

When you'll get sued by your landlord

Of course, if you've cost the landlord a fair share of money, a lawsuit would make more financial sense.

Not sure where the line is?

"Having to replace the hardwood. Bamboo or high-end faux wood floors will almost certainly cost more than the deposit," Davis says. "Plumbing problems can get expensive, too. If tenants put things down drains or toilets that cause backlogs. But usually, it's a combination of many problems."

And if those problems manage to exceed the amount of your security deposit and the cost of filing a suit, plan on spending some time in court.

Your best bet is not to let problems accumulate, but if you do have damages, take photos, and make an inventory of the problems. It might help your case if you end up with a judge trying to estimate the cost of damages.