Can Landlords Sue Tenants for Damage to A Rental Property?

Around 34% of the American population currently rents their home. This accounts for 44 million of the 140 million houses stretching across the country. And with many experts predicting US house prices to rise by a further 10% this year alone it’s safe to assume that this number may well increase. With that being the case, conflict is sure to arise. But can landlords sue tenants? We’ll dive into this.

Photo of a couple in conflict
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

The increase in renters (and rent prices) is great news for landlords. The nation’s rental occupancy rate reaches a healthy 97%. New leases see an average rise of around 17%. But with so many families eager to move into their properties many homeowners may be understandably concerned about protecting their investment. 

The most common landlord vs tenant disputes often revolve around maintenance, cleanliness, and missed rental payments, though property damage also ranks highly. The problem with resolving this issue is that tenants’ rights often differ wildly across different states. So to help clear up some of this confusion we’re here to ask, can landlords sue tenants for damage to a rental property?

Can Landlords Charge for Property Damage? 

Regardless of the state, all landlords do have a legal right to charge tenants for property damage. Though for the most part these issues can be resolved using the tenant’s security deposit. However, minor damages due to general wear and tear are to be expected during any rental agreement. This means unavoidable damages like thinned carpets or small scratches on surfaces cannot result in a charge to the tenant.  

Most states will require landlords to provide their tenants with a written notice before deducting funds from their security deposits. This is why carrying out a thorough inspection prior to each rental period is incredibly important. This way, if any serious damages do occur over the course of the contract, landlords will have proof that the property was in good condition prior to the agreement.  

It is worth noting that tenants must sign any inspection checklists prior to their moving in date. This helps to avoid disputes arising in the event of legal action being taken. In essence, it will be the responsibility of the landlord to prove that damages were caused by the tenant when pursuing reimbursement.

What Constitutes Serious Damage? 

If damage to a rental property exceeds the funds within the tenant’s security deposit, or falls outside the realms of general wear and tear, landlords across the states are permitted to seek reimbursement. The definition of serious damage can be somewhat open to interpretation. There are a few key indicators that can help in determining the severity of any particular issue.  

  • How old was the damaged item?  
  • Will fixing the issue requires a small part or an entire replacement?  
  • Will a specialist need to be called to carry out the repairs? 
  • How much did the item originally cost? 
  • How long will the repair take? 

If the answers to these questions indicate a lengthy and/or costly repair, landlords will be within their rights to charge tenants to rectify the issue. Payment can be requested in the form of an itemized bill. Or if a dispute arises, the landlord may choose to pursue legal action.  

Variations Across States 

If a landlord does choose to sue their tenant for damage to a property, the finer details will vary to some degree across the states. For example, in Florida, there’s no statutory limit on the amount a landlord can request as a security deposit. The state does clearly define the reasons a landlord is permitted to make deductions to that amount. Each deduction requires a 30-day notice period. 

Landlords operating in New York City may choose to sue for property damage through a small claims court. New York’s small claims courts allow individuals to sue for a maximum monetary value of $10,000. And can only be used to request financial reimbursement, making this an ideal avenue to legally enforce payment for property damage. 

In Kentucky, it can be worth consulting with a real estate expert, as there’s a statute of limitations on property damage that must be complied with to avoid having your lawsuit dismissed. The state also permits tenants to withhold rent if their landlord fails to provide essential services. In some cases, tenants may deduct the cost of repairs from their rent if a landlord fails to respond to requests.  

Summary

To summarize, landlords across the US most certainly have the right to sue tenants for damage to a rental property. The finer details of this process will vary depending on the state in which the legal action takes place.

To ensure a smooth process, it’s advised that landlords regularly take inventory of their properties and their contents. Make sure to secure written confirmation from their tenants that the condition of these elements was good before the rental period began.  

Before pursuing legal action, landlords must check the laws surrounding rental property damage in their particular state. Some locations offer differing levels of protection to tenants which can make suing for damages a little more difficult. Provided that landlords have ample proof that a tenant has caused significant damage to the property, that damage cannot be covered by their security deposit, and any written requests for reimbursement have been ignored, legal action across the states will be permitted.