Trying to collect damages from a tenant can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By charging the tenant for repairs for damage above and beyond normal wear and tear, you can keep your cash flow positive and turn the property over to a new tenant quicker.
In this article, we’ll explain how a letter from a landlord to a tenant for repairs works, what to include in the letter, and how to avoid renting to tenants who may cause damages.
When to Send a Letter to Tenants for Repairs
If you are keeping part or all of the tenant’s security deposit to pay for damage they caused, you will need to send them a letter. The period for returning a security deposit varies based on state landlord-tenant laws but is usually between 14 to 60 days.
It’s important to send the letter before the deadline for returning a tenant’s security deposit expires. In some states, landlords may be liable to the tenant for damages of two or three times the amount of the security deposit, even if the tenant destroyed the property.
Some common repairs that landlords can ask their tenants to pay:
- Broken pipes and flooding caused by flushing things you’ve asked the tenant not to (like tampons, paper towels, etc.)
- Broken appliances (microwave, oven, refrigerator, etc.) from mistreatment
- Broken doors and windows caused by the tenant
- Broken fixtures
- Damages caused by pets
Information to Have Before Sending a Letter for Repairs
It probably seems unfair that a landlord could end up paying the tenant for damages the tenant caused, but the law is the law. To prevent this from happening you’ll need to make sure to follow the legal process and ensure your letter contains the right information.
1. Review your lease and the law
Most states allow landlords to keep part or all of the tenant’s security deposit to pay for damages beyond normal wear and tear. Your lease agreement with the tenant should have a section that describes the deadline for returning the security deposit, and reasons the deposit may not be returned (either full or in part).
If you want to double-check that your lease with the tenant complies with your local laws, the legal resource website Nolo.com publishes a list of landlord-tenant laws by state.
Your local property manager is likely already using a good lease agreement for the state your property is located in. The LawDepot and eForms are two good websites to review if you want to see what a standard residential lease agreement looks like for your state.
2. Document specific damages
The letter you send to the tenant for repairs should document specific damages caused by the tenant, other than normal wear and tear.
A good way to think about “specific damages” is to ask yourself if someone other than you or the tenant could read the letter and understand the damages without asking questions.
Examples of specific damage descriptions include:
- Hole in the interior wall behind the door of bedroom #2 approximately 3 inches in circumference.
- Missing stove burners at the top right and bottom left of the kitchen stove.
- Dent approximately 3 feet by 4 feet on the interior bottom right of the garage door.
You should also take pictures or videos of the damages you refer to in your letter and include a floor plan to identify rooms. If you think back to when you bought your rental property, that’s exactly what your home inspector did.
As part of the report, they included images showing open maintenance items such as a leaky pipe under the kitchen sink, places where termites had eaten the wood or an exterior water faucet without a backflow device. You should document damages caused by the tenant in a similar way.
3. Itemize repair costs
One of the advantages of having a good local property management team is that they can move quickly to get quotes on repairs. Time is of the essence because you only have a certain window of time to return the tenant’s security deposit or notify the tenant of money being withheld from their deposit.
When possible, attach copies of the receipts showing the repairs have already been made and paid for. Doing this helps you to preempt any argument the tenant might try to make about the cost of repairs. Fixing the damage is already a foregone conclusion, and you have proof from your handyman or contractor to back the repair costs up.
4. Check your tenant’s renters insurance
Many landlords require their tenants to obtain renter’s insurance, which is an insurance policy similar to a landlord’s homeowners insurance.
Tenant renters insurance names the landlord as an additional insured and covers items such as the cost of replacing the tenant’s personal belongings and negligent destruction of the tenant or landlord’s property.
If your tenant has renters insurance, you can ask the tenant to initiate a claim so that you can be paid directly for damages covered by the tenant’s insurance policy.
Sample Repair Request Letter
A letter from the landlord to the tenant for repairs should include:
- Landlord or property manager name
- Property address
- Amount of security deposit being withheld
- Description of damages and cost of repairs
- Indication of security deposit balance being returned and how paid
Do the Repairs Cost More Than the Security Deposit?
If damages caused by the tenant exceed the security deposit amount, begin by sending the tenant a demand letter for the balance due. The format of a demand letter landlords send to tenants is similar to the letter to tenants for damages.
Be sure to specifically describe the damages caused by the tenant and the cost of repairs, include repair receipts if possible, and a deadline for the tenant to remit the balance due for repairs.
You should send the demand letter for damages by certified mail, return receipt requested. Sending a demand letter is a precursor to taking the tenant to court and can be used as evidence if you need to sue the tenant for damages.
You may want to consider hiring a real estate attorney who specializes in residential landlord-tenant disputes if the cost of the damages is large enough. Tenants who don’t pay attention to a demand letter from a landlord may sit up and take notice when a lawyer contacts the tenant on your behalf.
How to Avoid Renting to Tenants Who Cause Damage
It’s much easier to avoid having to ask the tenant to pay for damages when you thoroughly screen prospective tenants. That doesn’t mean that you won’t get a bad tenant every now and then, but the odds of renting to a tenant who causes damages are greatly reduced.
Here are four steps to follow to screen tenants and help avoid damages to your rental property:
- Use a standard rental application from your property manager or local real estate association.
- Run a credit report and review the tenant’s payment history, debt to income ratios, and reports of any liens or garnishments.
- Order a background check to discover any criminal history the tenant has.
- Obtain a rental history report that shows where, when, and from who the tenant has rented over the last several years.
With these reports in hand, contact current and previous employers, and current and past landlords, to verify that the information on the tenant’s rental application matches the information on the tenant reports. If there’s a discrepancy, ask the tenant for an explanation.
Setting the right expectations with the tenant is also crucial, and it begins the day they move in.
Always conduct a move-in inspection with the tenant present to document existing damages and the condition of the property when the tenant takes possession. Let the tenant know that when – and if – they move out, you’ll bring the move-in report along for the final walk-through when the tenant leaves.
Review the lease agreement a final time with the tenant, pointing out the sections of the lease that describe the landlord and tenant responsibilities, the time frame for returning the security deposit, and reasons why part or all of the security deposit could be withheld.
If the tenant gets defensive, explain to them that the move-in inspection and lease review are part of your standard operating procedure and that you’re confident that they will return the property to you in as good a condition as when they moved in.
Sending a letter from the landlord to the tenant for repairs is just one of the many parts of investing in rental property. By thoroughly documenting the damage caused by the tenant, most state landlord-tenant laws allow you to use the tenant’s security deposit to pay for the cost of repairs.
Using the tenant’s money instead of going out of pocket helps keep your cash flow positive and your rental property investment profitable.