My Tenant’s Dog Ate Up My Hardwood!

Being a landlord is stressful and challenging at times. The move-out inspection and subsequent security deposit disbursement even more so. You may have had wonderful experiences with a tenant that always paid on time. You may have baked them apple pie for the holidays and sent birthday cards to their children. However, when they move out and it comes time to assess the condition of the property (and return of the security deposit), all that is water under the bridge.

Fights over the security deposit is a “favorite” in small-claim courts throughout the country. Fights can and do get personal and in the end it usually ends up about “being right” – not over getting the $200 that one originally was arguing about.

So, lets assume your client had a dog, your hardwood floors “looked fine” before they moved in, and the floors are now full off small tiny claw-scratches throughout.

As the landlord, you want to deduct money to refinish the floors (about $2/sqft if they can indeed be refinished) and the tenant says the floors were that way. They then say they will take you to court if you don’t give them the whole deposit back. They did note “some scratches on floor” on the move-in sheet from 2 years ago and also say you should have expected some normal wear and tear – especially since you allowed a 80 lbs dog to begin with.

So, what do you do? As a landlord specific damage by a  specific dog is going to be hard to prove unless you can get pictures of the scratches which are evidently from the dog (pattern of the paw – 3-4 scratches in tandem). Your pictures will need to clearly show the scratches. The move in sheet will hopefully not say that there were scratches in some rooms where there are new scratches now. If you do have excellent pictures clearly showing the floors without scratches from before the tenant moved in you would strengthen your case.

If you are truly planning to take the tenants to court if necessary – and the tenant is threatening to contest – you should probably get an attorney. This may dissuade the  tenants from going to court and may motivate them to work things out.  Regardless, an attorney will not be cheap for either party (maybe $1,000 or more depending on the case.) It will be stressful and can drag out for many months.

Judges and courts are unpredictable and a lot depends upon the procedure followed (security deposit notices etc) and the evidence submitted – this is why you need an attorney. Even if you have all the documentation and proof – you could still loose. Some judges and jurisdictions are very pro tenant.

It is likely unreasonable to charge tenants the replacement cost of the entire hardwood floor for scratches that the dog made. Keep in mind that a judge will be looking at wear and tear from an 80lb dog that you permitted to live in the home. Some judges may look at this as normal wear and tear. So, at most, you could charge them a fee for the damage, but how much, how do you determine it? Hard to say …

I would say that if you do accept a dog you should also accepts some scratches – even scratches in your pristine new wood floor.

An attorney told us recently the following based on a recent real-world security deposit case:

“Nothing a lawyer likes better than a client with principles and money.”

So, swallow your pride and try to work it out – going to court is unlikely to make anyone happy in the end and will likely cost you more money.