Why landlord is really the one to blame
Q: I am a landlord and have a rental house where the tenant has destroyed my landscaping through their negligence and failure to properly water the yard. In a recent article you mentioned that if a landlord has proof of the condition of the property prior to move-in of the tenant that the tenant should be held responsible for any damage to the property. Does this apply to the grass, shrubs and trees in the yard?
I ask because my management company is refusing to charge the tenant for the damage, as some of the plants that died were in planter boxes and they claim that the shrubs need to be planted and rooted in the soil for it to be a valid security-deposit deduction. The manager told me my claim would not hold up in court. Is that correct?
A: I am not aware of any special limitations or requirements to consider before making proper deductions from a security deposit for landscaping, other than the tenant should not be charged if plant material died through no fault of his or her own. This would fall under the general concept that the tenant should not be held responsible for "normal wear and tear."
Plant material has a finite life span, so to charge a tenant for ground cover that died when it had merely exceeded its expected life would not be appropriate.
It would have been very helpful if part of your documentation of the condition of the property at the time the tenant moved in included digital photos or a videotape of the complete exterior grounds of the home. I think you should meet with the tenant and walk the property, as some of the dead plants may be the tenant’s fault and some may not. Ultimately, you may not agree with the tenant, so be prepared to justify any deductions if the matter ends up in small claims court.
I think your question begs for a discussion of how to handle the landscaping needs of a rental property when you have expensive or very lush grounds. The first issue to decide is who was responsible for maintaining the yard under the terms of the rental agreement or lease.
If the tenant was responsible, then the tenant should have taken reasonable steps to maintain the plant material. However, that would not typically include anything beyond basic watering, mowing the grass, minor trimming and pulling weeds. Many tenants will propose that they will take care of the yard but rarely have I seen a situation where the tenant offers "full-service" landscaping.
To properly maintain lush grounds would require the tenant at a minimum to routinely water, fertilize to specific plant or tree requirements as needed, amend the soil if necessary, perform minor and major pruning, adjust the timing of sprinklers seasonally and even repair the irrigation system, if necessary. How many tenants are qualified to do all of this? And even if they are qualified, how many have the time to do so?
I always recommend that the landlord provide full-service landscaping for rental properties where the plants and trees and landscaping can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. You can tell the tenant it is included in the rent and — even if market conditions don’t really allow you to adjust the rent any higher — you are still better served by protecting your investment.
Also, you may want to consider paying for some or all of the water, as many tenants are faced with increasing water bills and one of the largest uses of water in most rental properties that have yards is outside.
Unfortunately, you have suffered a major loss that even the tenant’s entire security deposit won’t begin to cover. Next time, be sure to retain complete control of the landscaping and irrigation, as that is the only way you can protect yourself from losing your valuable plants and lawn.
This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and "Property Management Kit for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."
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