Litigation related to the normal wear and tear of rental properties: what can tenants and landlords do?

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SINGAPORE: After seven years in Singapore, Ms. Ngo was excited to seize new opportunities in Canada, with her husband and baby.

But problems with their landlord arose when they ended their two-year lease for a rental apartment in Singapore.

From their two-month S $ 3,600 deposit, their landlord withheld about S $ 2,000 for damage to the apartment, along with the cost of the deep cleaning and pro-rated agent fees.

Some of the damage cited included sink crack lines, tile discoloration and a stain on the kitchen top.

According to Ms Ngo, who declined to reveal her full name, the owner also pointed out the need to replace the toilet bowl seat, the hood bulb and repair the toilet lighting.

“I was very shocked to find that when we handed over the unit, (the owner) was very demanding,” she told CNA by phone from Canada.

She and her husband dispute many of the issues as “wear and tear”.

According to real estate agents and lawyers, normal wear and tear refers to damage to property caused by normal use of the premises.

This can include furniture worn around the edges, scratches and marks on the parquet, fading colors on curtains in sunlight, as well as oil and smoke stains in a range hood.

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“A landlord cannot deduct the cost of these things from the deposit as it would be unreasonable to expect the property to be in exactly the same condition at the end of the tenancy as at the start,” said Ms Victoria Lee Soo Pin, a lawyer at IRB Law LLP.

However, issues such as a burnt or badly stained carpet, a lost key or a ceiling stain caused by an overflow from a tub or sink can be deducted from the deposit, she added.

If a dining chair that is part of a set is “irreparably broken,” the owner could claim the cost of replacing just one chair, Ms. Lee said. But the owner cannot claim the cost of the whole.

RESPONSIBILITIES OF TENANTS AND LESSORS

IRB Law LLP handles approximately 50 to 60 cases per month involving landlords and tenants, Ms. Lee said.

She added that common issues relate to “actual damage” to rental property, as well as landlords refusing to return security deposits for issues such as broken items and odors in the house.

“In fact, we are seeing more cases of real damage where equipment breaks down, like the air conditioner, washing machine, television, big ticket items during the rental,” she said.

Another common subject of litigation is cleaning, as it can be a “subjective problem,” she added. “Some cases of normal wear and tear can be improved with a good cleaning. “

Ms Lee noted that rental contracts typically state that a property should be cleaned to professional standards when a tenant leaves. While this standard may vary depending on the original condition of the property, it usually means cleaning to a “very high standard,” she said.

When returning a property, tenants must present an itemized cleaner bill to prove they cleaned the house, Ms. Lee said.

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Sometimes tenants misunderstand their responsibilities, Ms. Lee said. For example, tenants are usually responsible for replacing light bulbs when they leave.

As for landlords, some believe they can use the tenant’s deposit to make general repairs.

“The deposit belongs to the tenant and must be returned to the tenant at the end of the rental. Any deduction from rental deposits should be discussed and agreed upon by both parties, ”she said.

HOW TENANTS AND LANDLESSORS CAN PROTECT THEM

According to Ms. Ngo, she had inspected the house before moving in, but “not so much” because she had come without any furniture.

“In the past, I usually had problems with the owner’s furniture. I never had a problem with the wall, the toilet sink or anything like that… so I didn’t pay much attention since the unit arrived without any furniture, ”she said. at CNA.

She didn’t take a lot of pictures either, as they were “nothing obvious” or were not things she usually paid attention to. As such, she does not have photos of the items or issues that she is disputing with her owner.

Disputes over normal wear and tear are a “common problem,” said Lim Yong Hock, key general manager of Propnex. “This can be a common problem, especially if they weren’t very specific at the time of transfer.”

There are two reports at the time of surrender, said KnightFrank real estate agent Alvin Yeo. The condition report should be as descriptive as possible and accompanied by pictures.

When tenants move in, it is best that they take lots of photos and send them to the landlord to make sure they recognize the condition.

For any incident that occurs halfway through the tenancy, tenants should report it immediately, he added.

It’s also important that tenants, landlords and agents set expectations for any potential damage, Mr. Yeo said.

He noted, for example, a common dispute over walls that have scuff marks near electrical switches. Some homeowners may expect tenants to repaint the entire wall or even the entire house.

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“So it’s best to clarify this at the start of the rental agreement – the walls, do you expect me to repaint the whole place, or can I give it back to you with a few scuffs?” Mr. Yeo said. .

He gave another example of parquet. While it is normal for some flaws to appear after a while, some homeowners might expect the floor to be in “showroom condition,” he said.

The chemical cleaning of air conditioning units could be another source of litigation.

“So maybe it’s good that everyone comes up with a checklist and say these are all potential pitfalls, we better clarify,” he said.

The rental agreement should outline the main issues so that tenants are fully informed, Ms. Lee said. “Tenants need to be clear about what they can and cannot do. “

A good real estate agent should also warn tenants in advance of what constitutes abuse, she added.

RLE OF THE AGENT

When Ms Ngo and her husband received the charges for the damage, they tried to explain the situation to the officer, saying some materials were more susceptible to stains.

She said that although they tried to negotiate to share some of the costs, especially for usury, the owner was unwilling to change his position.

Ms. Ngo then told the agent that she was hiring a third party for mediation and that they would file a complaint with the Small Claims Court.

“From that point on, he just stopped all communication with us. He didn’t read any of our WhatsApp messages, which was our only means of communication. When we tried to call via WhatsApp he didn’t answer, ”she said.

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According to Mr. Lim of Propnex, agents are not required to resolve disputes between tenants and landlords.

“The agent’s duty, according to the CEA (Council of Estate Agents), ends after the premises are handed over to the parties,” he said, adding that such disputes are usually resolved without the agent.

However, agents can step in when tenants or landlords write to authorities to complain about the agent, he noted.

In Mr. Yeo’s experience, agents “usually end up like) the punching bag,” and they will have to manage expectations on both sides.

WHAT TO DO DURING A LITIGATION?

When tenants and landlords are in a dispute, they can go to Small Claims Court or try mediation, Yeo said.

Agents have no way of helping resolve disputes, Lim said, adding that agents usually refer parties to an independent mediator.

There are several factors renters should consider if they disagree with their landlord’s assessment of property damage, Ms. Lee said.

This includes the age and condition of the property at the start of the tenancy, the length of a tenancy or lease, and the number of people living in the property.

For example, wear and tear during a five-year rental will be more than a six-month period, and a family of five with young children will inflict more wear and tear than a young professional couple working most of the day. , she said.

If there is any damage to the property, the landlord should see if it is possible to repair or clean the item first, rather than getting rid of the item to force the tenant to pay for a new one.

In cases where an item needs to be replaced, the owner should not replace the item with a better one, because it is not supposed to make a profit, Ms. Lee said.

“It is up to the owner to prove that the tenant damaged the property by improper use. This could involve getting contractors to check for misuse and give a quote to repair the damage, ”she added.

“If the parties are still in conflict, see if it is possible to have a third party such as the real estate agent who leased the unit to act as an intermediary.”


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