Can landlords make tenants pay for carpet cleaning; either by demanding that tenants hire a professional carpet cleaner or the landlord hiring a cleaner and compelling the tenants to pay?

This is a straightforward question, but one for which there is no simple answer. As with most conflicts between landlords and tenants, finding a middle ground that satisfies both renters and property owners is hard.

Both sides will insist on the correctness of their respective positions. Each side will have a valid point, depending on how you view the arguments. The best way to resolve these types of issues is to look at what the law says.

How to assign responsibility for carpet cleaning within a rental home is a fairly common problem and states have established protocols for dealing with this issue. Although there is no general framework guiding the laws of states on this matter, most state laws follow this pattern:

  • The landlord is to ensure that the carpet is clean and in good condition at the time of tenant move-in. This is part of the owner’s responsibility to provide a habitable dwelling.
  • The tenant has a duty, while living in the home, to care for the carpet. Upon leaving, the tenant is expected to return the carpet to its original condition, at move-in, except for damage caused by natural wear and tear.
  • Landlords should not concern themselves with the steps a tenant takes to clean the carpet, while the tenant lives in the home. The landlord cannot make the tenant hire a professional cleaner and the landlord cannot hire a cleaner and make the tenant pay. The tenant lives in the home and may choose any cleaning method they want.
  • The cost of cleaning and caring for the carpet, before the tenant arrives and after the tenant leaves, is part of the cost a landlord incurs for renting out the property.
  • The landlord may only charge a tenant for damage if the damage is beyond what is caused by natural wear and tear.

These guidelines raise three important questions:

  1. How do landlords determine the state of a carpet at the time a tenant moves in?
  2. What is natural wear and tear on a carpet and how is it different from other kinds of damage? 
  3. What happens when a tenant fails to return the carpet to its original condition?

How to determine the original state of the carpet

Before a tenant moves in, landlords and tenants should do a complete walkthrough of the home, noting the condition of the carpet. Everything is important; scratching, fading, and rips. These details should be recorded via photos, videos, and notes and included in the lease agreement.

The agreement should require the tenant to return the carpet to the condition it was when they rented the home. The record obtained at the time of tenant move-in provides objective evidence of the condition of the carpet. The tenant’s signature on the rental agreement confirms it.

Ideally, when the tenant is ready to leave the home, the walkthrough should be repeated and all details recorded just like the first time. The earlier record of the condition of the carpet now serves as the baseline for comparing the state of the carpet at tenant move-out versus its condition at tenant move-in.

What is natural wear and tear on a carpet?

damaged carpet
Any damage that happens as the natural consequence of having items – shoes, luggage, etc – constantly moving across the surface of a carpet is normal. Natural wear and tear is usually most evident in high traffic areas or where soil is transported from outside onto the carpet.

Signs of natural wear and tear include gentle wearing away in high-traffic areas, fading in areas exposed to sunlight, and wearing or fading as a result of age. The following types of damage are not normal wear and tear: food or oil stains, rips, and burns in areas not close to the furnace.

To determine if something is natural wear and tear or unusual damage, the best way is to look at how long it takes a professional carpet cleaner to clean the carpet and how much it costs. Professional carpet cleaners will take longer and charge more to handle unusual damage.

When a tenant fails to clean the carpet or damages it

A Carpet View
If a tenant leaves without cleaning the carpet, as stated in the lease agreement, can the landlord make the tenant pay by withholding all or part of the security deposit? In most states, landlords cannot do this, even if it is a condition in the lease. They must use other means to address the problem.

The only basis for a landlord to force a tenant to pay for carpet cleaning is when the tenant has clearly damaged the carpet in the rental. In such a case, the landlord has the right to withhold the security deposit or pursue the tenant by any legal means available.