Renting to pet owners: two cats & thousands of dollars in damages

Jason Van Steenwyk
Jason Van Steenwyk | 7 min. read
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Published on December 8, 2015

Mary, a landlord I know in Portland, Oregon, had a problem: She rented a unit to a lovely young lady who seemed to need a break. Her credit report was in order. Her criminal background check came out clean. Her references checked out. The catch: She had two cats.

Mary was going through a messy divorce and under some pressure to get a renter in quickly and knew more and more tenants are in search of pet-friendly apartments. So, against her better judgment, Mary agreed to the cats. She got a security deposit before move-in, which she thought would be more than enough to cover the modest carpet cleaning she figured the unit would need after the tenant and her cats moved out.

And it would have been—for an ordinary, responsible cat owner. But this was no garden-variety cat owner.

A responsible cat owner would have regularly changed the litter box and promptly cleaned up any “accidents” that occurred. Not this tenant. Apparently, for months, she had let the cats do their business wherever they wanted—on windowsills, on the carpeting, on the bathroom floor, and even on some furniture that came with the unit.

The apartment needed a deep professional cleaning—the carpet was beyond salvaging by normal means. It would have to be replaced. And the out-of-pocket cost? Three or four times the security deposit.

Beyond a Security Deposit, How Can You Protect Against Pet Damages?

First, Mary preserved her options by carefully documenting the damage done by the combination of the cats and the neglect. A digital camera made that easy.

She also held on to the security deposit. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes it isn’t—especially when it comes to common carpet damage, as was the case here. Property owners generally don’t have much of a problem when it comes to paying for the cost of a professional cleaning out of a security deposit. But replacing a carpet is a different story altogether.

The reason? The courts don’t apply a straight-ahead replacement cost to the transaction. They know landlords will have to replace carpet every five to seven years, on average—which roughly matches the IRS depreciation guidelines on carpeting in rental properties.

Enter the concept of fair market value. This term is from the accounting world, but courts have often applied it to property damage disputes. Fair market value isn’t the same as the replacement cost. Instead, it’s the money you have invested in the carpet, minus depreciation. According to the IRS’s MACRS rules, carpeting and furniture used in a residential real estate activity is depreciated over five years.

Landlords set money aside to replace components, including carpeting. Well, that’s the theory behind it, anyway. If the carpet was five years old when the tenant moved in, and the tenant mounts a defense against you, withholding a security deposit or filing a lawsuit for additional damages, you as a landlord may have some challenges. A judge may well look at the case and say, “Well, the carpet was at the end of its useful life, and due to be replaced anyway. You didn’t lose any of the useful life of the carpet.”

If the carpet were two and a half years old, the judge may say, “You can only show damages of half the carpet’s life. For the other half, you’re on your own.”

In Mary’s case, which is still unfolding, it’s unlikely she’ll be able to recover anything from the former tenant anyway. This tenant has disappeared and is unresponsive. As far as Mary knows, her ex-tenant has limited resources anyway, and may have trouble coming up with any amount awarded in a judgment.

Ironically, the landlords who have the greatest cat-related risk to their carpets aren’t the ones with brand-new carpets. If a tenant’s pets force a full carpet replacement, you’ll probably have a cause of action against the tenant for the full replacement cost—or close to it—for a new carpet.

The landlords with the most risk are those with older carpets that are still in great shape! In that case, you’ll want to be extra careful with taking in pets—especially cats or large dogs that inflict a lot of wear and tear.

Can You Have a Blanket “No Pets Allowed” Policy?

Maybe, maybe not. You can say you only allow “service animals,” of course. The catch is that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has interpreted the term “service animals” very broadly, compared to what most people familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act think of.

When it comes to housing, you have to make exceptions not just for traditional service animals, but also for therapeutic pets like “emotional support animals,” where a physician has determined the animal will have a beneficial effect on, say, anxiety, depression, or PTSD.

There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule: Owners of buildings with four units or fewer and who live on the premises are exempt from the requirement to make reasonable accommodations for emotional support or service animals, as are landlords who don’t use a real estate broker to rent the apartment.

Collecting a security deposit is a very good idea. But be careful: You can’t charge people with service animals a higher security deposit or an additional pet fee, because you’ll risk running afoul of federal and state laws barring discrimination against the handicapped.

Also, you’ll need to advertise the same terms to everyone. That doesn’t mean service animal owners aren’t responsible for the costs of repairs like everyone else. But you’ll probably want to inspect your property every now and again to nip any problems in the bud—especially mid-lease, when it’s harder for them to break a lease and move out.

Some other things you can do to protect yourself:

  • Draft a pet addendum to the lease agreement
  • Establish a weight limit
  • Prohibit tenants from caring for other peoples’ pets
  • Grandfather in existing pets if your policy changes
  • Insist on proof of vaccination
  • Insist on renters insurance (especially with some aggressive dog breeds, if you allow them at all)
  • Consider requiring spaying/neutering
  • Prohibit feeding cats outside, which can attract strays to the property

Cat smells are notoriously stubborn and tough to eliminate. They can also creep up with the tenant being unaware of how bad things are. They just get used to it and become unaware of it. A thorough de-catting can cost up to $2,000 out of pocket. Sure, an accountant might try to console you by telling you you’re only out the fair market value of the carpets and other fabrics. But that doesn’t make it feel any better when you write the checks!

How to Remove Cat Urine from a Carpet

Okay, all may not be lost. You might just need some simple deodorizing, versus a full replacement or steam cleaning. You can buy enzyme-activated odor eliminators that are specifically designed for cat urine smells at specialty pet stores, but some property managers I know swear by vinegar/water mixtures, followed by diluted hydrogen peroxide and soap solutions (I like Murphy’s Oil Soap on wood surfaces and subflooring). The soap is fragrant and breaks up oils, while the hydrogen peroxide is an effective germ killer that’s less eye-stinging than bleach.

Additionally, a lot of fresh air, ventilation, and sunlight will help. Some people like ozone generators, too.  You’ll probably want to have the ducts and air vents cleaned at the same time. As for the curtains, well, they may be a lost cause.

Pro-tip: Avoid steam-cleaning carpets until after you’ve eliminated the pet odor as much as possible. The steam and heat could actually lock pet odors into the fiber, according to Petfinder.

And finally, here are some more tips from Apartment Therapy. People love their pets, but as a property manager or homeowner, make sure you love your units by protecting them with airtight leases.

Have any experiences or tips to share about dealing with messy pets? Every property manager has to make decisions about pets, so please leave us a comment below with your story.

Read more on Resident Management
Jason Van Steenwyk

Jason is a freelance writer and editor, as well as an avid fiddler. His articles have been published in a number of real estate publications including Wealth and Retirement Planner and Bankrate.com. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL with his cat, Sasha, and an unknown number of musical instruments.

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