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Property Management 101: Dealing with Unauthorized Tenant Alterations

Staunton Tenant Using a Drill With His Dog Watching Single-family Staunton rental home leases often include a clause that prohibits tenants from altering or remodeling the property without authorization. However, tenants will sometimes go ahead and make unauthorized changes anyway. When this happens, landlords and property owners need to be able to handle the situation professionally and in compliance with local laws. Here are some tips to help you manage unauthorized tenant alterations if your tenant has or wants to make their own changes.

Tenant Alterations

There might be times when a tenant will alter their rental home without permission from their landlord or property owner. Even when your lease agreement prohibits it. There can be also times when a tenant just wants to try to repair or fix worn or broken features in the rental home. But in other cases, they want to customize the property in more permanent ways.

One of the most common ways a tenant makes unauthorized changes is by painting one or more interior walls. While some property owners may see this as a free paint job –especially if it is done well– the real problem is that not all tenants do a good job or the paint color they have chosen makes your rental property harder to rent to your next tenant. Whether or not you like what your tenant did, you need to be able to handle your tenant if you discover they had made alterations without your permission.

Repairs vs Improvements

Before approaching a tenant about unauthorized alterations, you must know the difference between repairs and improvements. Generally speaking, repairs are done to keep a property in good operating condition. On the other hand, an improvement is work that adds to the property’s value, extends the life of the property, or adapts the property in some way.

Let’s say you have not acted on requested repairs and your tenant decides to take matters into their own hands. That is a very different scenario than if you find out your tenant has dug up the entire backyard and planted a vegetable garden. One keeps the property in a livable condition, the other significantly alters the intended use of the property. However, not all alterations are as clear-cut, which is why it’s good to ask more questions before taking any steps to address the situation.

Fixtures and Property Condition

One of the biggest legal questions a judge will ask is if the alteration is permanently attached to the property or not. Establishing this helps as anything that your tenant does that is permanent is usually considered a fixture and cannot be removed. Alterations like these become an automatic part of the property — unless you don’t want them to. Most lease documents state that it is the tenant’s responsibility to restore the property to the condition it was when they started living there. This means they are legally and financially responsible for changing it back to the way it was before.

Essential Lease Clauses

Enforcing a lease clause in court is only effective if you have the proper language in your lease. While preparing your lease documents, make sure you include clauses that explain when and what type of improvements are allowed and the consequences for unauthorized “improvement” or “repair” that devalues the property.

You could state in your lease that your tenant forfeits all or part of their security deposit to cover the cost needed to restore the property to its original condition. Another statement you can include in your lease is that if you decide to keep any changes your tenant makes, they must leave any fixtures they’ve added behind.

If a dispute arises, having clear lease language and good documentation of all your communications with the tenant can increase the likelihood of you winning your case. If the matter gets brought up to court, the judge will consider both the tenant’s intentions and the changes made. This will help the judge determine if the alteration will be a fixture you get to keep or not.


It can be a real challenge handling tenants who decide to make unauthorized changes to a rental property. That is why having a professional Staunton property management company do it for you can be an asset. Contact us online or call to learn how we help rental property owners with everything from drafting lease documents to property maintenance.

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