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Property Management 101: Dealing with Unauthorized Tenant Alterations

Columbia Tenant Using a Drill With His Dog Watching Single-family Columbia rental home leases often include a clause that prohibits tenants from altering or remodeling the property without authorization. Some tenants, however, will go ahead and make unauthorized changes anyway. As a landlord and property owner, you need to know how to handle the situation according to local laws if that happens. Here are some ideas that will help you should your tenant decide to make unauthorized tenant alterations.

Tenant Alterations

At times, a tenant will alter their rental home without asking permission from their landlord or property owner. Even if the lease agreement specifically says not to. 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. For some property owners, this becomes a free paint job –especially if it is done well– but the actual problem is that not all tenants do a good job or the paint color they choose is one that makes it harder for you to rent out your rental property to the 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

It is important to know the difference between repairs and improvements when you approach a tenant about unauthorized alterations. Generally speaking, repairs are done to keep a property in good operating condition. An improvement, on the other hand, is work that adds value to the property, prolongs the life, or adapts the property in some way.

Suppose you have not acted on any requested repairs and your tenant takes matters into their own hands. That would be very different from a tenant who digs up the entire backyard to plant 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. This is important because if your tenant does anything permanent, it is usually considered a fixture and cannot be removed. Alterations like these automatically become part of the property, that is, unless you don’t want them to. In most cases, your lease documents must state that it’s the tenant’s responsibility to restore the property to how it was before. 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. When you prepare your lease documents, make sure to include clauses that detail what type of improvements are permitted and what happens if any unauthorized “improvement” or repair devalues the property.

You can state in your lease that your tenant will forfeit all or part of their security deposit to cover the cost of restoring the property back 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.

Having clear lease language and good documentation of your communications with your tenant will be very helpful in case a dispute arises. If the matter ends up in court, the judge will consider both the tenant’s intentions as well as the changes made, and decide if the alteration is a fixture you get to keep or not.


It can really be a challenge to handle tenants who make unauthorized changes to a rental property. That is why having a professional Columbia 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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