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Property Management 101: Dealing with Unauthorized Tenant Alterations

South Burlington Tenant Using a Drill With His Dog Watching Single-family South Burlington 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. In cases like that, landlords and property owners need to know how to professionally handle the situation according to local laws. If your tenant decides to make their own changes, here are some ways you can navigate unauthorized tenant alterations.

Tenant Alterations

There might be times when a tenant will alter their rental home without permission from their landlord or property owner. Even though your lease agreement says otherwise. The tenant may also just want to try repairing or fixing worn-out 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. You need to know what to do if you discover that your tenant has made unauthorized alterations, regardless of whether you like what your tenant has done or not.

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 case is very different than if you find that your tenant has dug up the entire backyard to plant a vegetable garden. One is maintaining the property in a livable condition, the other one significantly changes the intended use of the property. You have to remember that not all alterations are as clear-cut, which is why you have to ask a few more questions before you take steps to address the situation.

Fixtures and Property Condition

One of the biggest legal questions a judge will ask is whether or not the alteration is permanently attached to the property. Establishing this helps as anything that your tenant does that is permanent is usually considered a fixture and cannot be removed. These kinds of alterations automatically become part of the property, unless you don’t want them to be. In most cases, a lease document states that it’s the tenant’s responsibility to restore the property to its initial state. If they did make any changes, they are legally and financially responsible for changing it back.

Essential Lease Clauses

Enforcing a lease clause in court is only effective if you have the proper language in your lease. When preparing your lease documents, be sure to include clauses that explain the type of improvements allowed and what could happen if an 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.

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 does get to court, the judge will typically consider both the tenant’s intentions and the nature of the changes and also determine if the alteration is a fixture you get to keep or not.


It can be a challenge to handle tenants who go ahead and make unauthorized changes to a rental property. That is why having a professional South Burlington 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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