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Property Management 101: Dealing with Unauthorized Tenant Alterations

Spokane Tenant Using a Drill With His Dog Watching Single-family Spokane rental home leases often include a clause that prohibits tenants from altering or remodeling the property without authorization. Tenants, however, will sometimes just go ahead and make unauthorized changes. 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 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 though your lease agreement says otherwise. Sometimes, the tenant tries to repair or fix 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 this would seem like a free paint job to some property owners, the problem is that not all tenants do a good job of it or the paint color is one that makes your rental property harder to rent out to your 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

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 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. Not all alterations are as clear-cut so you should ask 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. This has to be established because anything permanent that your tenant has done is usually considered a fixture, meaning it cannot be removed. Alterations like these become an automatic part of the property — unless you don’t want them to. In most cases, a lease document states that it’s the tenant’s responsibility to restore the property to its initial state. If there were any changes made, your tenants are legally and financially responsible for changing it back to its initial condition.

Essential Lease Clauses

You can enforce a lease clause in court more effectively 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.

Your lease can state that the tenant forfeits all or part of their security deposit to cover the cost of restoring the property to its original state. 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.

In case of a dispute, clear lease language, good documentation of your communications with the tenant can help you win your case. 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 be a real challenge handling tenants who decide to make unauthorized changes to a rental property. That is why having a professional Spokane 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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