Question: A tenant who just moved into our apartment community has asked if he can repaint his apartment in a different color. He says he is willing to bear the cost. However, as the property supervisor, I am worried about what color the tenant will pick. Do I have to allow it, and if I allow it, who pays to remove the paint when this tenant vacates, if the color is ugly?
Answer: A tenant has a duty to leave a rental unit in the same condition that existed at the time of move-in, minus normal wear and tear. If you are using a proper rental agreement, it should indicate that a tenant may not make modifications to the physical conditions in the rental unit without your permission. This language would give you the absolute right to decide whether to allow the tenant to repaint.
If you don't have language in your agreement requiring permission to modify, you can add the limitation to the rental relationship if it is a month-to-month rental. You can give a month-to-month tenant a 30-day written notice of change of terms, adding this language. Once you establish these terms, you can refuse or approve the color choice, or you can give permission with the express written condition that the tenant must bear the cost of restoring the original paint at the time he vacates.
If the tenant has already painted, or if you have a lease without this limitation that you cannot unilaterally alter, you can still treat the tenant's paint job as an act of damage to the unit for which the tenant will be financially responsible when he vacates. The "wear and tear" rule would not apply here since a harmful modification, whether it is ugly paint or a hole in the wall from mounting a television, constitutes damage to the property, not normal wear and tear.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a mediation service based in Sunnyvale, Calif. To submit a question, go to http://www.housing.org.