It is not often that I get to report good news for landlords, so when the opportunity arises I am especially happy to do so. Today is one of those times. Earlier today the Wisconsin Attorney General issued a formal legal opinion that states that it is legal for a residential landlord in Wisconsin to require an outgoing tenant to pay to have the carpet in the unit professionally cleaned and to include such a provision in the rental agreement.
It is well known that in Wisconsin a residential landlord cannot withhold the costs of having the carpet professionally cleaned from a tenant’s security deposit. Wisconsin Administrative Code, ATCP 134.06(3)(c) states that landlords are prohibited from withholding from a security deposits for “normal wear and tear.” The Note to this administrative code provision states that carpet cleaning is an example of an impermissible basis for withholding a tenant’s security deposit.
What had been unclear until now, is whether or not a landlord could make a tenant pay for the cost to have the carpet professionally cleaned upon vacating and to include such a provision in the rental agreement. I have personally experienced both courts that held that a landlord could charge a tenant for professional carpet cleaning and others that would not. Additionally, some judges and court commissioners felt that including a provision in a residential rental agreement requiring a tenant to pay to have the carpeting professionally cleaned upon vacating renders the rental agreement void.
Wisconsin landlords are now on solid ground in knowing that they can require a tenant to pay to have the carpets professionally cleaned upon vacating and that they can include such a provision in their rental agreement.
The key questions and answers from the formal opinion are set forth below:
QUESTION 1: Based on current law, does routine carpet cleaning at the end of a tenancy fall within the landlord’s duty to keep the premises “in a reasonable state of repair” as prescribed by Wis. Stats. sec. 704.07(2)?
ANSWER: No, a landlord’s duty to keep the premises in a reasonable state of repair does not encompass routine carpet cleaning.
QUESTION 2: Would a provision requiring the tenant to pay for professional carpet cleaning, in the absence of negligence or improper use by the tenant, render a rental agreement void under Wis. Stats. sec. 704.44(8)?
ANSWER: No, because routine carpet cleaning is not a statutorily-imposed obligation of a landlord, assigning this responsibility to a tenant through a contractual provision does not render a rental agreement void.
In its analysis, the Attorney General states that the key issue upon which the answer hinged was whether or not routine carpet cleaning falls under one of the statutorily prescribed obligations of a landlord. If it does, then the law clearly would prevent a landlord from assigning that obligation to a tenant. If not, then a landlord could legally assign the obligation to have the carpets professionally cleaned to a tenant.
Under Wisconsin law a landlord is statutorily required to keep a rental unit in a “reasonable state of repair” and such repairs cannot be assigned to a tenant as a result. Routine carpet cleaning however is not considered to be a “repair” as a repair typically involves fixing something that is broken. A carpet that is dirty and needs to be cleaned is not in need of “repair.”
The AG’s analysis then points out that the landlord-tenant statutes do not assign cleaning responsibilities to either the landlord or the tenant. As such, the parties are free to assign the responsibilities for cleaning in the rental agreement. Which therefore means that a landlord can require a tenant to pay to have the carpets cleaned if it is in the rental agreement.
Please note however, that while the Attorney General’s legal opinion does allow a landlord to charge a tenant for the costs of having the carpets professionally cleaned, it still does NOT allow a landlord to deduct those costs from the tenant’s security deposit (even if you put such a clause in your Nonstandard Rental Provisions). So if the tenant doesn’t pay for the carpet cleaning as agreed to in the rental agreement a landlord’s only recourse will be to sue the ex-tenant for the costs.