Classically, a security deposit is designed to ensure that the rental premises are returned to the landlord in roughly the same condition that they were leased out, minus “reasonable wear and tear”. That phrase often confuses landlords – the tendency is to think that all tenant-caused “damage” (or dirt) is the proper province of a security deposit OR that the security deposit can be used to help defray the costs of “turning” a unit.
That is not the case. “Reasonable wear and tear” includes deterioration of the rental premises that occurs during normal conditions. For example, paint may fade, electrical switches may wear out and break, pull strings on blinds may fray or break, carpet and tile may wear down. These things happen even if the tenant cleans regularly and cares for the premises reasonably. “Damage”, on the other hand, occurs from “unreasonable use” and can include extreme build up of dirt or grime, stains on the carpets, broken windows, scorch marks on granite. As a general rule, the longer the length of the tenancy, the more “wear and tear” is reasonable. I find that if landlords look at the security deposit as a damage deposit they are less inclined to make questionable deductions.
Making questionable deductions from a security deposit can be a costly mistake: as noted above, many tenants will sue in small claims to recoup their deposit. The burden of proof is on the landlord to establish that damages exceed “reasonable wear and tear”. Proper documentation, including a move-in inspection and photographs, are essential. As per Alabama law, you must also send the tenant a letter within 35 days of the “end” of the tenancy itemizing any deductions.
Also: routine “cleaning fees” or “carpet cleaning fees” that are always assessed is not a good practice. Each rental premises should be evaluated individually before you begin deducting from the deposit.