Tenant painted original woodwork

20 Replies

Our tenant, without permission, painted original shellac woodwork in her apartment. We are restorers and this was original untouched woodwork in a 90 year old house.

We are of course furious; she is non repentant but willing to try to fix it before she moves out.

That's the last thing we want as the best options for restoring it will involve using a heat gun.

Can I charge her for this? What might be reasonable? She says she will take us to court to get all her deposit but that really doesn't worry me.

Any suggestions or similar experiences?

I have had tenants do that, and I was furious too.  I did a quick Google search and confirmed that murdering the tenants was still illegal. 

The answer to your question is two parts.  First what did you lease say?  Are tenants allowed to paint the house without your explicit permission?  My tenants are not allowed to alter anything without my written authorization.  

The second part is your state law. Some states suck for landlords, other states are great for us.  I live in Pennsylvania where we are pretty good.  In my state, I could keep their security deposit with no problem, I could probably also win a law suit against them but collecting is another matter.  If you are in a place like NY or CA, you might just be screwed. 

Do not allow her to fix the mess, she will make it 10X worse.

Keep the deposit, take her to court even if you can not collect. She may wish to get her life on track some day and decide to settle.

Your biggest issue is the fact that you yourself are in the business of restoring. If you want to legitimately collect you would need to hire another contractor to do the work which will cost you much more money. Brick and a hard place. If you do the work it saves money but places your cost claim at risk, if you hire someone you are out of pocket, have a better chance of winning in court but may never collect.

Difficult choices.

If you take matters into your own hands and decide to run her down in the street make sure she is dead and not just injured. You stand a better chance of getting off.

@Kathy Hacmac

I'm glad you're not going to let her go at it with a heat gun. But of course she's willing to "fix" it, she sees nothing wrong with what she did, and she probably feels it looks much better now. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.

With any luck, this is water-based paint and she didn't sand the old finish, so a heat gun will lift it off nicely.

I would see how the removal and refinishing goes before charging her. It may be a snap. Then again, it may be the pits. You'll have pictures if it's the pits to back you up when you try to charge her.

John and Thomas, 

Yes, I agree with the feelings of anger - but I also appreciated the humor. 

I really had to work to keep my husband away from her - it still is a very uneasy relationship - he is the one really doing the woodwork restoration and he is still furious!

I did talk with her and she, of course, has experience and has renovated and will just strip it, stain it and, what? Shellac? Really? Why?

Yes, Jim, she absolutely thinks it is better now. When the photos of her 'surprise' hit my phone, I almost fainted. It is hard for me to comprehend why she thought she could do this.

Yes, totally non-repentant. And, yes, no way I am letting her anywhere near it with a heat gun.

Max, based on everything I have read and experience so far, stripping would be a very last resort. We have become very experienced with the heat gun and, Jim, I appreciate your vote of confidence. I am hoping you are correct.

I read another post from someone who has the ultimate fixer-upper as a tenant. in addition to that, this one wants everything HER color, and HER style. Without consulting us, she removed the up/down shades we put up because they were the wrong color!

My next agreement will be worded very carefully and they will have to check with up before they change the toilet paper roll!!!!! We did allow painting but were specific about where (NOT in this location) and how much (she totally killed that budget and expected full payment!!!).

We are in Minnesota which isn't the best or the worst. Tenants have a lot of power but I have emails. Still, going to court is a pain and there is no way for her to rectify. She is patching and returning everything else to move in condition (why do people have to hang stuff on every wall!!??) so that is really more important at this time.

I will just be much more aware as I rent again.

Thank you all for your comments!

Whatever ends up happening with the woodwork, the biggest takeaway here to me is this: some homes are not that suitable as rentals. You can never rely on tenants to not do things that might irreversibly alter something in the home. Yes, you can charge them, and you can sue them, but you can't recover 100-year old woodwork original to the home if someone decides to tear it down and replace it with new plastic foam board molding. To combat this, I simply pass on homes that I don't feel will be suitable for a transient population. 

Do not let her make the repair; she is likely to make it worse. 

I also would not wait until she moves out and apply the deposit. Require her to fix it now. If you wait and use the deposit, you won't have much left for anything else.

She was in the wrong of coarse but why on earth would you rent out something like this with aged historic wood that you deeply cared about . I wouldn’t decorate the rooms with Ming dynasty vases either or rare paintings on the walls. It was common sense for her not to paint woodwork but it was also common sense for you not to have invaluable stuff like that in a rental that you know will be used and abused .

@Kathy Hacmac

We completely given up on methylene chloride strippers for any sort of tight work. You need SCBA gear to work with it safely. Those paint strippers will eat right through organic vapor catridges in a respirator, and they really don't work all that well anyway without multiple, repeated applications.

After the heat gun, you might want to try the Citristrip product on trouble spots. It works well if you use it according to the directions (plastic scrapers a must with longer soak times). You will have to touch up the finish on those areas.

But @JD Martin is right. If the restoration of the woodwork was that important to you, the house wasn't really worth renting.

@Kathy Hacmac MN law is on your side on this provided your lease required your permission.  I'm a little worried you gave her permission to paint.  I hope your agreement, location, and cost were all in writing.  I recommend not to allow tenants to do the painting.  Any time its come up I have told them I would have to hire a professional to do the work.

@Kathy Hacmac I would have a professional company give you an estimate on restoration. Make it clear to her that she is NOT to attempt remedy, just like she was NOT allows to do it in the first place. The reason you need a professional (3rd party) estimate is to support your security deposit withholding. You also want photos from before she moved in and current photos. The photos are necessary to prove the damage. If she takes you to court, between photos and estimates, you should prevail.

Let me see, Dennis. House was built, as a duplex, in 1925. Rented continuously. Never an issue.

I guess the law of averages says we were due to have an issue - and as relative new landlords, we didn't know enough to foresee this.

It IS a rental duplex. Why are we restoring? Yes, it is important to us because it was built by a relative - and someday it will belong to our son.

I don't think the fact that it has nice woodwork should preclude us from renting. I do think we will be especially brutal in our approach to new renters.  Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork.

I want to say again, to all who helped and provided options and suggestions, THANK YOU>!

Tenants should just never be given permission to paint anything IMO. Because most of them really can't paint worth a hoot.

I will tell two (horror) stories of rental units my mother owned where tenants painted.

The first is the tenant who was an artist, so one would presume this tenant had some painting skills. And she sort of did - but then there's the matter of taste, which is where she was clearly lacking. All wood trim was painted BLACK by her in her apartment. Her other color choice was blue, sort of a bright blue color. This link is sort of like the color:


So the kitchen cabinets and the white refrigerator ended up that kind of bright blue when that tenant was done. After that, mom did not give tenants permission to paint.

But then there were these college students who didn't care about rules like that, and they "painted" - I have to put that word into quotes, because when you see what they did, calling that painting would offend the members of that trade. I have posted the pictures elsewhere on BP, so see below.

Here is a link to the post with the "high quality" - NOT! - tenant paint job photos:


When I used the word "high" to describe the quality of the paint job, I was referring to the state of inebriation of the tenant painter :)

Reading that entire thread is a good learning activity; my initial comments on that thread start on page 4, and the person I was attempting to educate posted after that to defend allowing tenants to paint! So I have a couple of additional "corrective" posts there ...

So just say "NO", and repeat saying that whenever a tenant wants to undertake any alterations. You are always better off that way.

@Steve Babiak

I have a purple kitchen I'll be working on later this year or next year. With metal cabinets, foam-roller painted in Rustoleum, dark gray. The original heavy quartersawn oak trim was also replaced with cheap finger-jointed pine molding, also painted in oil-based gray. The purple paint on the walls is over what looks like four layers of wallpaper overlaying bare plaster from the 1920s. Even the ceiling is wallpapered.

I came into this from renovating masonry apartments in Greece. There are completely different expectation there about how long paint jobs are supposed to last or what they're supposed to look like, because they cost so much to lay down. The idea of allowing a tenant to paint any surface in my apartments is just crazy -- they'll screw up everything I've done to bulletproof the paint jobs and allow easy touchup and colormatching.

Honestly she is a great painter. Better than me. But she also pushes every boundary. 

New potential tenants are pleased with her colors. As am I.

My issue was painting woodwork, not painting.

My issue was how or how not to handle unauthorized painting.

I have learned much. 

@Kathy Hacmac

I don't allow any sort of painting.

I've put together my apartments so that all the walls will need is a quick washdown with TSP, hole and crack repair, some touch-up primer (maybe), and another coat of colormatched Glidden Premium to come back to where they were before I rented out the place.

The brick duplex that I'm currently renovating was custom-built in 1923 for an heiress of a prominent local family in the historic borough of Munhall, PA, just outside the city limits of Pittsburgh. The style is Prairie school/Arts and Crafts, 20+ windows for each of the two apartments, which each measure 1760 ft2 with an additional  880ft2 of storage space for each apartment in the basement. At the time this duplex was built, Homestead, PA, just down the hill, had a population density comparable to that of the island of Manhattan today. This is really how the fashionable 1% lived in Pittsburgh's glory years, above both the world most technologically advanced steelmill down by the river and fifteen streets of squalid tenements for the workers marching up Homestead's hill from the train tracks.

The trim of this duplex is all quartersawn shellacked white oak, plain foursquare work, obviously all shaped on-site by a master trim carpenter and his apprentices. The inside corners of the floor trim of this duplex are neither mitered nor coped. They are rabbeted in the very best tradition of foursquare work, and each of the 4 and 5-inch quartersawn trim boards has a wide single groove dadoed into its back (modern production trim boards have 2 or 3 narrow grooves, it's cheaper to do but doesn't work for trim quite as well). The dining room of each unit is the largest room, and measures approximately 16 x 20. There  are no joints in any of the floor trim boards. Every tried to buy a 5-inch 20-foot rough-cut white oak board?

The shellac lasted until the 1990s. At that point, someone decided to try to just spread some kind of penetrating oil over all the windows and doors as a quick-fix. Since of course, there was nowhere for the oil to penetrate, the oil beaded up on the boards and left these hideous bean-shaped black bumps on the wood. The only way to refinish the wood now would be to scrape it all, sand it all, and then finish it again. But how practical would that be in a rental? And there is of course plenty of damage to the trim from the last 80 years of living and bad management.

So instead, I've scraped it all, sanded it all, planed many of the windowsills down to good wood, puttied/caulked/bondoed everywhere, and coated all the trim in two coats of Kilz Original, and then two coats of Glidden Premium semi-gloss. I plan on operating this place as a rental for twenty years. All finishes in a rental should be durable yet easily repairable and replaceable. While this was once a luxury property, it now sits at the edge of a heroin ghetto. It didn't make sense to restore the moldings throughout all 3500 ft2 of the place just for tenants to come along and ruin them. So I covered everything up.

I know your pain, and your husband's, Kathy. I wish you the best of luck in restoring your woodwork.

My 2 pennys...

Let her admit she did it in email, text, let her admit she didn't get your approval, let her "attempt" dix her illegal mistake while supervising and recording it.

Then when she fails tell her you are firing her and keeping her deposit due to professional level of recourse needed to fix her unauthorized work. then send her letter outlining all above why you cant refund her deposit.

Our state its 30 days or less to send letter.

I’ve seen horrid painting work by tenants when I go apartment hunting .i just shake my head in disgust most times . I’ll never let a tenant paint anything after seeing some of their handiwork .  If you let them paint you are really asking for it . The average tenant doesn’t think like us and for some reason have absolutely no style or class about the colors they use or the manor of a quality job . They will slop paint on windows cabinets floors ceiling ..Every room will be a different color and those colors won’t be earth tones with white trim! You can expect fluorescent green walls with orange trim bright purple walls and the random hand sketched street scene or 8 foot portrait of Jimi Hendrix on the wall if they really tie one in and feel creative . I saw one triplex where the guy put in brand new light oak laminate floor and he let the tenants paint .. they painted the walls a dark crimson color and never used a drop cloths they splattered it all over the floors around the perimeter of every wall . It hardened up and ruined his floors . Looked completely horrible 

@Kathy Hacmac

@Steve Babiak

Got some shots from the aforementioned botched woodwork in the duplex to share:

First of all, this is what should have been done to update the shellacked woodwork to a more tenant-appropriate, harder clear finish. You scrape, strip, and sand down to bare wood and refinish. OK, the color is annoying, but reddish cherry stain was big in the 80s and 90s.

But this is what happened for the bulk of the woodwork. The new finish was spread over insufficiently sanded woodwork. There was nowhere for the new finish to penetrate, so it beaded up.

Another botched piece.

And this is what happens when the woodwork wasn't even cleaned before the new finish goes on. All the filth on the shellac dissolved and clumped together to create this hideous look.

The only thing to do with the mess was to scrape, sand with 100, get a good thick Kilz Original oil-based primer coat, sand evenly with 220 grit, and paint (Glidden Premium semigloss thinned +/- 25% with Floetrol, 2 brushed coats). Since I also had to replace the existing windows and I'll never be able to rent this place for big bucks in the location it's in, it made sense to go with all-white everything. Again, each of the apartments has over 20 windows in it. All that wood: windows, doorways, floor trim is quartersawn white oak under the paint. Only viable solution, and I know that people who love old houses too much and know too much about them shouldn't be in real estate, but it still breaks my heart to do this.