In the rental property industry it is inevitable that Landlords
and Tenants will have disagreements on property condition before and after tenant occupancy. Unfortunately these disagreements can result in the tenant suing a landlord for money back that was withheld from a tenant’s security deposit funds for tenant damage repairs, etc. When this happens ( and it will sooner or later) following Landlord best practices will help ensure the Landlord doesn’t lose the lawsuit, or at least is prepared to prove to the judge why the tenant should not get their money back. In several years of running Real Property Management North Puget Sound in Everett, WA, I have seen how to succeed in court. I have summarized these main lessons learned below in a Top 5 Things To Do To Prepare For When A Tenant Sues You.
1.Move-in Condition Checklist. Perform a thorough move-in condition checklist with the tenants on or before the 1st day of the tenants occupying the rental unit. Be sure to note any and all existing damage on the checklist. Be detail-oriented with the description of existing damage. A good example might be to note, “minor scratches on hardwood floor, 10 inches in front of glass sliding door in dining room”. A poor example would be, “minor scratches on hardwood floor.” The latter description is very general and can get a Landlord in trouble from a tenant who claims that they did not cause scratches at all. Even if there are new scratches elsewhere that were indeed caused by the tenant it would be hard for a Landlord to prove it without a proper description in the beginning. Have the tenant sign the move-in condition report agreeing to what has been noted. A signed move-in condition checklist agreeing to what has been noted at move-in. A signed move-in condition checklist will be essential information to have in small claims court.
2. Property Photo Documentation (Initial). Take lots of photos at the move-in walk-through! Have those available if you find yourself going to small claims court. A picture is worth a thousand words. Need I say more?
3. Property Photo Documentation (After). Within 24-48 hours after the tenants move out of the unit take more photos of the move-out condition! Before and After photos are great evidence and will be very persuasive in court.
4. Written Agreements.If any agreement is ever made between you and your tenant during a tenancy, always, always, always get it in writing. Email is a great tool to use to verify verbal agreements made over the phone or in person. For example say your tenant calls you with a repair request and lets you know that the stove has gone out in the unit. It’s determined that it needs replacement and you agree to pay for a “used” replacement stove, which he/she agrees to., You would then send them an email summarizing the conversation and what was agreed to. Then perform as agreed upon. We had an example where a similar arrangement was agreed upon over the phone with a tenant, I sent email confirmation, but before the owner could acquire the replacement stove, the tenant went out and bought an expensive new stove instead. The tenant then demanded that the owner take the cost of the expensive new stove out of the next month’s rent. Boy was I glad that we documented the phone conversation and followed it up with an email. The written email confirmation will be very helpful in a court setting.
5. Preparing Timelines and Narratives. Before heading to court, prepare a brief timeline of events and a short narration defending your use of tenant deposit for presentation to the judge mediating the suit. A copy of the timeline of events, short narration, copies of supporting email correspondence, any photos or “exhibits” you intend on presenting in court will need to be provided to all parties prior to the court date. This would include a copy given to the judge and a copy mailed to the previous tenant. Check with your local court jurisdiction on how to submit a “bench copy” to the court.
The above provide some lessons learned to prepare for tenants suing you. In short, be proactive and consistently document the property and communication with the tenant. That will go a long way to avoid feeling sorry when you end up explaining your side of the story before a judge.