There’s a common belief that the world is filled with conniving landlords that plot to keep all of a tenant’s security deposit, or “professional” tenants that have figured out how to navigate the legal system to live rent-free, but that perception doesn’t quite match reality. It’s like someone who’s worried about getting harmed by Zika while simultaneously texting, driving, and smoking.
Yes, there are some horrendous landlords and tenants out there, but my worldview is that the majority of people are good and have good intentions. Two good people can find themselves in a bad situation when miscommunication and wrong expectations get in the way. This is a much more common root cause than landlords or tenants who intentionally try to rip others off.
One of the most common disputes happens after move-out when the security deposit is returned. The landlord hopes to recover any losses from damage to the rental, while the tenant hopes to get as much of the security deposit back as possible. Hm. Two different interests. Meanwhile, the true condition of the rental is recorded on a piece of paper with nothing more than check marks and incomplete sentences — subjective and open to interpretation. This is tinder waiting for a spark.
Make it objective
In an age where everyone and their bratty niece own a cellphone with video recording quality better than dedicated camcorders from a decade ago, why aren’t we using it to record a rental’s condition? If I have to walk through a property to inspect everything anyway, I’d much rather do it just holding my phone instead of 8 sheets of paper with endless little boxes to check off.
Not only is video a more pleasant way to go, it’s objective. Human memory is flawed and subject to biases and selective memory over time. With video evidence, there’s so much less to argue over and escalate.
At AskMinka.com, I’ve made it a standard practice for our real estate agents to record property condition on video when they prepare to move in a new tenant. There’s no excuse not to. Washington State requires a written and signed move-in report if a security deposit will be taken (RCW 59.18.260), so we created a move-in form that’s designed around having a video record. Everything fits on one page. If you‘d like to use it for your own rental, we have a PDF template here you can use for free.
Get on the same page
Getting it on video can defuse one source of conflict, but another one lurks: Landlords are allowed to apply security deposit towards damage that go beyond “normal wear and tear.” First, many landlords don’t know that and incorrectly assume they can use the last tenant’s security deposit to get everything in shape for re-renting. Second, the term “normal wear and tear” is vague and open to interpretation.
To relieve both of these, I recommend having just a 5-minute conversation about what each party thinks “normal wear and tear” means before signing a lease. If you’re a renter and the landlord you’re talking to doesn’t seem to know what it means, or tries to brush you off, that’s a huge red flag. Back away from signing a lease with anyone who can’t seem to get on the same page with you.
In the PDF template for recording move-in condition, I’ve included a page to help guide the conversation. It’s not meant to resolve a dispute that has already happened (you may need a judge for that), but it’s intended to help guide expectations and get everyone on the same page so that a dispute won’t need to happen in the first place.
Some tips on using video move-in reports like a pro:
- Hold your phone in landscape mode when you record. For the love of God.
- Turn appliances on and off as you record to show their working condition. Get close-ups of floor/carpet surfaces and countertops.
- If you couldn’t record the entire rental in a single video, use a free video editing tool like Movie Maker (Windows) or iMovie (Mac) to stitch these together before you upload.
- When you upload these videos to YouTube. Use the “unlisted” privacy option so that you can easily share it with your tenant, but won’t need to worry about strangers stumbling upon it.
Is it guaranteed that you won’t encounter any disputes around move-in/move-out if you follow these suggestions? Of course not. But you reduce so much risk in protecting your assets with little extra effort. Also, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
Best of luck, and leave a comment below or email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’ve found other ways to prevent this type of rental dispute.
Disclaimer: I’m sharing lessons from my personal and professional experience with the best intentions, but keep in mind that I’m neither an attorney nor giving legal advice.