First and most importantly, do you have photos of your properties before your tenants moved in? If not you should have, to act as a starting reference. You can’t prove much without these and the PRTB pay most attention to photos. Take photos and attach them to the lease when it’s being signed, have the tenants initial them (along with each page of the lease) and give them a copy.
Secondly did you ask your tenants to send you a snag list of their apartment when they moved in? In our leases we ask all tenants to alert us of any and all snags, whether they want us to repair them or not. We emphasise this when they sign the lease. We tell tenants to treat it in the same way as when they hire a car. This is something that will stand to you in a dispute and will usually end an argument before it starts. If they don’t send this, it can be argued that their premises was in good condition and everything working.
Here are the steps to retaining a deposit when you think a tenant might complain (if you’re retaining a large amount they probably will). This is one of the most contentious parts of property management so read carefully:
- Always picture how you would rationalise a deposit retention to a PRTB adjudicator.
- Only contact tenants by email, not phone, so you have a record of your attempts to resolve the situation and a record of any abuse they might give you.
- Gather your ‘before’ evidence, the photos attached to the lease or snag list. Possibly you have a 3rd party contractor that worked in the premises before they moved in that can act as a witness.
- Get photos of any damage. This is critical. If you can, have the camera time stamp them or even better get a 3rd party contractor to do it so he can verify the date they were taken.
- Get a 3rd party contractor to inspect and do the work so they can act as an independent opinion. Only use 3rd party contractors that are good enough to offer an educated and decisive opinion. If you’re doing the work yourself get someone independent to inspect with you (this is where a management company comes in handy).
- Get an invoice (or quote) and a written explanation from the contractor explaining that, in their experience the damage was caused by the tenant (if it really was caused by the tenant).
- Email the photos to the tenant and ask them how the damage happened. This can sometimes resign the tenant to accepting the expense or once in a while they can give a reasonable response.
- Do not be worried if a tenant starts to threaten! It’s a common response when a bad tenant has been caught out. Just be sure of your facts and refer to step 1.
- Email the tenant to ask for their bank details for the return of the deposit. They’ll get these to you fast. Be sure you don’t miss any expenses, don’t miss your opportunity to cover the damage because we all know the PRTB process is a disgraceful waste of time.
- When deciding on an amount to retain, you can only bill for the replacement of like-for-like and maybe a small bit extra if you are forced to upgrade. For example if a tenant has left an iron burn in the carpet of a small bedroom, it’s not reasonable for the landlord to put up with a small square cut out and replaced so we will usually change the whole carpet. It is also not reasonable for the tenant to pay for the full carpet since the landlord is getting an upgrade to the rest of the room. We bill the tenant for the cost of a small section of the replacement carpet, the callout and a small bit extra for forcing us to pay for the upgrade of the rest of the carpet.
- Check sources of information like this forum for advice. You can also call Threshold and pretend to be a tenant for free advice. Beware because you’re getting opinions only and you still need to make the final decision.
- Refund the balance deposit fast! The tenant is responsible for paying for damages and you are responsible for returning the deposit. We set ourselves a target of returning a deposit within 7 days if we’re keeping some for damages and asap if we’ve genuinely had a good tenant.
- Refund the deposit by electronic transfer (anyone that uses cash or cheques these days is wasting their time). This’ll give you a record of the refund.
- Often a tenant that is about to loose some of their deposit will keep pestering and threatening with solicitors and Threshold and PRTB. Once you’re sure the damage was caused by the tenant and you have all the evidence you need, stop replying to rude emails and stay professional by returning the balance of the deposit fast.
- Do not lose your temper or get dragged into a hot-headed argument but instead present the case to them (all by email so you have a record) as you would to a PRTB adjudicator. As soon as they get advice from anyone reasonable they will be talked out of going further. Use the line ‘Unfortunately I can’t change the rules because of a threat of PRTB but I would encourage you to get advice’.
- Let the tenant do the work from then on.