I have debated whether or not to even write this post. However, my "So You Think You Want to Be a Landlord" post, has been one of my most popular posts this summer, and several people that I know in real life, have also told me that they used the information. I feel a responsibility to tell my story and pass along the very expensive lessons that I have learned.
We live in Texas, but rent a property in Maryland and hadn't seen it for the past 3 years. The new renters only saw online pictures before signing a lease. I had hired a handy-man to check-out the old renters, but he had a family emergency and wasn't able to check on the house until the morning the new renters arrived.
This is when the nightmare began.
The new renters called me crying and furious saying that my house was trashed and looked nothing like the pictures I had posted online. Worried, I would lose the new renters, I booked a flight for the next day to deal with the situation.
I was so hoping the new renters were exaggerating. Sadly, they were not. My home was destroyed. EVERYTHING was broken, stained, drawn on and filthy. EVERYTHING.
I sent the new, very nice and understanding renters, to a hotel, and got to work. The next 5 days, I worked my butt off, cried, and wrote checks (just shy of $14K). My low-point was having a complete and total sobbing emotional ugly break-down in the carpet aisle of Lowe's. Amazingly, they didn't call the psych ward, but instead took me back to their offices to calm down and order new carpet. The high-point was when a friend and her husband came to my rescue. They were absolute lifesavers and I couldn't have gotten the house back into shape without them (or without all their tools they let me borrow). It's always nice to find nice people when you are in the middle of a bad situation.
Since the damage totaled about 6 times the deposit,I searched the internet for some help how to recover some of the money. Google failed me and I couldn't find any good advice online. I talked to a few realtors and my smart lawyer friend Alicia. Luckily being military, we have access to free legal advice at the JAG office. We put all their advice together and wrote a 37 page letter detailing the damage.
We organized the damage by room. We would start with a picture, then would describe the damage, and then add a detailed list of expenses to repair the damage. We attached all receipts as proof of expenses. We also added specific clauses in the lease that showed they were responsible for damage.
For example, here's what we wrote up for the oven:
4. APPLIANCES: The Owner will provide the following appliances and allow the Lessee to use them: oven with range, dishwasher, refrigerator and garbage disposal. The Lessee assumes responsibility for all damage caused to the appliances beyond normal wear and tear.
Replace cooktop -Even after cleaning, the cooktop is scratched, discolored, and there is a gouged in the lower right burner.
The JAG lawyer told us it would be best if we sent it as a certified letter, but we didn't have a forwarding address, so we were forced to send it as an e-mail. The JAG lawyer also suggested if we didn't get a response, to have my husband call them in 30 days (she wisely suggested that I would be too emotional to conduct a civil conversation). If we still didn't get a response, then we should file a claim in small claims court. Because they were military, we could have also involved his commander. Luckily we didn't need to seek any further legal action, because the old tenants immediately sent us a check.
Here's what I learned:
1. Credit scores and background checks don't tell you anything about how people take care of their homes. In further applications, I will seek references from former landlords.
2. Make sure you have emergency contacts on your rental application. If they fail to leave you a forwarding address, those contacts could help you track them down.
3. Add a specific clause to the lease that they will be charge for any necessary cleaning and painting at $40/ hour. (or whatever rate you feel comfortable with)
4. No matter where in the world you live, be there when tenants move out, and allow a 5 day window between new tenants to deal with any necessary repairs.
5. Do not rent to anyone that will be in you same social circles. It is just awkward for everyone when things go bad. Mutual friends might feel like they are tattling, but also feel guilty about not telling you your house is being destroyed.
6. Carpet: You can't get full replacement value for carpet (no matter how mad you are), a judge isn't going to give you full replacement value for old carpet. I couldn't find any solid legal answer for carpet replacement value, but here's what I came up with: I figured carpet lasts about 10 years. I figured my carpet had another 2-3 years left, so I charged them 25% of the replacement value. To avoid all the guesswork, add a specific clause on the replacement value of the carpet before new tenants move in.
7. There is no such thing as a lease with too many details. Make sure it contains:
- the landscaping must be maintained
-you have right to seek damages beyond the security deposit and they had 30 days to pay those damages
-if you need to go to court, they would be responsible for your court costs
-Walls must be returned to their original condition
-that they had to comply with a cleaning check-out list
-individual appliances are specifically mentioned in the lease
-AC filters need to be changed regularly
-carpets need to be professionally cleaned
-The tenants will be responsible for any further damage caused by failure to promptly report damage.
8. Take lots of pictures before they move in and when they move out.
9. Keep all receipts
10. Stay calm and professional. No matter how much you want to yell and scream and call them names, don't.
11. Relax if you are a landlord-damage to this extent is rare. The JAG office said that they mostly deal with bad landlords and not bad tenants and that ours was by far the worse she'd ever seen.
12. Because of depreciation, we were only allowed to recover about half of our expenses, but we are hoping to write the rest of them off as tax deductions.
I am glad this is all behind us and hopefully none you will never ever have to face this. If it does, just remember to take lots of deep breaths and pictures, and that a carefully timed emotional breakdown in Lowe's leads to amazing customer service.