Monday, September 9, 2013

What To Do When Renters Trash Your House

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.

Clean oven
Replace cooktop -Even after cleaning, the cooktop  is scratched, discolored, and there is a gouged in the lower right burner.
 $ 414.16

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. 


  1. So sorry this happened to you! But also glad to hear you had helps and got your check without going further.
    We think about renting our house, but i would be heartbroken if this happened to the house once we lived and loved...not to mention all the troubles you have to deal with. Maybe renting is not for us :(

    1. It was heartbreaking. Being a landlord isn't for the faint of heart, but still an option if you can't sell a house.

  2. What a heartbreaking situation. But thanks for all the advice, not only as a landlord, but this is useful information if you rent.
    My sister rented a townhouse. It was older, but in good condition. Her daughter fell into a window that was close to the ground, broke the window and had to get stitches. The window wasn't any sort of safety glass. And she had to replace the window and pay for her daughters stitches.
    Good luck with the new renters!

    1. I hadn't thought of things from the renters point of view, but a good lease protects both sides.

      Glad your niece is ok, but now I'm wondering what kind of glass is in my windows:)

  3. Well you just gave me a mild heart attack! We have a house several states away the we rent far nothing this tragic has happened. I for sure will be keep your advice in mind should we ever run into difficulties. I would just like to sell the thing and be done with it, but the market there is terrible!

    1. No heart attacks necessary-from the lack of info I found, I have to imagine my case was pretty extreme. Most people do everything they can to get their deposit back. We'd love nothing more than to sell ours too.

  4. Man, Tara I am so sorry! I'm so impressed with the responsible way you handled the crisis and that you treated your new renters so nicely. My mom is about the head to DC to serve a mission, and needs to rent out her house here. Terrifying! Thanks for the advice.

  5. So glad they came through with the money promptly, even though it is not nearly what you should have gotten. I think you should still follow through with his commander though because that is seriously "conduct unbecoming an officer".

    1. I don't know them, but I would like to think that they are not bad people. I think they probably thought they'd fix everything up before they moved out and just ran out of time.

      For the record, I personally think that leaving a disaster like that is "conduct unbecoming a human being", but I am letting it go and moving on.

  6. Wow...
    I do know them, and I love them, but I didn't spend much time at all at the house, they were mostly at our house. So sorry you had to go through this!

  7. This is an agent that cares about you as a client and that's what you need when you're looking for an apartment. delay eviction

  8. Hi, I'm in the middle of a similar situation. However, our ex-tenant is dillusional and actually thinks the house was in pretty good condition. The cleaning service refused to even touch the place! Anyway, I appreciate your good advice here. It will certainly come in handy as we move forward.

  9. I have just found out last weekend, that the tenants ive had for over 2 years not only moved out without telling me, but haven't paid rent in 2 months and after excuses for weeks have completely blocked me in every way possible. when I went out to the house that is 3 hours away I find the house completely trashed. Like I left the house in about a 7 condition ( only because the house is kind of old so it has popcorn ceilings and no crown molding things like that, they left the house in about a 2. Holes everywhere, stains and gum all over the carpet trash all over the house toilets that need to be replaced and random paint colors, also roaches!!!!! I am so confused on what I start with. Do I start fixing the house or wait to go to court? I cant send them a letter as to no address. Its kind of like where do I start?
    Please help!
    Stressed out renter

    1. I am so, so sorry. Just take lots of pictures and document all the damage and keep all the receipts. As long as you've documented the damge, I think you should start the repairs ASAP so you can get other renteres in. Hopefully, you can track them down and take them to small claims court. I wish I could be of more help. Maybe a slight silver lining is that the following spring after this happened, I claimed all this damage on my taxes and got a larger than normal tax return. Good Luck!