By: John Colby Cowherd, Attorney, Cowherd PLC

April 10, 2014 9:53 pm EDT

The departure of a tenant leaves the landlord with long to-do list, including listing the property for rent, evaluating applicants, repairing or remodeling the property and preparing a new lease agreement.  Wrapping-up the relationship with the previous tenant can inadvertently fall to the bottom of the list of priorities. A lawsuit over the prior tenant’s security deposit can create a big distraction to the landlord after the old tenant leaves and the new one moves in. Proving damages can be a time intensive activity. Fortunately, many of these disputes are avoidable. This article explores seven strategies landlords may employ to avoid tenant security deposit disputes.

1.   Use a Lease Appropriate to the Jurisdiction and the Property

In urban areas of Virginia, landlords leasing out 4 or more properties must follow the Virginia Residential Landlord & Tenant Act (“VRLTA”). Similarly, District of Columbia landlords must follow the D.C. Housing Code. These sets of rules contain different provisions regarding what terms a landlord may put in a lease. They also show how the courts would interpret the lease. If the property is a condominium unit, the community will have rules and regulations governing leases in the development. Confusion is fertile grounds for conflict. Wise landlords use lease agreements adapted to their jurisdiction’s laws and the property unique situation.

2.   Calculate Realtor Commissions and Routine Repairs into the Rent

When the tenant moves out, the landlord may need a realtor to promptly market the property to a good replacement tenant. The realtor will require a commission on the rental. Even with fastidious tenants, features of the property will wear out with the passage of time. Most landlords want the property to “pay for itself” out of funds from tenants. During a transition, the previous tenant’s security deposit appears as low-hanging fruit. However, the landlord’s interests are best served by having the property pay for these expenses over the term of the lease out of ordinary rent. Landlords should account for more than mortgage payments, insurance, association fees and real estate taxes in the rent. The decision to rent the property requires a full cost analysis in addition to review of what the market will bear. The security deposit is for damage that exceeds ordinary wear over the period of the tenancy.

3.   Conduct an Inspection of the Property Prior to the Tenant’s Move-In

If the landlord and tenant end up litigating over the security deposit, the Court will hear evidence of the difference in the condition of the property between the move-in and the move-out. Whenever a property is in transition or dispute, a thorough, documented inspection is invaluable. Before the tenant moves in, the landlord should conduct an inspection, take photos and provide a simple report to the tenant. The VRLTA requires the landlord to provide the tenant with a move-in inspection report. This can save the landlord tremendous time later on.

4.   Provide the Tenant Notice and Inspect the Property Again at the End

Both the VRLTA and the D.C. Housing Code require landlords to provide tenants notice of the final inspection. The close-out inspection should be conducted within three days of when the tenant returns possession. This requires the landlord and his agent to focus on the departing tenant, new renter, realtors and contractors simultaneously. Some inexperienced landlords put off focusing on the previous tenant’s security deposit until after any renovations are done and the new tenant is in. Savvy landlords recognize the significance of the condition of the premises at the time the previous tenant departs. After the property has been renovated and the new tenant has moved in, the condition of the property cannot be documented post-hoc.

5.   Retain and Store Damaged Fixtures Replaced Between Tenants

When contractors replace fixtures in a rental property, usually they throw the replaced ones away to clean the job site. If the landlord intends to deduct those damaged fixture  from the security deposit for damaged fixtures, he should consider retaining them as real evidence. Some damages don’t photograph well. If the tenant later complains about the deduction, the landlord can then offer to let the tenant inspect the physical items. A tenant will think twice about filing suit knowing that the landlord will bring the disputed fixtures to court. Few landlords do this. Even if they tell the contractor, the manager may not remind the employees accustomed to cleaning up the site. This requires extra attention to detail, but may be convenient to some landlords. Some bulky or fragile items may not be suitable as trial exhibits.

6.   Provide an Itemized List of Deductions Supported by the Inspection

Under the VRLTA and the D.C. Housing Code, the landlord has 45 days to provide the tenant with the security deposit refund and the written list of deductions. If the tenant disputes the list, the landlord may desire to later add additional items not included on the list to aggressively respond to the lawsuit. However, the Court may deem any items not listed as waived. The deductions included on the list should be those supported by the final inspection documentation. Note that the landlord cannot deduct for ordinary wear and tear. The definition of “ordinary wear and tear” is flexible. I like to understand it as normal depreciation over the life of the item’s normal use. If any refund is made, the tenant may be entitled to interest.

7.   Provide Strong Customer Service

Whether a landlord is renting out a room to a summer intern or leasing a single family home for a year to a large family, he owes it to himself (and the tenants) to manage the property like a business, including a commitment to strong customer service. A happy tenant can save a landlord a realtor’s commission by referring a new tenant. Where the realtor may also get referrals by establishing rapport with the departing tenant.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s). Core Compass’s Terms Of Use applies.

About the author

John Colby Cowherd is an attorney at Cowherd PLC where he represents investors, owners and family-owned businesses in motions, trials, administrative action and arbitration. He can be reached by email at john@cowherdplc.com or by phone at (703) 884-2894.

landlordslease agreementssecurity depositstenant disputesVirginiaWashington D.C.property inspections
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