3 Things a Landlord Can do to Protect Itself Before a Dispute Arises
1. Have a Comprehensive, Easy-to-Understand Lease
One of the biggest benefits of a contract comes when it protects a party in court. A bigger benefit comes when it keeps a party OUT of court because it addresses the circumstances of a particular dispute. The parties both realize it wouldn't do any good go to court because they already know how the judge would rule. Judges usually follow the contract. The BIGGEST benefit though is when it prevents disputes altogether by governing behavior.
Many leases are long, have huge paragraphs, tiny font, and use a lot of legalese. Like Muffy from Arthur said, "It's exactly what we talked about, just written in a way no one can understand." Much of the time neither the landlord nor the tenant knows what is in the lease. Then when a dispute arises and attorneys get involved, each party hopes it will be able to say to the other, "Surprise!, you signed it, I win."
Ideally, there won't be any surprises in a lease. Both parties will be able to read it, understand it, and use it as a guide to govern the landlord-tenant relationship. The parties will understand their responsibilities and will fulfill them according to the lease, thus preventing disputes altogether.
2. Pictures, Pictures, and more Pictures
Landlord: "You broke the door handle, put holes in the walls, and spilled something red all over the carpet."
Tenant: "No way. All of those things were there before I moved in."
This type of dispute can be easily avoided, and yet, it is one of the most common types of disputes in both commercial and residential settings. Without evidence of the time property damage has occurred, it will be difficult for the landlord to prove the current tenant caused the damage.
Before move ins and at the time of move outs, before damages are repaired, before any condition of the property is changed, document the condition of the property. With cameras on cell phones, there is no excuse for not doing this. Take lots of pictures. Do a walk-through video. And, have tenants moving in sign a repair checklist. If at the end of their tenancy they claim the damage was preexisting, you can show them that the pictures and video prove otherwise and that they didn't include it on their repair checklist when they moved in.
In fact, for residential rental units, the law requires that landlords do one of the following before the lease is signed: (1) provide a written inventory of the condition; (2) give the renter a form to document the condition; or (3) give the renter an opportunity to conduct a walkthrough inspection.
3. Have Tenants Sign a Move-Out Notice
Around the time a tenant is going to vacate, landlords should require tenants to sign a move-out notice, indicating the date by which the tenant agrees to move out. This should be done even for tenants who are evicted. Having a date certain by which the tenant has agreed to move is important in preventing claims for wrongful lock-out. If the landlord enters the property after the move-out date, and there is no reasonable evidence the tenant is still occupying the property, the landlord can change the locks. If the tenant later says she was planning on cleaning or gathering a few remaining items and that she was wrongfully locked out, the signed move-out notice will go a long way in protecting the landlord.
This Article provides general information only and should not be considered legal advice. Please consult a professional regarding your specific situation.