At the end of a tenancy a tenant or a landlord often requests a walkthrough of the rental unit prior to turning in the keys and delivering possession of the unit back to the landlord. A walkthrough is just that — the tenant and the landlord walk through the rental unit and make observations of the condition of the unit. It is at this time that a landlord may point out damage to the rental that occurred during the tenancy and which the tenant will be held responsible for. A landlord might also note if the tenant did not adequately clean the unit or some of the appliances (typically this is the stove and/or refrigerator) and indicate that the tenant’s security deposit will be deducted accordingly.
When I first began working with landlords over fifteen years ago, I often encouraged them to conduct walkthroughs with their tenants. I would reccomend that they conduct the walkthrough a few hours before the lease termination date or the end of the tenancy. That way, if damages were identified, or areas were not cleaned properly, the tenant would have time to go back and make the repairs or better clean the area. My reasoning was that this was a win-win situation for both the landlord and the tenant. The tenant could go back and fix things thus insuring that they received their security deposit back and the landlord would not have to spend time or money repairing damage or cleaning the unit and could thus turn the unit over more quickly.
Over the years, I have made a complete 180 degree turn on the issue of walkthroughs. I no longer reccomend that my landlord clients do walkthroughs with their tenants — or at a minimum I point out some of the drawbacks of the walkthrough.
It is important to note that conducting a walkthrough with a tenant prior to their vacating is not required. I am not aware of any federal, state or municipal law that requires a landlord to conduct a walkthrough with his/her tenant. I am aware that many a tenant will demand a walkthrough with their landlord. Just becasue one is asked for - or even demanded – does not mean that the landlord must agree to it. Nothing is wrong with telling a tenant to drop off their keys at the office and then after are long gone checking out the condition of the apartment. In fact this is what I often reccomend that landlords do these days.
My primary reason for no longer reccommending that landlords conduct walkthroughs with their departing tenants has to do with the pressure of the moment. I guess a secondary factor is that more and more tenants are unpredictable these days. Let me explain . . .
The main motivation for a tenant during a walkthrough is to determine what amount of their security deposit they will be getting back from their landlord. The tenant has already removed their belongings (at least hopefully), done any repairs that they are willing to do, and done any cleaning that they think is necessary. The tenant’s mindset is that they are basically “outta here” and at least mentally, they have moved onto bigger and better pastures – whether that be a new home or a differerent apartment. The tenant has no interest in getting sweaty by engaging in additional cleaning or having to go purchase some more screws or nails or putty to make a repair.
Because of this mindset, a tenant is not interested in being told by their soon to be ex-landlord that they didn’t clean well enough or that they will have to pay for damaging the rental unit. Instead, the tenant is ready to argue, scratch, and claw, to protect what they feel is theirs — the security deposit. Any attempt by the landlord to hinder the return of “their” money is typically not well-taken.
So what ends up happening during many of these walkthroughs is the landlord and tenant have an argument. I recall one client that informed me she was physically attacked by a tenant during a walkthrough. Another landlord that I know was verbally threatened when the tenant was told at the conclusion of a walkthrough that x, y and z would be deducted from their security deposit.
No landlord is interested in a confrontation with their tenant — especially not a soon to be ex-tenant. We are not paid enough to put ourselves in situations. Even more common than physical attacks and verbal threats, is the scenario in which the landlord just wants to get the wallthrough over with. All of you know what I am talking about — you quickly peruse the unit, with the tenant looking over your back, and just to avoid confrontation, or because you feel intimidated by the moment (or the tenant in some cases), or because it is human nature (for most of us) to shun an uncomfortable situation, you tell the tenant that everything looks good and sign off on the check-in/check-out sheet. Only later, after the pressure of the moment has subsided and the tenant is no longer breathing down your neck, you realize that you really should have charged the tenant for damge to this or failure to clean that.
At that point, it is a little too late to change your mind however, at least from a legal standpoint. You have already told the tenant that everything looks good and you have already signed off on the check-out form. Now, you decide that you want to withold some money from the tenant’s security deposit to repair this or clean that. The tenant receives his security deposit itemization letter from you (within 21 days after vacating) and is surprised and upset to see that a portion of his/her deposit has been withheld.
I have seen this scenario play out time and time again. The tenant, who is now upset as they feel they were lied to, decides to sue the landlord for improper deductions from their security deposit and seeks double damages pursuant to ATCP 134 and sec. 100.20(2) , Wis. Stats. and their actual attorney’s fees to be paid by the landlord. The landlord is now stuck taking time out of their day to appear in court to defend against this lawsuit or to pay a lawyer to defend them in court.
I recall a past client who ended up in exactly this situation. A walkthrough was conducted with the tenants. I asked my client to look at the check-out form that she used. I saw that the form said that everything was in “good” condition and was signed by my client and both tenants. I also noted that scribbled across the top of the check-out form were the words “under protest.” I asked my client who wrote those words. She replied, that she did. I asked her when she wrote them. She said that she wrote them about 1 week after the walkthrough had taken place — so obviously the check-out form that the tenants were given did not contain these words. I then asked my client what the heck she meant by “under protest.” I was told that my client felt intimidated and threatened by the tenants during the walkthrough and therefore she didn’t really mean that the unit was returned in “good” condition.
I’m sure you can imagine all of the legal challenges that this would create had this actually gone to trial. Earlier in my representation of the client and prior to the tenants vacating, I had told her that she was not required to do a walkthrough with her tenants. After I finished looking at the check-out form, asking my questions, and listening to my client’s answers, I asked her why she had put herself in such a precarious situation — one in which she felt scared and intimidated — especially when she was not legally required to do so? My client didn’t provide me with an answer.
FYI, I totally believed that my client felt threatened during the walkthrough — she was a much older lady, both tenants had criminal records including battery of one another, one of the tenants had issues with alcohol and the other with drugs, and one of the tenants had physically attacked another individual in front of my client earlier in the tenancy. I had also observed the tenants “act up” in court during an earlier court hearing. These tenants were not the type of people that understood the word “reasonable” or had even heard the word “rational” for that matter.
But I digress. The point of the story is that my client never should have put herself in that situation in the first place. She could have waited until the tenants had vacated and conducted a thorough examination of the unit at her leisure and with no one breathing down her back.
Situations like the above, have caused me to re-think my advice to my landlord clients about doing walkthroughs with their tenants. There really is no reason to put yourself in that type of pressure situation if you do not want to.
I’m interested in learning what your thoughts are regarding walkthroughs? Do you conduct them? If so, why? If not, why? What are some interesting (funny, scary, disgusting) experiences that you have encountered during a walkthrough?