Archive for category Mitigation of Damages / Re-Renting

Are Wisconsin Residential Leases Worth The Paper They Are Written On?

In my personal opinion the answer is often “no.”  The reason being is due to Wisconsin’s requirement that a landlord make reasonable efforts to re-rent the unit if a tenant is evicted or decides to vacate early, and if this is not done, the landlord is not entitled to further rent from the breaching tenant.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that leases in Wisconsin are worthless and that you should never use them.  What I am saying however is that they are not as wonderful as some people think they are and landlords need to understand there limitations.

Let me digress to provide some additional background.

First, you should always have a written rental agreement in place with your tenant.  The days of verbal agreements over a handshake are long gone.

Second, a “rental agreement” is a general term that includes both leases and periodic tenancies (such as a month to month tenancy.  A lease is an agreement for a specific term.  It has a beginning date and an end date.  Periodic tenancies — like a month to month —  are not leases as there is no end date and they continue until they are terminated by either the landlord or the tenant.

So when I talk about a “lease” in this blog post I am only referring to those rental agreements that are for a specific term.  By signing a lease, a tenant is agreeing to reside in a specified rental unit until the end of the lease term and to pay rent during the entire lease term.  So what happens when a tenant decides not to fulfill the term of his or her lease?

Well, according to sec. 704.29 of the Wisconsin Statutes, if this happens, a landlord may only purse the breaching tenant for the remainder of the rent owed under the lease if that landlord has made reasonable efforts to reduce the amount of rent that the tenant is responsible for by attempting to re-rent the unit for the tenant.  Translation – if a tenant breaks the lease, a landlord is required to spend time and energy to limit the damage to the tenant for his/her own action of breaking the lease, if landlord does not do this, landlord is entitled to nothing.  Seems fair . . . . NOT.

Sec. 704.29 (1) specifically states:

“If a tenant unjustifiably removes from the premises prior to the effective date for termination of the tenant’s tenancy and defaults in the payment of rent, or if the tenant is removed for failure to pay rent or any other breach of a lease, the landlord can recover rent and damages except amounts which the landlord could mitigate in accordance with this section . . .”

The statute continues as follows:

“In any claim against a tenant for rent and damages, or for either, the amount of recovery is reduced by the the net rent obtainable by reasonable efforts to rerent the premises.

“Reasonable efforts” means those steps that the landlord would have taken to rent the premises if they had been vacated in due course, provided that those steps are in accordance with local rental practice for similar properties.”

So even though the tenant is in the predicament s/he is in due to their own actions, a landlord is not legally entitled to collect rent for the remainder of the lease from the tenant unless the landlord tries to re-rent the unit for the tenant.

If the landlord is able to re-rent the unit for the same amount or more, then the breaching tenant is officially “off of the hook” and not responsible for any further rent because the landlord now found a new paying tenant.

Yes, it is true that a landlord is entitled to recoup from a breaching tenant the costs incurred by the landlord to re-rent the unit.  So the breaching tenant is responsible for the advertising costs and maybe the costs of a “for rent” sign, or the costs of running a credit report for the new tenant.  Not very much of a payback in my opinion.

Additionally, the courts that I encounter will not reimburse a landlord for the lost time and energy spent getting the unit into shape for re-renting (unless it is damaged), showing the unit to prospective tenants, or reviewing new applications.  That non-reimbursable work  is considered to be the “cost of doing business” for the landlord.  OUCH.

So essentially, a landlord is required to do all this work to fix a problem created by a tenant, and if the landlord doesn’t do that extra work, the landlord is not even entitled to attempt to recover rent for the remainder of the lease term from the departing tenant.  If the landlord does that extra work and re-rents the unit, then the landlord is still not entitled to recovery of rent for the remainder of the lease term from the breaching tenant, because now the landlord is getting rent from someone else.  So essentially the breaching tenant, despite being the person that created the problem in the first place, gets off scot-free.

Only when the landlord does the extra work involved in re-renting the unit, and is unable to do so, is the breaching tenant legally responsible for the rent for the remainder of the lease (or until it eventually is re-rented, whichever comes first).  From a practical standpoint, that is a hollow victory as by this time the tenant is long gone, the security deposit most likely does not cover more than 1 month of the rent, and even if you can locate the tenant they may not be “”collectible.”

I would like to reiterate that the goal of this blog post is not for all landlords to tear up your leases and only enter into month to month tenancies going forward.  There are still tenants out there (I think?) that if they sign a lease, will honor it.  They will either stay for the entire lease term or if for some reason they must vacate early – they will honor their lease commitment.  Although I am sad to say that I am seeing fewer and fewer of these type of tenants these days — most cannot afford to pay rent for two homes and opt to pay the landlord that is currently keeping a roof over their head rather than the landlord that used to provide them shelter.

My aim is to insure that landlords using leases understand the legal limitations and requirements involved when a tenant breaks that lease.  A landlord cannot just sit back and do nothing to re-rent the unit and expect to collect future rent from the exiting tenant.  A lease is not some panacea that guarantees you the right to collect future rent when a tenant ditches.  You are only entitled to that rent if you make reasonable efforts to re-rent the unit for the breaching tenant and then only if the tenant can be located and is collectible.

So you need to ask yourself, is my lease worth the paper that it is written on?  Only you can answer that question.

 

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You Will Not Want To Miss AASEW’s Fourth Annual Landlord Boot Camp on Saturday Feb. 25th

Landlording can be pretty complex, with a seemingly never ending myriad of paperwork, rules, landlord-tenant laws and simple mistakes that can cost you thousands of dollars.

The Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin’s Fourth Annual Landlord Boot Camp can help you navigate these treacherous waters and teach you how to run your properties with greater profit and less hassles.

I have given similar landlord-tenant law seminars to fellow attorneys, landlords, and property manager organizations throughout the state for other state-wide semianr companies that charge attendees $300-$400.  This is your opportunity to learn all of the same information at a huge discount through the Apartment Association.

 

Who:   Taught by Attorney Tristan R. Pettit (who drafts the landlord tenant forms for Wisconsin Legal Blank)

When:    Saturday, February 25th, 2012. 8:30 am – 5 pm

Where:   Clarion Hotel 5311 S. Howell Avenue, Milwaukee [Map]

Included:  100 plus page manual/outline to help you put what you learn into practice plus helpful forms.

Cost:  $159 for AASEW members and $249 for non-members.  If you are not a member of AASEW but are a member of another landlord/apartment association the cost to attend will be $199.

Specials: Not a member?  Pay just a dollar more and enjoy a 2012 AASEW membership.

Wisconsin landlord-tenant laws are constantly changing.  To help keep you up to date we offer prior attendees a $50 discount.

Sign up by going to the AASEW’s Landlord Boot Camp landing page where you can sign up online and pay via PayPal.

 

What you will learn at the Apartment Association’s 2012 Landlord Boot Camp

Landlord Boot Camp covers everything that you need to know about residential Landlord Tenant law in Wisconsin, including:

  1. How to properly screen prospective tenants.
  2. How to draft written screening criteria to assist you in the selection process and protect you from discrimination complaints.
  3. How to comply with both federal and state Fair Housing laws including how to handle with “reasonable modifications”  and “reasonable accommodations” requests.
  4. How to legally reject an applicant.
  5. What rental documents you should be using and why.
  6. When you should be using a 5-day notice versus a 14-day notice, 28-day notice, or 30-day notice and how to properly serve the notice on your tenant.
  7. Everything you wanted to know (and probably even more than you wanted to know) about the Residential Rental Practices (ATCP 134) and how to avoid having to pay double damages to your tenant for breaching ATCP 134.
  8. When you are legally allowed to enter your tenant’s apartment.
  9. How to properly draft an eviction summons and complaint.
  10. What to do to keep the commissioner from dismissing your eviction suit.
  11. What you can legally deduct from a security deposit.
  12. How to properly draft a security deposit transmittal / 21 day letter.
  13. How to handle pet damage.
  14. What to do with a tenant’s abandoned property and how this may affect whether or not you file an eviction suit.
  15. How to pursue your ex-tenant for damages to your rental property and past due rent (and whether it is even worth it to do so).

. . .  and much more.  There will also be time for questions and answers.

You get all this for less than you would pay for an hour of an attorney’s time.

Last year’s AASEW Landlord Boot Camp was filled to capacity and we even had to turn a few people away.  So call early to reserve your spot.

Call the Association at (414) 276-7378, email membership@apartmentassoc.org or go to our Landlord Boot Camp landing page to sign up online and reserve your spot.

Remember that “landlording” is a business — so take the time to educate yourself on how to better manage your business and avoid costly errors!

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What Is This Mitigation of Damages Requirement That I Keep Hearing About?

Whether a tenant breaches his or her lease and is evicted, leaves after receiving the 5 day or 14 day notice, or skips out in the middle of the night with months remaining on the lease, a landlord has the responsibility to make reasonable efforts to mitigate the tenant’s damage under Wisconsin law.

Put quite simply – a landlord cannot just sit back and do nothing and expect to collect rent from the departed tenant until the lease term ends.  Per Sec. 704.29 of the Wisconsin Statutes, a landlord must make reasonable efforts to attempt to mitigate the tenant’s damages by trying to re-rent the unit for the tenant.

“Reasonable efforts” are defined as “those steps that the landlord would have taken to rent the premises if they had been vacated in due course . . .”  So if you typically advertise your vacancies in the Journal Sentinel then you should advertise the tenant’s vacant unit in the Journal-Sentinel also.  If you typically advertise vacancies on Craig’s List, then you should do the same for the tenant’s vacant’s unit.  If you always post a “For Rent” sign in the front of the apartment building, then you should do the same here as well.

The tenant is legally responsible for any costs incurred by the landlord to re-rent their now vacant unit.  Whether the old tenant is collectible and you will ever be reimbursed for those out of pocket costs is a practical matter that the statutes do not address.

If you have other vacant units at the same property, you do not need to re-rent the tenant’s old unit before you rent out the other vacant units.  But you should add your ex-tenant’s vacant unit into the mix and show it along with your other vacancies to any prospective renters.

The  Wisconsin Statutes do not provide us with a definition of ”reasonable efforts.”  What is reasonable is determined on a case by case basis and varies depending on the specific facts and the judge or court commisioner that is hearing the case.  A landlord should use common sense.  If you follow the same procedures as you always do when you have vacancies, you should be OK.

I hope it goes without saying that the following would NOT be considered to be reasonable efforts to mitigate a tenant’s damages:

1.   The arbitrary refusal to re-rent the unit to a prospective tenant.

2.   An attempt to rent the unit at a higher rental amount then other similar units in an attempt to dissuade a prospective renter from choosing the tenant’s vacant unit.

An issue that often arises in these mitigation cases is what if the landlord cannot not begin re-renting the unit because the tenant caused extensive damage and the landlord needs time to return the unit to a rentable condition.  In my experience, I have found the courts to be understanding if a landlord is placed into a catch-22 situation like this.  I have argued successfully in court on many occasions that if the tenant caused damage to the unit which requires the landlord to need more time to repair the unit — thus delaying his/her ability to attempt to re-rent the unit — that this should not be held against the landlord as long as the landlord moves forward with the repairs in a reasonable amount of time.

The argument is a simple one . . .  “your Honor, but for the tenant having caused damage to the unit, my client would have been able to begin the re-rental process immediately.  It was the fact that the tenant decided to paint the master bedroom a beautiful shade of purple, allowed their cat to use the hallway carpet as a personal litter box, and encouraged their 2 year old child to express her artistic abilities with a permanant marker on the newly refinished hardwood floors, that delayed my client’s ability to re-rent the unit the following month.”

According to sec. 704.29(3), Wis. Stats., a landlord must allege and prove that s/he made efforts to re-rent the unit for the tenant.  The tenant then has the burden of proving that the efforts that the landlord took were not reasonable.  The burden then shifts to the tenant to prove that the efforts taken by the landlord were not reasonable.  The tenant also has the burden to demonstrate the amount of money that could have been obtained as rent had the landlord made reasonable efforts to mitigate by re-renting.

The issue as to whether or not the landlord used “reasonable efforts” to re-rent the unit is frequently raised by residential tenants that appear in court to fight any money damages claims sought by the landlord.  The mitigation issue is ALWAYS raised by commercial tenants because commercial lease terms are typically for many years which could result in the tenant being “on the hook” for tens of thousands of dollars.

So if you are ever in the unfortunate situation where a tenant has vacated your rental unit with months remaining on the lease, you will want to make sure and save any documents that will demonstrate that you made reasonable efforts to re-rent the tenant’s unit.  This often includes, photos of the “For Rent” sign indicating the date it was put up, copies of advertisements placed on Craig’s List or in the Journal Sentinel, invoices for the cost of the ads, a list of the potential renters who called interested in renting the unit, the reasons why any potential tenant was rejected (this is another time when having written screening criteria is a must), and any other evidence that shows that your efforts to mitigate your ex-tenant’s damages were reasonable.

Once the unit is re-rented, the tenant’s responsibility for rent is over.  So typically the tenant will remain responsible for rent until either the end of the lease term or until you are able to re-rent the unit, whichever comes first.

While it may seem unfair that you have to expend extra time and energy to help reduce a tenant’s damages when s/he was the one in the worng — it is the law.

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