Posts Tagged Security Deposits

Attorney General States That A Tenant Can Be Required To Pay For Carpet Cleaning Upon Vacating

It is not often that I get to report good news for landlords, so when the opportunity arises I am especially happy to do so.  Today is one of those times.  Earlier today the Wisconsin Attorney General issued a formal legal opinion that states that it is legal for a residential landlord in Wisconsin to require an outgoing tenant to pay to have the carpet in the unit professionally cleaned and to include such a provision in the rental agreement.

It is well known that in Wisconsin a residential landlord cannot withhold the costs of having the carpet professionally cleaned from a tenant’s security deposit.  Wisconsin Administrative Code, ATCP 134.06(3)(c) states that landlords are prohibited from withholding from a security deposits for “normal wear and tear.”  The Note to this administrative code provision states that carpet cleaning is an example of an impermissible basis for withholding a tenant’s security deposit.

What had been unclear until now, is whether or not a landlord could make a tenant pay for the cost to have the carpet professionally cleaned upon vacating and to include such a provision in the rental agreement.  I have personally experienced both courts that held that a landlord could charge a tenant for professional carpet cleaning and others that would not.  Additionally, some judges and court commissioners felt that including a provision in a residential rental agreement requiring a tenant to pay to have the carpeting professionally cleaned upon vacating renders the rental agreement void.

Wisconsin landlords are now on solid ground in knowing that they can require a tenant to pay to have the carpets professionally cleaned upon vacating and that they can include such a provision in their rental agreement.

The key questions and answers from the formal opinion are set forth below:

QUESTION 1:  Based on current law, does routine carpet cleaning at the end of a tenancy fall within the landlord’s duty to keep the premises “in a reasonable state of repair” as prescribed by Wis. Stats. sec. 704.07(2)?

ANSWER:  No, a landlord’s duty to keep the premises in a reasonable state of repair does not encompass routine carpet cleaning.

QUESTION 2:  Would a provision requiring the tenant to pay for professional carpet cleaning, in the absence of negligence or improper use by the tenant, render a rental agreement void under Wis. Stats. sec. 704.44(8)?

ANSWER:  No, because routine carpet cleaning is not a statutorily-imposed obligation of a landlord, assigning this responsibility to a tenant through a contractual provision does not render a rental agreement void.

In its analysis, the Attorney General states that the key issue upon which the answer hinged was whether or not routine carpet cleaning falls under one of the statutorily prescribed obligations of a landlord.  If it does, then the law clearly would prevent a landlord from assigning that obligation to a tenant.  If not, then a landlord could legally assign the obligation to have the carpets professionally cleaned to a tenant.

Under Wisconsin law a landlord is statutorily required to keep a rental unit in a “reasonable state of repair” and such repairs cannot be assigned to a tenant as a result.  Routine carpet cleaning however is not considered to be a “repair” as a repair typically involves fixing something that is broken.  A carpet that is dirty and needs to be cleaned is not in need of “repair.”

The AG’s analysis then points out that the landlord-tenant statutes do not assign cleaning responsibilities to either the landlord or the tenant.  As such, the parties are free to assign the responsibilities for cleaning in the rental agreement.  Which therefore means that a landlord can require a tenant to pay to have the carpets cleaned if it is in the rental agreement.

Please note however, that while the Attorney General’s legal opinion does allow a landlord to charge a tenant for the costs of having the carpets professionally cleaned, it still does NOT allow a landlord to deduct those costs from the tenant’s security deposit (even if you put such a clause in your Nonstandard Rental Provisions).  So if the tenant doesn’t pay for the carpet cleaning as agreed to in the rental agreement a landlord’s only recourse will be to sue the ex-tenant for the costs.


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2011 Wisconsin Act 143 (Landlord Omnibus Law) Also Applies To Commercial Landlord-Tenant Law

While this blog primarily focuses on residential landlord-tenant law, on occasion I also touch on issues applicable to commercial landlord-tenant law.  This is one such instance.

Commercial landlord-tenant is more straightforward than residential in my opinion because commercial tenancies are less regulated than residential.  Typically what a commercial landlord and tenant agreed to and placed into their lease agreement is what governs.  The Wisconsin Administrative Code’s ATCP 134 does not apply to commercial leases and most of Chapter 704 of the Wisconsin Statutes does not apply to commercial leases unless (1) the parties had no written lease, or (2) the lease was silent as to certain issues (see sec. 704.03 and 704.05 respectively).

Well, that has all changed now with the passage of 2011 Wisconsin Act 143 which was signed into law last week and will take effect on March 31, 2012.

While almost all of the attention paid to the new law surrounded its effects on residential landlord-tenant law, the law also impacts the commercial arena as well.  I too was caught up in the effect Act 143 would have on residential landlords and missed the applicability of this new law to commercial landlords initially  — thanks to Bob Anderson of Legal Aid of Wisconsin for redirecting me : )

As I have mentioned in prior posts, this legislation was fast-tracked for some reason and rushing new laws through the legislative process is never a good thing.  In fact it is a recipe for disaster.

It appears that the legislators did not realize that Senate Bill 466 — the precursor to Act 143 — was written in such a way as to encompass commercial landlord-tenant law.  When it was brought to their attention, a quick amendment was made to exclude one portion of the new law (the section that makes a rental agreement void if it contains certain prohibited language) from the commercial arena, but apparently there was not enough time to deal with the other sections of the new law, which now will apply to both commercial and residential tenancies.

So what do we have?

The following provisions of Act 143 apply to both commercial landlord-tenant law as well as residential:

1.  Moratorium on evictions

2.  Severability of rental agreement provisions

3.  Disposition of abandoned property

4.  Requirement that landlords receive an award of holdover damages when appropriate

5.  Acceptance of past due rents

6.  Withholding from and return of security deposits

7.  Making any violation of chapter 704 a possible unfair trade practice

If you are unfamiliar with the above sections of the new law you should read my prior post summarizing the new law.

Number 1-5 above actually benefit commercial landlords.  However numbers 6 and 7 are problematic

By adding ATCP 134.06, which focuses on the withholding from and the return of security deposits, to chapter 704, the new law has now made these requirements applicable to commercial landlords as well.  Prior to Act 143 being passed, there was no law addressing what a commercial landlord could withhold from a commercial tenant’s security deposit, nor was there any law regarding when that security deposit (or an itemization as to how the security deposit was applied) had to be returned to the commercial tenant.  Well thanks to Act 143, now there is.

Act 143 allows a commercial landlord to only make deductions for the following items from a commercial tenant’s security deposit:

704.28 Withholding from and return of security deposits.  (1) Standard withholding provisions.  When a landlord returns a security deposit to a tenant after the tenant vacates the premises, the landlord may withhold from the full amount of the security deposit only amounts reasonably necessary to pay for any of the following:

(a)  Except as provided in sub. (3), tenant damage, waste, or neglect of the premises.

(b)  Unpaid rent for which the tenant is legally responsible, subject to s. 704.29.

(c)  Payment that the tenant owes under the rental agreement for utility service provided by the landlord but not included in the rent.

(d)  Payment that the tenant owes for direct utility service provided by a government-owned utility, to the extent that the landlord becomes liable for the tenant’s nonpayment.

(e)  Unpaid monthly municipal permit fees assessed against the tenant by a local unit of government under s. 66.0435 (3), to the extent that the landlord becomes liable for the tenant’s nonpayment.

(f)  Any other payment for a reason provided in a nonstandard rental provision document described in sub. (2).

So if a commercial landlord would now like to deduct anything other then the items listed in (a) – (e) above, then that landlord needs to start using a separate written document entitled “Nonstandard Rental Provisions” which must list the additional fees/costs that can be deducted from a commercial tenant’s security deposit.

Additionally, Act 143 now requires a commercial landlord to either (1) return the tenant’s security deposit to them, or (2) send them an itemization explaining how that security deposit was applied, within 21 days of the following:

(4) Timing for return.  A landlord shall deliver or mail to a tenant the full amount of any security deposit paid by the tenant, less any amounts that may be withheld under subs. (1) and (2), within 21 days after any of the following:

(a)  If the tenant vacates the premises on the termination date of the rental agreement, the date on which the rental agreement terminates.

(b)  If the tenant vacates the premises before the termination date of the rental agreement, the date on which the tenant’s rental agreement terminates or, if the landlord rerents the premises before the tenant’s rental agreement terminates, the date on which the new tenant’s tenancy begins.

(c)  If the tenant vacates the premises after the termination date of the rental agreement, the date on which the landlord learns that the tenant has vacated the premises.

(d)  If the tenant is evicted, the date on which a writ of restitution is executed or the date on which the landlord learns that the tenant has vacated the premises, whichever occurs first.

Commercial landlords never had to worry about that 21 day time frame before — now they do.  Needless to say it is much more difficult and time consuming to do a walkthrough of a giant commercial space and itemize any damages or cleaning charges than it is for a 500 square foot residential rental unit.  I’m not exactly sure how commercial landlords will be able to comply with this time frame, but they will need to find a way, or else they may have to to their tenant double damages and attorney’s fees.  Which leads me to the next concern . . .

Act 143 now makes any violation of chapter 704 a possible violation of unfair trade practices, which pursuant to sec. 100.20, Wis. Stats. allows a tenant to sue a landlord for double damages and attorney’s fees.  Prior to Act 143 a commercial landlord was not in this predicament because unfair trade practices were set forth in ATCP 134 which only applied to residential tenancies.  But now that Act 143 incorporates some provisions of ATCP 134 into chapter 704 — and chapter 704 applies to commercial landlord-tenant relations — things are different.

Here is the language of the new law:

704.95  Practices regulated by the department of agriculture, trade and consumer protection.  Practices in violation of this chapter may also constitute unfair methods of competition or unfair trade practices under s. 100.20.  However, the department of agriculture, trade and consumer protection may not issue an order or promulgate a rule under s. 100.20 that changes any right or duty under this chapter.

I guess the only positive is that the new law says “may constitute” instead of “shall constitute” however to a commercial landlord that never had to worry about anything they did constituting an unfair trade practice and subjecting themselves to being sued for double damages and attorney’s fees, I’m sure this will be of little consolation.

So not only will Act 143 require commercial landlords to make some modifications to the language in their leases, but it will require them to completely change how they run their commercial proeprty management businesses starting March 31, 2012 —- 2 DAYS FROM NOW!!!!!


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The Ever Important Security Deposit Transmittal Letter (or “21 Day Letter”)

Aside from evictions, issues regarding the failure to properly return a tenant’s security deposit are, in my opinion, the single most litigated area in landlord-tenant law.

In Wisconsin, if a tenant has deposited a security deposit to his/her landlord as part of a residential tenancy, the  landlord must comply with one of two options within 21 days after the tenant “surrenders” the landlord’s rental unit:

1.   Return the tenant’s security deposit, or

2.   Send the tenant a security deposit transmittal letter (which I refer to as a “21 day letter”) explaining how the tenant’s security deposit was applied.

Unfortunately too many landlords have gotten themselves into trouble when it comes to the issue of returning a tenant’s security deposit.  While there are many ways to screw up, most of the mistakes that landlords make regarding this topic fall into one of three categories.

First, a landlord makes improper deductions from the tenant’s security deposit.

Second, the 21 day letter is sent late.

Third, the 21 day letter is not sent at all.

 Failure to abide by ATCP 134.06 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code – which deals with security deposits in residential tenancies — can result in the tenant being awarded double damages and attorneys fees. 

A little over a year ago I wrote a  post on the topic of how to draft a legal 21 day letter to your tenant.  Due to the continued popularity of that post I thought it would be helpful to include a video clip from a seminar that I presentedawhile back on this important topic.



Security deposit withholding issues are the second most litigated area in landlord tenant law after evictions.  If a landlord makes improper deduction from a tenant’s security deposit, pursuant to ATCP 134 and §100.20, Wis. Stats., the tenant may sue the landlord for double damages and attorney’s fees.  There are numerous published Court of Appeals decisions in Wisconsin dealing with this exact issue.  I would like to offer a few suggestions to landlords which will hopefully keep you from making any improper security deposit deductions.

First, we need to address some basics . . .

A security deposit is defined as “any payment that is given to a landlord as security for the performance of the tenants obligations under the rental agreement.” ATCP 134.01(11).

ATCP 134.06(2), states that within 21 days after a tenant surrenders the rental property, the landlord shall deliver or mail to the tenant the full amount of any security deposit held by the landlord, less any amounts properly withheld by the landlord.”

If you would like to know what a landlord may legally deduct from a tenant’s security deposit you will want to read my Jan. 17th post.

ATCP 134.06(4), states “If any portion of a security deposit is withheld by the landlord, the landlord shall, within the time period and manner prescribed in sub.(2) – 21 days — deliver or mail to the tenant a written statement accounting for all amounts withheld.  The statement shall describe each item of physical damages or other claim made against the security deposit, and the amount withheld as reasonable compensation for each item or claim.”

I will refer to this written statement interchangeably as either the “security deposit transmittal letter” or the “21-day letter.”

According to ATCP 134 all prepaid rent in excess of one month is legally considered to be a security deposit.  So if you require a new tenant to pay first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit, legally the security deposit will also include the last month’s rent

Essentially a landlord must either return a tenant’s security deposit or send the tenant an itemization of how the tenant’s security deposit was applied within 21 days after the tenant surrenders the premises.  This is mandatory.  No matter what the situation – even if you are legally entitled to keep all of the tenant’s security deposit – you must still send the tenant a letter explaining to them why you can legally keep it and how it was applied.  There is no situation in which you should not be sending the 21-day letter to a vacating residential tenant in Wisconsin.  Even if common sense tells you it is not necessary (i.e. the tenant told me to use his/her security deposit to pay for the last month’s rent) you should still send out the letter.  If you are wrong the ramification may be expensive.  Be safe – send the letter each and every time. Read the rest of this entry »

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