Jan 19

The follow-up question:

Thanks Tim,
Can we charge a “general ” application fee to the prospective tenant to cover our office costs to process an application and keep the fee? Other people are doing it. How?
No, the law is clear on this.  If you do not accept the tenant, then all the money collected except for the actual amount you paid for a national bureau credit report, must be refunded.
 
If people are charging a non-refundable application fee in excess of what they paid for a credit report or more than $20, they are in violation of ATCP 134.05 (2)  Some owners try to be clever by calling the earnest money by some other name.  That fails.(See the legal definition of Earnest Money below)
 

However, if the prospective tenant fails to pay the balance and move in, you may retain the earnest money to cover and costs and lost rents you incurred due to their failure to take possession. In fact the prospective tenant could owe a lot more than the earnest deposit. See ATCP 134.05(3)(b) below.

 
Earnest Money is legally defined as:
 
ATCP 134.02 (3) ”Earnest money deposit” means the total of any payments or deposits, however denominated or described, given by a prospective tenant to a landlord in return for the option of entering into a rental agreement in the future, or for having a rental agreement considered by a landlord. “Earnest money deposit” does not include a fee which a landlord charges for a credit check in compliance with s. ATCP 134.05 (3).
The requirements to refund the earnest deposit if the tenant withdraws the app or the landlord rejects the app either explicitly or by nonaction:
 
ATCP 134.05 (2) Refunding or crediting an earnest money deposit.
(a) A landlord who receives an earnest money deposit from a rental applicant shall send the full deposit to the applicant by first-class mail, or shall deliver the full deposit to the applicant, by the end of the next business day after any of the following occurs:
1. The landlord rejects the rental application or refuses to enter into a rental agreement with the applicant.
2. The applicant withdraws the rental application before the landlord accepts that application.
3. The landlord fails to approve the rental application by the end of the third business day after the landlord accepts the applicant’s earnest money deposit, or by a later date to which the tenant agrees in writing. The later date may not be more than 21 calendar days after the landlord accepts the earnest money deposit.
 

Law permitting witholding of Earnet Money for failure to take possession:

 

ATCP 134.05 (3) Withholding an earnest money deposit.

(a) A landlord may withhold from a properly accepted earnest money deposit if the prospective tenant fails to enter into a rental agreement after being approved for tenancy, unless the landlord has significantly altered the rental terms previously disclosed to the tenant.

(b) A landlord may withhold from an earnest money deposit, under par. (a), an amount sufficient to compensate the landlord for actual costs and damages incurred because of the prospective tenant’s failure to enter into a rental agreement. The landlord may not withhold for lost rents unless the landlord has made a reasonable effort to mitigate those losses, as provided under s. 704.29, Stats.

 
Jan 16

A reader asks

[C]an I charge a flat application fee ( $20-25) to prospective tenants that includes the cost of the checking them out, labor etc. in our office, this may not include a credit check. Do I have to give it back if I don’t accept them?

No, you can only charge the actual amount you paid for a national credit bureau report.  Any amount collected above the cost of the credit report must be refunded if the tenant is rejected or applied to the amounts they owe if they are accepted.

For us the cost of the report in minimal (less than ten bucks) and the requirement of the law to provide a copy of the report to the applicant violates our terms of use with the bureau we use, so we do not charge a fee.

We do require a $50 deposit to hold the unit while it is being processed.  If the tenant is accepted the money is applied to their move in money.  If the tenant is rejected, the $50 money order is returned to them.  If they are accepted, but then fail to take the unit and we lose rent because of this, the earnest money is used to offset part of the lost rent they owe under ATCP 134.05 (3).

The law:

ATCP 134.05 (4) Credit check fee.
(a) Except as provided under par. (b), a landlord may require a prospective tenant to pay the landlord’s actual cost, up to $20, to obtain a consumer credit report on the prospective tenant from a consumer reporting agency that compiles and maintains files on consumers on a nationwide basis. The landlord shall notify the prospective tenant of the charge before requesting the consumer credit report, and shall provide the prospective tenant with a copy of the report.
(b) A landlord may not require a prospective tenant to pay for a consumer credit report under par. (a) if, before the landlord requests a consumer credit report, the prospective tenant provides the landlord with a consumer credit report, from a consumer credit reporting agency that compiles and maintains files on consumers on a nationwide basis that is less than 30 days old.

Note: Paragraph (b) does not prohibit a landlord from obtaining a more current consumer credit check at the landlord’s expense.

ATCP 134.05 (3) Withholding an earnest money deposit.

(a) A landlord may withhold from a properly accepted earnest money deposit if the prospective tenant fails to enter into a rental agreement after being approved for tenancy, unless the landlord has significantly altered the rental terms previously disclosed to the tenant.

(b) A landlord may withhold from an earnest money deposit, under par. (a), an amount sufficient to compensate the landlord for actual costs and damages incurred because of the prospective tenant’s failure to enter into a rental agreement. The landlord may not withhold for lost rents unless the landlord has made a reasonable effort to mitigate those losses, as provided under s. 704.29, Stats.

Note: See Pierce v. Norwick, 202 Wis. 2d 588 (1996), regarding the award of damage claims for failure to comply with provisions of this chapter related to security deposits. The same method of computing a tenant’s damages may apply to violations related to earnest money deposits.
Oct 30

As many of you know I like data.  Okay – maybe “like” is a little weak.  Perhaps its love, or at least a dangerous obsession.

Our industry, at least in regard to small properties,  shies away from meaningful data collection and utilization.  However, you can do so much with the right data – from setting your rents in the sweets spot between charging too little and losing money to charging too much, having your units remain vacant and … losing money.  What is that house you are looking buying at really worth and how much rent can you really expect to receive? In many neighborhoods paying assessed value is paying two to three times what everybody else is paying.  In a few high valued neighborhoods assessed value is a steal.  Ask the listing broker how much rent you can expect and some will tell you the sky.

Lately we’ve been looking at a lot of data points from rents, to evictions, to city orders, to special assessments, to tax assessments in general, to foreclosures and a ton of other interesting things.

For example we are developing an internal tool for suggesting rents that is using for rent ad data, including rent amount as well as other thing such as how long the ad has appeared, how many times in the past two years has the unit been for rent and mashes that up with property data – age, size, assessed value, date of last sale, how many units are owned by that owner and a dozen other metrics. Then combine this data with city order data, eviction data, tax delinquency and foreclosure information for the subject property.  While we haven’t finalized the algorithm, we are getting close.

Another fun project is trying to identify properties that will fail.  We look at when they were purchased, if they are tax delinquent, if they are on the DNS monthly reinspection list, if there are evictions, if the water bills have been placed on the tax roll, etc.

We started doing this with database tools, Python scripts and a lot of manual acquisition.  We’ve found a lot better methods since.

One of the tools we use for data acquisition is import.io. Today I was in San Francisco for their Extract conference.  The theme was “Data Stories Worth Sharing”  There were 600 in attendance, with what appeared to be an equal distribution of data scientists, data analysts, and application developers. Oh and there was one landlord.

I wanted to attend the last two but either the timing was bad or the event was in London, which is quite a trip for a one day conference.  Today was so great I regret not attending the previous events.

If people thought I was a pain in the butt before with my data obsession, I’ll be downright dangerous now. 😉

If you want to play with the tools I play with, another one to look at is Mirador, a data visualization tool developed by Harvard and others primarily for things like Ebla research.  This is a radically cool tool  for seeing patterns in data.  Before that we were only testing patterns against assumptions.  Mirador points out the patterns for you.  

To visualize the results there is Tableau or for the more adventuresome there is a Javascript library D3

I think I should call this “Big data about small properties.”

If you are interested in data and rental hosung and want to talk about this more, drop me an email at Tim@ApartmentsMilwaukee.com

 

 

 

 

Apr 30

Over on the ApartmentAssoc Yahoo Group an owner asks:

I’m wondering if we would be discriminating to look for one person rather than two, whether a couple or whatever…because we are both over 55 and can’t take the noise we’ve taken through the years…even between couples yelling at each other. Do we have to declare the house 55 and older and find someone over 55 for the lower?  I thought I read a post that said if you are living in the other unit in the house you can…? 

Seems like Fair Housing question month.

Is this your personal residents?  There is an exemption to the Federal Fair Housing law for owner occupied 1-4 family properties. It is called the Mrs. Murphy exemption.   The exemption does NOT apply in Wisconsin however.  

Wisconsin 106.50 

106.50  Open housing.

(1)  Intent. It is the intent of this section to render unlawful discrimination in housing. It is the declared policy of this state that all persons shall have an equal opportunity for housing regardless of sex, race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religion, national origin, marital status, family status, status as a victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking, lawful source of income, age, or ancestry and it is the duty of the political subdivisions to assist in the orderly prevention or removal of all discrimination in housing through the powers granted under ss.66.0125 and 66.1011. The legislature hereby extends the state law governing equal housing opportunities to cover single-family residences that are owner-occupied. The legislature finds that the sale and rental of single-family residences constitute a significant portion of the housing business in this state and should be regulated. This section shall be considered an exercise of the police powers of the state for the protection of the welfare, health, peace, dignity, and human rights of the people of this state.

If you do not live in WI here is a good reference to state laws on the “Mrs. Murphy” exemption:

Even under the Federal “Mrs.Murphy” exclusion you are not permitted to advertise an otherwise discriminatory preference, so if you do not qualify under the housing for older persons exemption you could not, lets say, advertise ‘adults only’ or ‘one person only’.  If you do qualify you can advertise 55 and older.

I could not advise you on the housing for older persons question as it is not a issue that I deal with.  

My assumption is if one unit is vacant you do not meet the standard, but I may be wrong.  I would ask the Division of Equal Rights directly:

https://dwd.wisconsin.gov/dwdsendmail/mailtodwd.aspx

Sub (5m)(g) may offer some relief:

(g) A person may not be held personally liable for monetary damages for a violation of sub. (2)(2m) or (2r) if the person reasonably relied, in good faith, on the application of the exemption under this subsection relating to housing for older persons. For purposes of this paragraph, a person may show reasonable reliance, in good faith, on the application of the exemption under this subsection relating to housing for older persons only if the person shows all of the following:

1. That he or she has no actual knowledge that the housing is not or will not be eligible for the exemption.

2. That the owner of the housing has stated formally, in writing, that the housing complies with the requirements for the exemption.

Sep 27

The AASEW’s ever popular Landlord Boot Camp is just around the corner.  It will be held on Saturday, October 4, 2014 from 8:30 am – 5:30 pm at the Clarion Hotel located near the airport.

At this Fall’s Boot Camp I will be updating everyone on how the courts have been handling and interpreting all of the law changes since Act 76 was passed back in March of this year.

I will also address numerous other of topics that will help you navigate Wisconsin’s complex landlord – tenant laws.  Learn how to run your properties with greater profit while staying out of trouble.  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.

Some of the other topics that will be covered include:

1) How to properly screen prospective tenants

2) How to draft written screening criteria to assist you in the tenant selection process

3) How to comply with both federal and state Fair Housing laws including how to comply 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 or judge from dismissing your eviction lawsuit

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)

There will also be time for “Q&A” and Lunch is included!

If that is not enough you will also receive a manual that is over 100 pages that includes all of Tristan’s outlines on the various topics and various forms.

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

When:       Saturday, October 4, 2014  from 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM —- Registration opens at 7:00 AM

Where:     Clarion Hotel 5311 S. Howell Avenue, Milwaukee

Price:        AASEW Members only $159 .  Non AASEW Members  – $249

Register:    Go to www.LandlordBootCamp2014.com and you can register online and read prior attendees testimonials.

Last year’s AASEW Landlord Boot Camp was filled to capacity.  So much so we even had to turn people away.  So register early to reserve your spot.

I hope to see many of you there.

Thanks

Jul 23

Talk about a timely meeting topic. This past Monday’s Apartment Association General Membership meeting addressed the issue of whether an owner must accept sex offenders i.e. are they a protected class.

If you missed the meeting, sex offenders and criminals in general are not a protected class in WI* today as long as you apply those criteria without regard to the applicant being a member of another protected class. For example if your criteria is to reject applicants who are registered offenders, but then give in to the white kid who was arrested for having sex with his 16 year old girlfriend. If you do not do the same for the Martian with a similar conviction you are probably going to run into fair housing issues. To be legal rejection criteria must be yes or no, with exceptions only made under a written exception policy that is applied evenly.

*Note that Madison and Dane treated some criminal offenders as protected classes, I am uncertain if Act 143 and Act 76 have changed this.

Yesterday the Milwaukee Common Council passed an ordinance restricting where sex offenders may live (Copy). The pendency of this legislation explains Council President Michael Murphy being unavailable to attend and speak at Monday’s meeting.

In passing this legislation Milwaukee did the only thing they reasonably could do at this point, which is to put ordinances in place that are comparable to those in surrounding communities, lest we remain the sex offender dumping grounds for the state.

The upside of such legislation is it should eliminate any fears of running afoul of Fair Housing property owners may have about rejecting sex offenders. The downside is at some point sex offenders ultimately get released from prison and ultimately need to live somewhere. Perhaps turn Washington Island into a leaper colony for sex offenders? (joking of course)

At some point I’m certain the proliferation of these ordinances will result in state or even federal legislative efforts to make sex offenders and possibly criminal in general a protected class. This will be worse than the current situation so we must be on the watch for such legislation. It is unlikely that the legislation will be forthright in its title or purpose, rather it will be attempts to restrict access to information as we’ve seen with the attacks on CCAP over the past few years.

If you want to know more about the issue from a criminal rights advocates prospective see:
http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2007/09/11/no-easy-answers
http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0907webwcover.pdf

Tim Ballering
Tim@ApartmentsMilwaukee.com

Jul 12

A reader on the ApartmentAssoc at YahooGroups list asks in regards to denying applications:

 What if there isn’t an alternative applicant and it’s not credit related? (ie criminal record or just don’t like them…Lool). I never really cared and don’t give a reason other than “your application has been denied”. Today was the first time an applicant repeatedly called wanting a reason.

In WI, excluding Dane County/Madison as they are a separate state, ;-), you are not required to give a reason.  In most cases a simple “Sorry your app was not accepted” is the best answer.

However, with that being said, you should consider having a mechanism in place where the applicant can request the reason if they are insistent. We ask that they request the reason in writing and we respond in writing.  This gets away from any allegations that someone said something they did not.

Think back to your own experiences – when someone is elusive or outright refuses to answer a question your first thought is they have something to hide. The more the other party pushed back the more you knew you were on to some kind of wrong doing.

 Rejection for criminal record is easy if you have a written criteria.  If they fail the criteria you can point it out.  So if one of your criteria is ‘We will reject applicants who have had drug related felonies in the past x years’ and they were convicted of having a ton of cocaine  in their possession  x years – 1 then the answer is a ‘sorry – your 12/14/20xx conviction prevents us from renting to you at this time.  You can apply again in a year.’

“Just don’t like them” is dangerous grounds, especially if they are a member of a protected class under federal state or local fair housing rules.

You don’t have to like your tenants, you just need to be sure they will pay rent, not damage the place, not conduct illegal activities out of your property and not anger the neighbors.  If they meet all those requirements I can “like” just about any prospective tenant.

Oct 30

In Milwaukee the city enforces a prohibition against occupancies with more than three unrelated people.  The answer on where in the code this resides is a bit  convoluted, but this is how the city arrives at that answer:

200-08-74. ROOMING HOUSE means any  building or part of any building or dwelling unit  occupied by more than 3 persons who are not a family or by a family and more than 2 other  persons for periods of occupancy usually longer  than one night and where a bathroom or toilet  room is shared.

If you meet this requirement you must have a rooming house license.  Now if each person has a bathroom and they promise not to pee in the other person’s bathroom can you have as many occupants as bathrooms?  I would think so.

200-8-33. FAMILY means, unless otherwise specified, a person occupying a dwelling unit, or dwelling unit with one or more persons who are legally related to such occupant by virtue of being husband or wife, son or daughter, mother or father, sister or brother, uncle or aunt, grandparent, grandchild, niece or nephew, first-cousin, mother-in-law or father-in-law, all of whom comprise no more than one nuclear family unit per household. Included in the term family are 4 or fewer legally assigned foster children, except that more than 4 may be legally assigned if all are related to one another as brothers or sisters. Family also means a domestic partnership of 2 individuals who meet all conditions of s. 350-245-3-a to e and at least 3 of the conditions of s. 350-245-5

As mentioned in the last post, WI Fair Housing recognizes housing code occupancy restrictions based on quantity of people.  It does not appear to recognize  ordinances based on relationship of the occupants:

106.50(5m)(e) It is not discrimination based on family status to comply with any reasonable federal, state or local government restrictions relating to the maximum number of occupants permitted to occupy a dwelling unit.

Are you breaking state law in complying with the city code?  Who knows, but it seems like the city ordinance conflicts with the Fair Housing law.

Occupancy standards, yours or municipalities’ should be based on the number of occupants and not their relationships. There are a couple of good, interesting U.S. Supreme Court cases on the issue. Justice Marshall wrote a very interesting dissent in Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1 (1974) which was prior to the inclusion of familiar status protections

The most relevant part of Belle Terre dissent:

  MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, dissenting. 

The instant ordinance discriminates on the basis of just such a personal lifestyle choice as to household companions. It permits any number of persons related by blood or marriage, be it two or twenty, to live in a single household, but it limits to two the number of unrelated persons bound by profession, love, friendship, religious or political affiliation, or mere economics who can occupy a single home. Belle Terre imposes upon those who deviate from the community norm in their choice of living companions significantly greater restrictions than are applied to residential groups who are related by blood or marriage, and compose the established order within the community.  The village has, in [416 U.S. 1, 17] effect, acted to fence out those individuals whose choice of lifestyle differs from that of its current residents. 

A more recent case is Edmonds v. Oxford House, 517 U.S. 725 (1995) also is a good read

 

 

Oct 08

Our world is full of traps for rental owners… Fail to document the deposit return letter when was sent and a $300 deposit turns into $5,000 with attorney fees. Try to be helpful and not rent the third floor walk up to a person with a bad leg and pay $10,000 in a Fair Housing claim. Likewise tell the person with the companion dog that there is no way you are renting to a person with a Pit Bull and pay another ten grand. Give the tenant with a year lease a 14 day for disturbing the neighbors and breaking your windows or the tenant with a month to month a 5 day for the same reason and you will have to start your court case all over again. The list of pitfalls is endless and growing.

So how do you collect your rent, fill your vacancies and evict tenants without getting in trouble or having expensive do-overs?

You could throw your arms in the air and give up, but that probably is not the most effective approach. You can go through life figuring these are things that only happen to the other guy or to”bad” landlords. That works for a while until you become the other guy. You could hire an attorney to be along side you for every decision, but that probably is not financially effective.

The only viable answer is to know the laws that affect us well enough to either know the answer or know when you need help. You can venture out and learn as you go through your own mistakes, usually a very expensive education – there is a reason they call it the school of hard knocks, or you can get as much education as practical before you find yourself on the losing end of a legal battle.

I started with the learn as you go method. It cost me three grand in 1982 dollars when a tenant that snuck out in the middle of the night sued for their deposit. I lost because I did not know the law well enough to make the proper argument that the 21 days did not start on the day they skipped out, but rather on the day I found they moved. So my letter sent seven days after I found a vacant apartment was proper, but laws only work for those that know them.

My next education was a Bob Smith Landlord Tenant Law course at Marquette. Much more informative and less expensive. A couple of years later Bob condensed this into a full day landlord tenant law for the Association. It cost somewhere around two hundred dollars and included his book “Landlord Defense: Eviction and Collection manual” that had most of the forms needed. For those who want to stroll down memory lane, here is a Sentinel article with a really young picture of Bob:

The Association continues to offer the best landlord tenant law course out there. The Landlord Boot Camp gives you the fundamentals in a full day Saturday class. It is updated to include the latest law changes and includes a 100 page plus manual. It is presented by Attorney Tristan Pettit who writes the standard landlord tenant forms for Wisconsin Legal Blank. Tristan also worked on SB179 that may become law later this month. If it does pass he will have an insiders view on how this law can be best utilized by owners.

The next Boot Camp is Saturday October 26th 8:30 AM to 5;30 PM. Costs is $159 for AASEW members and $249 for non-members.

Learn more or sign up at:
http://landlordbootcamp2013.com/

Aug 31

The LA Times has an interesting discussion on an issue that concerned landlords get wrong.

Let’s say you have an applicant with a noticeable walking disability.  Being a caring person you try to steer  the prospective tenant to a first floor unit without steps as you feel that would be more convenient for them than the second floor walk up they are interested in. They insist they want the upper, you feeling they will not be comfortable with the upper insist they take the lower instead.

Pointing out you also have lowers available is good business and a service to the applicant, refusing or actively discouraging renting an upper is a fair housing violation.

This seems counter intuitive when all you were trying to do was what you felt was best for the applicant, but, maybe they like many others feel safer from crime on a higher floor and are willing to make the trade off of the inconvenience of steps for the added feeling of security.  As a landlord this is not your decision to make and what may be your personal preference in a similar situation may not be your tenant’s.

Same thing with the family with kids that wants to apply for an upper.  You offer them a lower because you fear the kids running around will create problems for lower tenants and may result in you having to evict them.; or you have a complex with kid buildings and no kid buildings; or prohibiting families with children from living in units nearer to the pools.  These too are fair housing violations.

In these cases it is up to the parent to insure their kids are safe and follow the rules. You have the ability to check their rental history and reject them if they or their family were disruptive at prior residences.  But it is the disruption and not the kids that must be your deciding factor. Really what does it matter to you if it is kids running around making noise or the old man coming home drunk and loud every night – disruptive behavior is disruptive behavior.

 

 

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