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:

Aug 02

Over on the ApartmentAssoc YahooGroups email list a member asks:

I heard that a very large rental company in the area has a Non Standard Rental Provision included with their Rental Agreements that lists each item to be cleaned and how much the tenant will be charged per item if they are not clean upon vacating.

Is this legal?

My reply:

Assuming WI and assuming we are talking about normal cleaning and not the house that was left with dog manure on the living room carpet:

There are actually  three questions presented:  First is it okay to charge a tenant for routine cleaning; Is a list of liquidated damages legal and if so; Can you take these charges out of a security deposit.

It seems pretty clear that you can have a lease that requires a tenant to return the property in the same state of cleanliness as they received it.  A list of charges for cleaning is probably legal.  BUT I do not believe you can take those charges out of a security deposit.  Therefore you would have to give them back the deposit and then sue them for the cleaning if they did not pay.

ATCP 134.06 (3) (c) “This subsection does not authorize a landlord to withhold a security deposit for normal wear and tear, or for other damages or losses for which the tenant cannot reasonably be held responsible under applicable law.

Note: For example, a landlord may not withhold from tenant’s security deposit for routine painting or carpet cleaning, where there is no unusual damage caused by tenant abuse.”

In other areas of the country liquidated damages in residential leases are legal and customary.  I believe that liquidated damages can be a benefit to both parties.  For example in FL the standard one year residential lease has a two months rent clause as liquidated damages for early termination.   There is no arguments over whether the landlord tried hard enough to mitigate the loss and there is no risk to the tenant that they could be on the hook for 11 months rent due to a job change.

This all changes if the cleaning necessary reaches a level of being “waste”.  Then you are entitled to double damages.  The case on waste is:

Three & One Company v. Geilfuss, 178 Wis. 2d 400, 504 N.W.2d 393 (Ct. App. 1993), the Wisconsin Court of Appeals found that tenants who allowed their cats to use the unit as a litter box committed waste. If waste is found the owner is entitled to double the damages pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 844.19.

Law on deposit withholding:


Liquidated damages


Nov 18

A reader asks via FaceBook: (cleaned up a bit from the original)

I seem to be caught in the middle of my tenants who broke up and are going their separate ways in a battle over the security deposit of $1,000. She has the copy of the check she wrote out of her account for it. The receipt I gave them just says I received $1,000 from both of their names. (lesson learned let me tell you.) The receipt did not specify what form of payment I received it in, but she has the copy of the check. Do I split it in half or do I give it all to her? (minus any damge charges of course.) I don’t need to end up in court with court costs over this. Can you give me your opinion on how to handle the deposit? Would appreciate it. Thanks.

This is a pretty easy one.  In most cases you must write the check to all tenants on the rental agreement.  Here is the law:

ATCP 134.06(2)(d) If a landlord returns a security deposit in the form of a check, draft or money order, the landlord shall make the check, draft or money order payable to all tenants who are parties to the rental agreement, unless the tenants designate a payee in writing.

This leads to a follow up question:

So even though she wroite the check out of her own separate account, because they were both on the lease I make out on check to both? Just want to be sure I understand correctly. Thanks for your help. So then that leaves me out of the picture as they fight over the money? And since they are separated no, how do I give it to both, if I give it to her I know she’ll sign his name to it, but then he can go after her for forgery, and that still leaves me out of it, right?

By writing the check to both of them you are following the law.  As long as you don’t encourage or suggest that she forges his name, it is an issue between them and possibly the authorities.  When she pushes the issue with you giver her a copy of the law.

Is this fair to the person who provided the deposit?  Perhaps not , but it’s the law since January 1999.  If you do what you feel is right instead of what is legal you will be paying double deposit plus attorney fees.

Jan 22

There was a discussion on the ApartmentAssoc@YahooGroups.com (link to home page) discussion list regarding charging a fee to a tenant who breaks a lease.

Liquidated damages, as they are referred to, are permitted in some states. For example in Florida you may give the tenant an option to be liable for the balance of the lease subject to mitigation or they can agree to liquidated damages up to two month’s rent. Most tenants seem to prefer the liquidated damages option because they know up front what they can expect if they must move before the end of the lease as opposed to needing to move to another locale and face owing perhaps eight or ten months rent.

However liquidated damages are not permitted in Wisconsin.  In fact having such language in your WI lease probably invalidates the entire lease. Why is this?

Continue reading »

Jan 09

Attorney Tristan Pettit is presenting the Landlord Boot Camp again this February.  Prior Boot Camps were very well received, with positive feed back from all that attended

Continue reading »

Nov 04

Wisconsin Code  ATCP 134 requires an owner to return a security deposit within 21 days of surrender of the premises.  This seams easy if the tenant gives proper notice and moves out when they should.  But what if they don’t? Continue reading »

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