As a landlord, if you haven’t given much thought to the documents you keep—and those you discard—you risk being unable to defend your position in a dispute or pursue the tenant to collect damages in the event that becomes necessary. Although the documents can vary depending on the property type, jurisdiction and other circumstances, these 7 documents below is every landlord should have on file.
LEASE AND ADDENDUMS
The lease is obvious. You should always have a lease, even if the tenant is a family member or friend, and that lease, as well as the property file, should be kept for at least one year after the termination of the rental agreement. In addition, keep on file any addendum, such as a pet addendum that outlines your expectations regarding pet ownership at the property. It is important to have a written record of who is responsible for what, whether it’s specified in the lease, in an addendum, or in a separate written document. Some tenants think everything will be taken care of for them, and then, you get some landlords who don’t know exactly what their responsibilities are, for example, who cuts the grass, who replaces the light bulbs and filters, and who takes care of the mouse in the basement. It is also important to keep a copy of all documentation presented to the tenant at move-in, including a copy of the local municipality and homeowners’ association rules, so you can refer to them as needed.
You should also keep the tenant’s rental application on file, for two reasons. First, if the tenant disappears owing you money, the application can provide information, such as his Social Security number or employer’s phone number, that could help you track him down for payment. But, it can also be an essential resource in the event of an emergency. It’s not uncommon to get more than one application for a property, the American Bar Association, recommends keeping the applications for all prospective tenants on file, so you can show that you have a consistent, nondiscriminatory screening process in place should you ever have to defend against a Fair Housing lawsuit. Although property management companies are required by law to keep all applications on file, an individual landlord puts himself at risk of for an identity thief by holding on them. If you decide to keep these applications, Please be sure to store them securely.
Any documentation obtained during a walkthrough or inspection needs to be kept on file to establish the condition of the property at that time. When the tenant moves in, complete a walkthrough, going from room to room, preferably with a checklist, and note any damage. File the original, signed by both you and the tenant, and provide him or her with a copy. Do the same if you conduct six month or periodic inspections. Then, when the tenant moves out, you have a reference point to determine whether any damage was done during his or her occupancy. As you go through that final walkthrough, again, make note of the condition of the property, and keep this document in your file, too. It will also very helpful if landlords are able to take photos and video to supplement any written documentation and to file those. Images of the condition before move-in and at move-out leave little room for dispute.
Did the tenant pay? When did he or she pay? These issues can be important during disputes, and without documentation, you don’t have a way to back up your position. Maintaining this information is crucial. Although you probably won’t have a written copy in the file, you should have some method of tracking payments. Without it, it’s easy to let a few weeks, or a few months, slip by before you notice the tenant hasn’t paid, especially if you’re managing multiple properties. Using an online system is a great way to easily track payments and also gives added convenience to the tenants.
WARRANTIES AND REPAIR INFORMATION
It is always good idea to keep warranty and repair documentation for appliances, flooring and other major components. Documenting any maintenance issues and costs that occur within the home and filing all warranties and repair information will give references to all future repair works, budget analysis, and define your and tenant’s responsibilities on repair costs.
Any written communication between you and your tenant—including letters, notes sent along with the rent check and emails—need to be filed. This also applies to written communication between you and other parties for any property related issues.
Most landlords realize they need to retain copies of all legal documents such as notices to comply or eviction notices, but what you might not realize is how you file those documents can make a difference. Legal documents have a history behind them. That eviction didn’t just come out of the blue—it follows a slew of late payments, an email from the tenant promising to pay and maybe even a bounced check. If you just randomly toss all of the documents related to a property into a file, you may have a difficult time finding what you need when you need it. Storing documents in a file containing separate folders with labels, such as Leases, Contractors and Communications, and putting the papers in chronological order. This creates a “read-through” of what has happened, allowing your attorney—or anyone else, for that matter—to see precisely how the events unfolded. (It also saves the attorney from having to do this for you, for a fee.) If you create and maintain a highly organized filing system, when you need to support your position in a legal action, you’ll be able to find the necessary documents, and your attorney will be able to better prepare for depositions, responsive pleadings, opposition briefs, motions and trial briefs. This can only strengthen your case and increase your chances of prevailing.
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