So just how important is the move-in checklist?

You’ve found a good tenant for your rental and you are excited to meet him/her and sign the lease.  The date and time are set and the only thing left to do now is grab the lease and head out the door, right?  Wrong.

At least in WA state, the law says you cannot hold a security deposit of the tenant without a move-in checklist!  Imagine having a “security” deposit that provides no security at all because you are missing this one essential document.  It means returning the entire deposit to the tenant regardless of the condition the property was left in.

So you go back and grab the move-in checklist at the same time as you grab the lease.  You head over to meet your new tenant.  You’re runnmove-in-2ing a little short of time.  After all, you just want to grab the money, give them the keys, and be done with this nonsense.  So you draw a line down the move-in checklist under the ‘Good’ column and figure that overs you, right?  Wrong.

You need to put a check next to each item or the checklist is invalid.  This one is the judge’s call whether they will accept it or not, but imagine having a move-in checklist and still being ordered to return the full amount.

All right.  So you have a move-in checklist and each item is checked off.  Three years have passed and it is time for the tenant to move out.  Do you have notes on the move-in checklist so you can determine which repair items are chargeable to the tenant and which ones to the owner?  Good notes — and even photographs — help insure fairness for all parties.  If you don’t know then how can you charge fairly?

The move-in checklist (and its counterpart, the move-out checklist) are critical legal documents to a lease.

How to Shop for a Property Manager

It’s scary, really. Here you are ready to give over one of the biggest assets in your financial empire to a total stranger! How do you pick the good from the bad from the ugly? Here are a few tips.butler_vector1

  1. Website. Go to their website. Is it rich with content? Does it read like an open book? Basically you want to ask the question “Are they good communicators?” If their website isn’t doing a good job of communicating key points then likely their staff won’t either.
  2. Screening process. Far and away this is the one single task property managers do that separate the good from the bad. THE one question every property owner should be asking prospective property managers – “What is your tenant screening process?” You should go into detail on their process and compare.
  3. Communication. 4 of the top 5 complaints of property management companies deal with poor communication. Look for multiple, parallel communication channels. Email. Phone. Text. What about an owner portal? Will you receive email alerts on activity on your account? Property updates? Inspections? Market updates? Find out how they communicate.
  4. Referrals. No company in their right mind would give you the name and number to a bad referral. Nevertheless, information can be gained by calling referrals. That is why people ask for them. Sometimes you get lucky and learn nuggets that can help your decision.
  5. Maintenance. Is it done in-house or with vendors? What kind of rates do they charge? More importantly, try to find out the quality of work. In-house maintenance is preferred because there is accountability and they can control the quality. Vending it out tends to be more “open season”.

These are some of the more important points. You may have other “hot spots” you want addressed. You will notice that Fees is NOT one of the tips. Why? You’ll have to read our next blog for that! 🙂

For more information on Full Service Property Management, visit our website.

Why property management fees don’t matter

A lot of us make buying decision on price.  It only makes sense.  Not so when shopping for a property management company.  Here’s why.

Most property management companies charge a percentage of rent — somewhere in the range of 7-12% of the rental price.  You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that an 8% management fee is better than a 10% management fee.  But there is a LOT more at stake here than just the management fee.

What if the management company does a lousy job of screening tenants and allows some “deadbeat” tenants to move in?  Now you are at risk for: 1) unpaid rents; 2) property damage; 3) legal fees from eviction, and/or; 4) any combination of the above.  The cost to an owner from lousy tenants can easily escalate to $5-10,000 or more.

Now consider the cost of the 8% PM company vs the 10% PM company.  On a $2,000/mo. rental that difference is $40/mo., or $500/year.  Beginning to see the logic?

The management fees a PM company charge an owner are dwarfed by the potential financial risk that same PM company puts the owner into.

So what is the solution?

Shop management companies NOT on fee or price but rather on their success at finding good tenants.  Ask them the following questions:  How many evictions have they had in the past 3 years?  What is their tenant screening process?  Is that policy posted on their website or somewhere where you and applicants can see it?  How do they handle late pays?  How do they handle bad tenants?  Do they inspect property?  How often?

Tenant screening is THE most important task a property management company (and landlord) does.  There is not second!  It is that important.  Do your homework up front and you (and us!) can save thousands on the back end.

Peter Nelson is President of Full Service Property Management company in Seattle, WA.  He has been managing his own rentals and those of other landlords for over 30 years.  He can be reached through the company’s website at

How to handle security deposits

In the world of property management, nothing is more important yet controversial as security deposits. Owners try to “make money” off tenants by keeping their security deposit. Tenants sue owners often to get their security deposit back. Here are a few ‘basics’ to help keep both parties out of hot water.

Setting the amount: A lot of owners will set a very low security deposit. Their theory is that by setting the deposit low they can attract a lot of prospective tenants and rent their unit quickly. And they are absolutely correct.

The problem is they attract the wrong kind of tenant. They find people who are not able to save money — who live day-to-day. This becomes a problem when the tenant has a large expense (such as an auto repair or medical bill). Often the rent plays second fiddle to the other expense and rent is either late or not paid.  Once this cycle starts, it rarely ends without an eviction.

Hardly ever do owners set the security deposit too high.  But at Full Service Property Management, we set a security deposit equal to about one month’s rent.  We have found this is not too high of a deposit for most good tenants, but is high enough to attract those tenants who are resourceful and plan ahead.  Have you seen those apartment specials advertising “Move in for just $50”?  You can be sure that in most instances the ‘move out’ will cost the landlord a LOT more than that!!

Managing the deposit:  There are lots of rules to keep landlords from spending the tenants’ money.  (And until the tenant moves out, it should be considered the tenants‘ money, and not the landlord’s!!)  In WA state, owners must have the security deposit in a separate account (so they don’t co-mingle the tenants’ money with their own and end up spending it).  For one rental this may not be that big of a deal.  But as the number of rentals increases, so does the importance of this accounting practice.

Owners cannot hold a security deposit (in WA) without a detailed move-in checklist showing the condition of the property.  Many landlords think they are holding a security deposit, but without a move-in checklist all they have is prepayment towards rent — hardly any security at all!

Returning the deposit – the move out: Many owners abuse the security deposit by keeping it without justification, and give the rest of us landlords bad names.  It is important to be fair.  That works both ways.  A tenant also needs to understand sometimes that what they consider ‘clean’ isn’t necessarily commonly agreed upon.  For example, just because it is convenient to leave behind a large piece of furniture doesn’t necessarily mean anyone wants it!

In WA state, just like with the move-in, a move-out checklist is also required.  This is when the rubber meets the road.  Comparing the two checklists will determine and discrepancies.  But owners cannot simply get new carpet at the tenants’ expense.  It is not that simple.  The cost of that carpet needs to be depreciated over the life of carpet.  If the carpet is 5 years old and it has a 10-year lifetime, then the landlord can only deduct half the cost of installation of new carpet.  Different tasks have different lifetimes, and there is no standardized table of material lifetimes.  It is all a gray area that should not be abused by either party!

Also in WA state, a landlord has to give an accounting of what he/she is holding back on their security deposit.  This accounting has to be mailed or given to the tenant within 14 days.  At Full Service Property Management we call it ‘the 12-day letter’ to make sure we do not run afoul of the law.  This is a sticky area that needs to be adhered to religiously.  A landlord may not know all of the costs in 2 weeks.  So we will put estimates and placeholder amounts in our calculations.  We almost always do a $250 utility holdback.  We cannot tell you the number of times we have refunded a tenant’s security deposit only to have an unpaid utility bill come in afterwards!

In summary: Be smart and be fair.  If you are a tenant then leave the place as you found it or be prepared to take responsibility for damage.  If you are a landlrod, don’t play with other people’s money.  In both cases, handle the other party with respect.  Treat them as you would want to be treated.  Best of luck.


Disclaimer:  We are not lawyers, and this information is not offered as legal advice.  Laws change and different states may have different rules in place.  You are advised to seek the counsel of a licensed legal representative regarding any of the matters discussed here.

Peter Nelson is President of Full Service Property Management in Seattle, WA.  He and his wife have their own rental portfolio and have been successfully managing their portfolio and those of their clients for over 30 years.  More information is available on their website at