Avoid Move Out Walk-Throughs at All Cost!

by Karina Gafford

Let’s play Choose Your Own Adventure military landlord style. The theme of this adventure is move out walk-throughs. Yes, I know that’s an odd style of adventure, but bear with me.
 
Here’s the scenario:
Your tenant has provided his move-out notice. He’s received military orders to PCS to another state, and it conveniently coincides with the end date of his lease. You will part on good terms, as he has been a conscientious tenant; he always paid rent on time and didn’t make gratuitous maintenance requests. You receive a phone call from him in which he requests conducting the move-out inspection with you on the final day of his lease. He’s put you on the spot. How do you respond?
 
Option A: Yes, sure thing! Let me check what time I can meet you there. If you picked this option, proceed to "You meet the tenant."
Option B: No, I won’t be available to conduct a walk-through inspection with you. If you picked this option, proceed to "You conduct the inspection alone."
Option C: You don’t respond. You have a property manager who handles this stuff. This is the end of your adventure.
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You meet the tenant.
If you picked Option A, you’re likely considerate of others, accommodating, and potentially eager to please. None of these are bad qualities, but pay attention, as your adventure will proceed along the following lines.
 
You show up on the last day of the tenant’s lease at the specified time. The tenant either shows up or he changes his mind at the last minute. Experienced landlords are familiar with the latter scenario, as after a lengthy move out and cleaning, the last thing most tenants want to do is hang around for longer than necessary. For a military tenant, in particular, a move not only requires checking out of a personal residence, but there’s a lengthy check-out process on base, too, and as all military families know, your time is really not your own to schedule personal appointments, such as a move out walk-through.
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If your tenant is not at the property for your move out walk-through, then you can proceed to "You conduct the inspection alone."
If your tenant is at the property for the move out walk-through, then you can proceed to "The tenant is at the property."
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The tenant is at the property.
You greet your tenant. He returns your greeting, but seems anxious. He wants to know how long this will take. This is understandable, as this move out walk-through is simply an unpleasant item on what’s likely a lengthy to-do list, and he’s eager to move on to his next destination. Unfortunately, his anxiety is likely to make you feel more than a little pressured. You also don’t want to have to spend too much time in the company of this anxious individual, particularly since he continues to ask if everything looks okay in each room. He also inserts random comments to the effect of how much cleaner the home is than when he moved in. While you are busy inspecting for damages, he is occupied with making sure that you don’t find any. It isn’t that he is trying to conceal damages, but he has his own objective: He wants his security deposit back.
 
Your tenant’s anxious manner and persistent inquiries of the condition of the property have caused you to hurry through the inspection. You haven’t felt comfortable inspecting as thoroughly as you usually would, and so you are quick to sign off on the inspection as being in good condition.
 
Unfortunately, that slight off-color on the carpet that you hurriedly dismissed as a possible shadow in your rush to end this uncomfortable walk-through was not a shadow. You had moved onto the next room, and your tenant breathed a huge sigh of relief. If you had have been inspecting more thoroughly, you would have lifted the edge of the carpet to find a distinct stain on the padding beneath. In a day’s time when the carpet has finally fully dried from its cleaning, the off-color on the carpet will be more distinct. You would have picked up on the pet urine quicker, but now, your next tenant’s will instead, and they’ll make sure to mark this on their move-in sheet. When you learn of the stain, you have two options:
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Option 1: You recognize that you had missed this on your move out walk-through. You’re annoyed, but you’ve already signed off on the inspection as good, so you don’t do anything about it. If you selected this option, you then either pay for a cleaning of the carpet again for your new tenant, or you replace the carpet. You pay for the damages. This is the end of your adventure.

Option 2: You note that you missed the stain on your walk-through, and you make a note of that in the letter that you return to your tenant to explain the deduction from his security deposit. If you selected this option, you can then prepare for a day in court. In most states, the judge will award your tenant his full security deposit because you had signed off on his inspection sheet. To put salt on the wound, you will have to pay his legal fees. In the best case scenario, you’ve wasted precious time in court, and it likely wasn’t worth the damages awarded. You could try to claim that you signed the sheet under duress (he was making you overly anxious, right?), but do you really want to have to go to such extreme lengths? This is the end of your adventure.
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You conduct the inspection alone.
If you originally picked Option B, it doesn’t mean that you are not considerate of others, but it does suggest that you’ve either been burned in the past or have learned from the mistakes of others. You’ve learned that you are not required to conduct a move out walk-through inspection with your tenant. Such a requirement would be impossible to enforce, as it would require the cooperation of both the landlord and tenant. You can’t force your tenant to be physically present for this event; otherwise, you’re likely on other shaky legal ground. 
 
When you conduct the inspection alone, you can complete the inspection on your own time and without the additional pressure of an anxious tenant hassling you with questions about the condition. The tenant understandably wants to be present at the walk-through because he has money on the line, but you know that by the time the walk-through inspection takes place, there isn’t much that he can do about any damages. If there are minor cleaning issues that can be taken care of that day, such as the tenant forgot to clean the stove or sweep out the garage, then he can likely remedy that and save a few dollars in cleaning fees.
 
If, however, there are significant damages, such as holes in the wall, carpet damages, or other signs of significant negligence, then what is the likely outcome? The tenant can remedy these issues immediately. The only options available to him are to either immediately find out how much the damages may cost (if you are even aware, that is) or to argue with you about how the damage existed prior to his move in, but he somehow forgot to document this on his move-in inspection sheet or failed to mention it throughout the entirety of the lease. Likely, most of the latter discussions will not turn into heated arguments, but do you really want to put yourself in that situation? There’s no reason to rush your inspection, and there’s no reason to put yourself in what could result in a dangerous situation. This is the end of your adventure.
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The Other Side of the Story:
From the perspective of the tenant.
If you’re the tenant, then it’s understandable that you want to be present for the move out walk-through inspection. You likely have at least one month’s rent on the line for your security deposit. You want to make sure that you are overcharged for non-existent damages. How are you to know if the property manager actually conducted a thorough inspection, or if he even conducted an inspection at all? In many cases of absentee landlords, such as many military families are as a result of military relocations, a thorough inspection may not be a possibility. The family may have to rely on the next tenant’s move-in inspection report for a documentation of the condition of the property. If the new tenant reports scuff marks on the doors and walls on their inspection report—many move-in inspection reports are now done at the discretion of new tenants and without the presence of property manager, particularly when a landlord is an absentee—then how does the landlord know if the scuff marks are the result of the old tenant moving out furniture, or the new tenant moving furniture in?
 
When I spoke to Matthew Reischer, the CEO of LegalAdvice, he mentioned that the best way to protect yourself from losing your security deposit is to take photographs and videos of the condition of the property upon your move out. This will help protect against false claims and can serve as evidence in the event of charges. Though Reischer recommends having both tenants and landlords present at the move out walk-through inspection, military families know that this is not always possible, and thus documentation is essential for helping to mitigate loss of time, money, and anguish.