Question: I recently ended up in small claims court with a tenant. The issue related to differing interpretations of the original condition of the unit as indicated on the move-in inspection checklist. In our case, our units are typically in excellent condition. They regularly have very nice carpets (only a few years old), new paint, newer appliances, etc… When we fill out the checklist, we only note any defects to the property (this means that many lines on the checklist are blank, because there are no defects to describe). Anyway, we lost in court because the judge said that we could not prove that the condition was as we claimed it to be at the time of move-in. What did I do wrong here?
Answer: The only statute describing the checklist requirement is RCW 59.18.260, which states in relevant part, “no deposit may be collected by a landlord unless the rental agreement is in writing and a written checklist or statement specifically describing the condition and cleanliness of or existing damages to the premises and furnishings, including, but not limited to, walls, floors, countertops, carpets, drapes, furniture, and appliances, is provided by the landlord to the tenant at the commencement of the tenancy.” In theory, you did everything absolutely correct. The statute requires you to describe “existing damages to the premises and furnishings,” and theoretically, a whole bunch of blanks on the checklist means that everything was perfect at move-in. However, I regularly hear stories of landlords losing in small claims court because judge did something that seems not to track directly to the law. The only general advice I can give is that you take a deep breath, and remember: 1) The landlord-tenant laws are there to protect the tenants (when in doubt, the landlord usually loses); and 2) You are the one making a claim for damages, which means that the burden of proof is on you to describe the losses that you suffered due to the tenant’s neglect. For that reason, I urge what can only be described as overkill, when completing the inspection checklist. Even for a studio apartment, my initial inspection and checklist preparation would take a half hour or so. I will do a room by room description of the property, and for each one, specifically describe the condition of the walls, doors, ceiling, windows, window coverings and any other features (fireplaces, appliances, etc…). For a single family home, the process often takes a minimum of an hour. You may have gotten a different result on a different day with a different judge. However, since we rarely get to select our judge, we need to be extra careful to document the condition of the property at move-in. I do recommend that you complete every line of the inspection checklist with a detailed description. In addition to (but not as a substitute for) the checklist, many landlords also video record the entire unit or take digital photographs at move-in (keep in mind —your marketing photos may also be evidence of the move-in condition—I used those once myself). Reprinted from Rental Housing Association newsletter written by Christopher T. Benis, Legal Counsel for Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound.