· “An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure” ·
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I do not give out legal advice; I share memories and tell stories.
“What can I do about a tenant who stole my refrigerator?” asked the new landlord.
When I was working sheriff’s patrol it seemed like we took reports about everything. However, there were a couple of areas that we learned to avoid whenever possible.
One was when the reporting party (or “RP”) had an argument with someone (“I’m not a social worker.”) and disputes over property (“I’m not an attorney.”).
Since we worked twenty-four hours a day, made house calls, and didn’t charge a fee, often we were the people tasked with trying to help sort things out, especially outside regular business hours.
I recall a dispute from my rookie deputy days when my supervisor told me to not make a report. “No case it,” he said. “Let her decide whether to pursue a complaint by contacting an attorney or going to small claims court. It’s not our job.”
I had responded to an inquiry from a young woman who told me that her former roommate had not paid her past-due rent and that the former tenant had stolen some furniture from the house (owned by the parents of the RP). The RP explained to me that the alleged crime had occurred weeks earlier and that the former friend had made promises, but she was no longer cooperating.
I listened to the RP’s complaint and commiserated with her. I wanted to help, but I didn’t make a report, per my sergeant’s orders. The event was considered civil, not criminal. We were not a collection agency.
About six months later, I was summoned to small claims court. The RP called me to testify in order to verify that she had contacted me about the incident. However, my testimony was useless as I had not investigated anything.
The judge quickly dismissed the case for lack of documentation. The plaintiff provided no evidence of a signed contract and no proof of ownership of the missing property.
So, when landlords discover that property has been stolen from their rental property, they must consider their options. Law enforcement is only one possibility.
Successful landlords need to be meticulous. Once they approve an irresponsible person to be their tenant, then they will need to consider themselves partly to blame when the rent goes unpaid, and when property is damaged or stolen.
Smart landlords do a thorough background check of potential tenants; use detailed, legal rental contracts; collect a security deposit; keep records with proof of ownership of the property (stoves, refrigerators, air conditioners, etc.); regularly visit the rental property; and do an inspection or walk-through with the tenant prior to returning the security deposit.
When an item is missing or stolen from the rental unit, the landlord will consider potential costs. If a security deposit can cover the missing refrigerator, then the proprietor may decide to accept the loss as just part of doing business.
In their records, landlords can document the purchase of both the old refrigerator and its replacement, complete with serial numbers and photographs. This procedure will help the manager prove why a particular tenant did not have his or her security deposit returned.
Of course, landlords must decide at what point their financial loss is worth reporting. Do they contact their insurance company, pursue a civil suit, &/or file a police report?
- If local law enforcement takes a report, is the landlord prepared to spend time on follow-up inquiries, and in helping locate and punish the offender?
- If the former tenant is located but claims that she didn’t steal anything, is their solid documentation of the loss?
- Is the landlord prepared for a counterclaim by the former tenant? (Here are some examples: 1) “The refrigerator is mine.” 2) “He didn’t return my damage deposit, so we’re even.” 3) His rentals are unsafe and unsanitary. We lived with black mold for six months.”)
- Will the landlord represent herself in civil court, if required, &/or pay attorney fees?
Sometimes it’s not about the money. Sometimes it’s personal. If I was a landlord, I wouldn’t want anyone taking advantage of me, but I’d also have to consider at what point something wasn’t worth my extra effort and expense.
Clearly, spending hundreds of dollars to win in court, but to never be compensated for my loss by a defendant without assets would be a hollow victory.
I read about a landlord who was totally perplexed when he discovered that a previously responsible tenant, who had paid rent promptly, had disappeared, seemingly overnight. All the appliances were missing—the stove, refrigerator, and dish washer.
The biggest mystery was why the tenant had committed this major theft while taking the time to clean up the apartment. It was spotless! The landlord couldn’t figure out why the tenant had made the effort to clean the premises when there was no incentive of having the security deposit returned.
Could a thief have stolen the appliances from the recently vacated apartment after the tenant had departed, or had the tenant bamboozled the landlord? Who was the criminal and how could he be located?
The proprietor canvassed the neighborhood, starting with the person alert enough to have been a Neighborhood Watch block captain. Sure enough, Eagle Eyes had observed the move-out and identified the commercial moving company from the truck’s identifiable markings.
After a phone call to the moving company, the landlord received unexpected help. The company confirmed that they had picked up all the appliances and other household goods as requested by the tenant. Fortunately, the furniture had not yet been delivered.
The landlord got his property back.
I never learned if the proprietor pursued criminal charges or filed a civil suit, but I did discover why the apartment had been cleaned.
The moving company had offered a package deal for their services which included cleaning the apartment once it was vacant.
Until next time, happy writing and reading!