Ellen Bathgate: the devil is in the detail

There are only so many hours in the day and, if you're a property manager that needs to prioritise their time, one area not to cut back on is condition reports. As Ellen Bathgate explains, the devil is often in the detail and can be the difference between winning or losing a hefty claim that could cost your landlord thousands.

It’s no secret that property managers are busy. More than busy.

So it’s easy to understand why you might be tempted to make life a little easier for yourself and do a ‘good enough’ job on some tasks.

You may even consider this as an option for your ingoing and outgoing condition reports but, hear me out – this is not where you want scrimp to save yourself some time.

Why? I’m living proof that the devil is in the detail when it comes to tribunal hearings.

Those reports can be the difference between winning or losing a $20,000 claim at the tribunal against the landlord.

Back in 2013, when I was in the first stages of growing my rent roll, I managed a property that developed a mould issue.

Little did I know how big an issue it was going to become.

The tenants took possession of the property in March, and within the first month of their tenancy, they reported mould growing in their bathroom.

I’d experienced some severe mould issues in other properties, so I knew how expensive this could be for a landlord.

I knew I had to act on this issue with urgency to avoid excessive expenses for my landlord.

I quickly arranged for an exhaust fan to be installed in the bathroom, hoping desperately that this would resolve the mould problem. But it didn’t.

A month later, the tenants reported the mould had spread into the hallway outside the bathroom.

I could tell the tenant was getting agitated about the mould issue, so I arranged for a mould cleaning company to remove the mould in the bathroom and hallway.

The advantage of using a professional mould cleaning company was that they also prepared a full report outlining the underlying causes of the mould and a remediation plan for treating it so that it would never return.

This report allowed the landlord and I to act swiftly on the mould company’s advice and treat the underlying cause of the mould: a simple guttering issue that was resolved within a week.

By June, the tenants served a termination notice, claiming that the landlord wasn’t honouring her agreement by rectifying the mould.

The tenants claimed that the mould had spread over their furniture, caused them serious health problems, and was the sole reason they needed to move out.

However, the tenant refused to provide evidence of the mould, wouldn’t send photos, and wouldn’t allow me to come and inspect the mould in person. 

Something didn’t add up.

However, in property management, you’re often required to consider the options and determine which dispute you want to step into.

You must weigh up the battle you’re going to fight.

Are you going to put effort into fighting the tenant over the termination notice, or are you going to put effort into finding a new tenant instead?

Fortunately, I had a very reasonable landlord, and we agreed to release the tenant from their lease.

We both agreed that it would be easier to find a new tenant after we had vacant possession of the property again.

I’d like to say the story ends here, but it doesn’t.

After vacating the property, the tenant applied to the tribunal for compensation related to replacing the damaged furniture, moving expenses, lost wages, and even personal stress compensation.

The total claim came to $21,000. It was an enormous figure and the largest claim I’d ever responded to in my career.

This is where those finite details you recorded in the property condition reports come in.

When I completed the outgoing condition report, I looked for the mould in the house that the tenant reported.

I couldn’t find it.

I searched high and low, took written notes and hundreds of photos, but the mould wasn’t there.

Then it got interesting.

I noticed the tenant had left a large pile of “mould affected furniture” on the front nature strip, waiting for a council rubbish collection.

So I looked a little closer.

The closer I looked, the more I realised that this furniture didn’t have any mould on it.

I took more notes and more photos.

The matter went before the tribunal, and the whole application was dismissed within an hour.

Not a single cent was awarded to the tenant.

Let me be clear: there definitely was mould in the property at the beginning.

I saw it with my own eyes, photographed it, and the mould cleaning company removed it.

The defining point in the tribunal case wasn’t the fact that there was mould in the property.

The reason I won the case was because I addressed the mould, fixed it, and was able to prove that the tenant’s application was false.

So the next time you’re completing your ingoing or outgoing condition reports, and you’re feeling like the effort you’re going to doesn’t justify the outcomes, remember this story.

This was a once-in-a-career tribunal case, but it was worth every second I spent on those ingoing and outgoing condition reports and photos.

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Ellen Bathgate

Ellen Bathgate is the founder of Rent Roll Starter, and helps rent roll owners to start and grow their own rent rolls using affordable growth strategies. For more information visit