Lately we’ve seen a growing number of cases heard in the Queensland Civil Administration Tribunal (QCAT) ruled in favour of tenants, with little to no consistency toward rulings for similar cases. Additionally, turnaround times for applications to court hearing have been delayed as a result of changes to postal allowance times, and secondly, the process of applying, lodging and representing via QCAT is increasingly time consuming. As a result, we see stress and large workloads in our property management teams that manifest in general panic throughout their day to day duties.
But it doesn’t always have to be this way. Sometimes, consistent communication to all parties involved in a tenancy, coupled with advice and due diligence from industry professionals can help to avoid disputes and reach a mutual agreement quickly. Let’s start at the beginning of a tenancy.
When taking on a property for the very first time as a property manager, my advice is to ask yourself the following:
- Is the property, plus its fixtures, fittings and inclusions, all in good working condition?
- Is the property compliant in relation to pool fences, smoke alarms, safety switches, building safety and in line with other council regulations (such as separately metered flats)?
- Can you observe any potential risks that could lead to a dispute and/or are you walking into a current dispute? E.g. inheriting ongoing/current maintenance problems, non-documented storage of owners’ belongings and fully-furnished properties.
- If a tenant is occupying the residence, does a thorough Entry Condition Report exist with supporting photographic evidence? Are the special terms on the tenancy agreement compliant and extensive?
- If a tenant has occupied the premises, has there been multiple breaches served to either tenant or owner for the duration of the management?
- Has the property owner arranged landlord insurance and tax depreciation schedule?
It’s crucial for property managers to understand that their job involves a multi-pronged approach; servicing the tenant, the property, and of course the owner. As a manager, many professionals conduct their work based on their clients’ schedules and expectations, rather than their own. This is an inefficient managerial style as reactive responses can lead to chaos; therefore, the goal is to be proactive.
Managing processes, procedures, clients and yourselves requires structure and strong management; as much as we should focus on responding efficiently to our clients, we also need to clearly communicate turnaround times and ensure our business processes run efficiently. This in turn creates good practice, organisation and a solid foundation for a business relationship based on respect and aligned expectations.
At the start of a new relationship with a property owner it’s important to set the boundaries, particularly when it comes to maintenance approval processes, communication turnaround times and minimum vacancy periods between tenancies. Advise them of your role – to be a mediator between owner and tenant and to provide property owners options and guidance to overcome any issues.
We know a leading cause for tenant dispute occurs when maintenance is not approved and therefore not rectified in a short time. Advise property owners that you are there to act in their best interests. By setting a deadline of 24 hours for their approval to proceed on any non-urgent maintenance requests, you are mitigating loss to ensure the maintenance does not develop into a larger problem. Furthermore, reducing the risk of tenant dispute that can often result through rent reduction requests and other compensation. If quotes must be obtained, provide owners with the same approval deadline. Remember, tenants do not distinguish between cheap or expensive maintenance – they look at it all the same and therefore want it to be approved and rectified on the same principal. Initiate two-way communications with tenants every 24 hours while their maintenance approval is pending, and advise them of deadlines you have delivered to the property owner as a matter of urgency.
Always leave a minimum of four working days between tenancies, and educate the owners on the importance of doing so; by allowing a minimum of four working days between tenancies, it allows enough time to conduct a thorough vacate inspection and time to identify potential discrepancies without the pressure of rushing and failing to address items.
Furthermore, this allows time to work with the current tenant and new tenant to ensure matters are addressed fairly. It is important to start new tenancies afresh without inheriting any problems that could have been avoided if we had allowed ourselves time.
When it comes to Entry Condition Reports, carefully go through ECRs and photos with tenant, advising them of their responsibilities to a) return a signed copy and b) the consequences if they do not.
It’s advisable to diarise follow ups, and record follow up attempts to obtain tenant copy of ECRs. Use descriptive words throughout the document such as “spotlessly clean”, “as new”, “no dents, marks, scratches or other signs of wear”; the more descriptive you are, the less room exists for interpretation.
Never begin a tenancy with conflicting comments on an entry condition report, especially when referring to damage and cleanliness. If a tenant returns the ECR with inconsistencies within the document, arrange to meet the tenant onsite within 24 hours to address concerns. After inspection is complete and an agreement is reached, amend ECR with amendment letter detailing points raised, how these have been resolved and instruct the tenant to sign within 24 hours.
When a tenant provides notice, provide a thorough vacate letter to tenants outlining clear vacate responsibilities and procedures, lists of preferred tradespeople, their rent paid to date and total amount owing in rent up to and including the vacate date. Attach an entry notice for the pre-vacate routine inspection, allowing you the opportunity to inspect the property and address issues while the tenant is on site.
This allows the tenant weeks to amend issues if necessary, rather than a few days’ in-between tenancies.
My number one tip to avoid vacate disputes? Send a copy of the original Entry Condition Report and photographs to the tenant, and pre-book a day and time to meet and conduct the vacate inspection together.
Remember, property managers are always to act under the owners instructions. Where you feel there are items required to be addressed by the tenant, report this to the owner and await instruction prior to communicating these issues to the tenant.
Provide the same deadline to the owner and a call for action, advising that should you not hear from them by close of business, you will proceed in arranging the tenant to revisit the property to attend to said items reinspect upon completion to confirm condition of property accordingly.
If you find yourself in a residential dispute situation, it’s important to visit the RTA website (https://www.rta.qld.gov.au/) to access a range of tenancy information and tenancy support organisations. (For other states, refer to your local authority!)