(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

BusinessJuly 1, 2019

How I fought back against my property manager, and won

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

If your property manager tries to charge you a ridiculous ‘cleaning’ charge when you leave your place, there’s something you can do, writes Sam Grover – and he should know, because he did it.

The other week, I saw a story about a property manager named Whittle Knight and Boatwood Estate Agents who took a tenant to Tenancy Tribunal for $90 for carpet cleaning. Unsurprisingly, the property manager lost.

It got me thinking. Almost everyone I know has a story like this: A tenancy with a property manager finishes up, and no matter how clean the place is, the property manager demands something off the bond. It’s usually a few hundred dollars or less. Since it’s a small proportion of the total bond, it doesn’t feel like very much, even though you would hesitate to pay $100 if someone asked for it from your wallet.

This gives the tenant two choices:

1) Argue with the landlord, have their entire bond held up for several weeks, then maybe get it back after a tenancy hearing, which they’ll have to take time off work to attend.

2) Just pay the property manager and move on.

So I had a look through the Tenancy Tribunal’s decisions. It’s not hard to find such cases. There’s this one, where Bayleys asked for $246 for some gas bottles taken away by the gas supplier – even though these bottles never belonged to Bayleys in the first place.

Or this one, where Crockers tried to get an unspecified (presumably low) amount of money in cleaning costs from a tenant. They lost.

Or this one, starring me, where Barfoot and Thompson tried to get me to pay $172 for cleaning that never happened, plus $4 for a light bulb.

Sam Grover’s living room when he vacated the apartment. His property manager subsequently charged him $172 for cleaning costs. (supplied)

This is in addition to the multitude of cases (more than 20 in the last couple months alone) where the tenant won because the property manager didn’t come to the hearing. This means they tied up the tenant’s bond and made them take time off work for a case that they couldn’t be bothered showing up to argue.

I think these cases are just the tip of the iceberg, because they’re only the ones where the tenant fought back. In my view this is happening on a much larger scale but we don’t see it because tenants are just paying and moving on.

Property managers wouldn’t take these small cases to the Tribunal if it wasn’t worth doing. If a property manager can get nine tenants out of 10 to acquiesce to an unreasonable demand for $100, it’s worth their effort to go to the Tribunal for the 10th tenant. At that rate they’re already at least $900 up, so a couple of hours in court now and again will both cover the manager’s time and send the message that they’re willing to pursue such meaningless actions.

And you can see why they do it, too. The property management space is very competitive. The barriers to entry are low because literally anyone can do it. So property managers are constantly having to prove that they’re worth the 8% or so of rent revenue they charge landlords. A cheap and easy way of doing this is to get outgoing tenants to take on the costs of getting the home ready for the next tenant by paying for additional cleaning that they weren’t obligated to do.

The kitchen on the day Sam left his rented apartment (supplied)

Millions of dollars a year

To get an idea of the scale of this problem, we can look at a major property management firm that appears in lots of Tribunal decisions.

On its website it boasts of managing than 13,000 properties. If we assume it’s getting an average of $100 in undeserved cleaning and other fees, per property, per year, that’s at least $1.3m. And that’s just one property management company.

This has to stop. It’s effectively an extra bit of rent that the tenant never signed up for, and a gross abuse of the power property managers have over their tenants. As a tenant, all you need to do is leave a property “reasonably clean and tidy”. If a landlord wants it to be absolutely sparkling for the next tenant, then they can do that – but they should fund that themselves, not pay a property manager to reach into the outgoing tenant’s pocket.

The really gross thing about this practice is that the more vulnerable you are, the more you pay. When I went through this process Barfoot and Thompson first asked me for around $400. When I said no, they reduced the cost to around $200. Then they reduced it to $100. Then we went to Tribunal. The more desperate you are for your bond, the more likely you are to agree to an early, higher offer – even if the true amount you owe is $0. I can afford $400, but because I can also afford to wait for my bond, I was able to do so.

One of the pics Barfoot & Thompson sent Sam after the inspection – two drops of grease that could be easily wiped off with a napkin. (supplied)

What you can do

The good news is renters have the power to stop this by making it too expensive for property managers to go to Tribunal.

Here’s how: When your landlord demands a cleaning fee, or a carpet cleaning fee, or any other fee that you don’t feel is justified at the end of a tenancy, say no. Your email to them doesn’t need to be any more than two letters: “no”. Don’t explain yourself. Don’t write a sermon. Don’t respond to their emotive pleas. Just say no.

Then they’ll drop the fee down by a significant amount, to make you feel like you’re getting a deal. Say no to that. Then they’ll drop the price even lower. You know what to do – say no again.

They’ll say that they’re going to take you to Tribunal. Tell them that that’s fine, and you look forward to it. At the same time, ask them to release the not-in-dispute portion of your bond. When they inevitably say no, file a claim of your own to get it back. When you win that claim, they’ll have to refund you your $20 fee.

And then go to your hearing. If you left the place reasonably clean and tidy, you’ll almost certainly win. If you didn’t, you’ll be no worse off than you would have been had you agreed to the property manager’s offer. And in the meantime, your property manager had to spend a pretty significant chunk of time arguing over just a few hours of their hourly rate.

The main cost of this is that you’ll have to wait a while for your bond. But if you have the resources to do this, you should! Not for you, but for the thousands of people who don’t have the money to weather this fight. By going to Tribunal, you’re making it more expensive for property managers to shake tenants down at the end of a tenancy. If enough tenants stick up for themselves, property managers won’t be able to justify these small-scale shakedowns.

So fight your property manager if you think they’re wrong. Tell them you won’t be paying their fees. They’ll guilt trip you. They’ll cajole you. They’ll pull out every stop to try to get you to pay this relatively small amount. But ignore it all. Just continuously say no, make them take you to Tribunal, and do your bit towards making renting just a bit more tolerable – not just for you, but for every other renter in the country.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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