Photo: Getty Images

How many property managers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Rent Week 2018: Madeleine Chapman spends a long, soul-sucking day at an Auckland tenancy tribunal.

It’s 10:30am at the tenancy tribunal in Auckland District Court and everyone would rather be somewhere else.

The first case of the day features two property managers in sleek attire who wait outside the courtroom and talk about friends and friends’ relationships. One turns to me. “Are you in 10.1?” referring to the numbered hearing rooms. I say I am, but am just observing. She looks disappointed. “Our tenant, I don’t think she will even show up…or he.” I nod and look into her eyes, trying to figure out if she’s ever met their tenant before, because for a second there it seemed like she thought I was it.

A man emerges from the hearing room and mumbles, barely audibly, the names of all parties. On the wall by the door are the tenants’ names, both of which are Samoan and gender neutral. That explains – but doesn’t excuse – the confusion from the property managers.

Inside, the adjudicator is over the day before it has even begun. He looks at me with tired eyes when I ask to observe, then lazily points me to the back of the room.

The hearing room is smaller than a courtroom but has the same intentions. Where the lawyers would usually sit, the tenants, landlords, and property managers take their places. In this instance, the property managers arrange their supporting documents and stand to introduce themselves. The table next to them is unmanned.

What follows is a half hour of reading receipts to the adjudicator. In short, the property managers want the tenants to pay for goods and services that they were supposed to take care of themselves for vacating the lease. Fair enough.

One of the invoices presented is for light bulbs that were taken when the tenants moved out. But there’s an extra item on the invoice. “We charge a 10% fee instead of hiring an electrician,” she explains, “to save the tenants money.”

How many property managers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Two, plus a 10% administration fee and a trip to the tenancy tribunal.

The rest of the claims included a Watercare bill, an invoice for a lawn mow – plus 10% admin fee because they made the call – and cleaning costs. The grand total comes to $709.50.

The adjudicator accepts the claims and tells the property managers their part is done. The system will track down the tenants and get their money back. On their way out, one of the managers smiles at me. “Sorry it wasn’t more interesting for you.”

It’s 11:50am at the tenancy tribunal in Auckland District Court and everyone would rather be somewhere else.

This time there are no property managers. An older gentleman sits at one of the tables with a thin clearfile, representing his daughter. She wants her bond back. Barfoot & Thompson refuse to pay it. The man’s daughter moved to Sydney and left her apartment in good shape, but being out of the country, there wasn’t much she could do when the agent stopped replying to her emails requesting her bond.

Now here’s her dad, and it takes all of four minutes for the adjudicator to accept the claim and begin sorting a refund for the woman.

Adjudicator: Well that’s it, is it?

Man: Is it?

Adjudicator: I believe so.

It would almost be funny if it weren’t such a waste of time.

It’s 3:00pm at the tenancy tribunal in Auckland District Court and everyone would rather be somewhere else.

Yelling can be heard from across the hallway in another room while we wait to be called. A tradie is banging at the ceiling, putting a panel back into place after changing a light bulb. I hope he charges a 10% admin fee.

Our (the reluctant adjudicator and his new friend, me) final case for the day is a counterclaim. Finally, both parties are present. A young man dressed well and looking uncomfortable, and two property managers dressed well.

The case is simple. The tenant asked to move out before the fixed term lease was up. He gave three weeks’ notice. He moved out. The new tenant won’t be in for another two weeks and the property managers want him to pay rent for those two weeks. He says he can’t afford to.

They say he has to because otherwise what’s the point in a fixed term lease.

He says he signed the lease on his way to work and is illiterate, but no one walked him through it.

They say he didn’t suffer severe hardship enough to warrant an early termination.

His hands are shaking.

The property managers claim he didn’t even leave the property in an acceptable condition, to which the tenant responds with “I’m not asking much. The house doesn’t even have adequate smoke detectors. And it’s mouldy.”

His hands are shaking but his voice is steady.

The adjudicator doesn’t deliver a verdict. He needs time to “decide if the hardship to the tenant would be greater than the hardship to the landlord were this lease to end early.” When he asks the property manager if the landlord would suffer more hardship over two weeks’ rent than the tenant, she says yes. We’re dismissed and a verdict is promised in the mail by the end of the week.

While I wait for the lift down to a tension-free Albert St, I can still hear one of the property managers berating the tenant about the state of the property as they exit the hearing room.

Property manager: “There are stains on the carpet.”

Tenant: “I got a carpet cleaner in.”

“It wasn’t enough.”

“I’ll get him in again. I’ll organise it.”

“No, we’ll organise it and you’ll pay the invoice.”

“No, I can sort it out.”

“No you can’t. We’ll organise and you pay.”

“Well it shouldn’t be more than $180.”

“You’ll pay whatever it costs.”

“It’s a fixed price.”

“Whatever it costs.”

This section is made possible by Simplicity, the online nonprofit KiwiSaver plan that only charges members what it costs, nothing more. Simplicity is New Zealand’s fastest growing KiwiSaver scheme, saving its 12,000 plus investors more than $3.8 million annually in fees. Simplicity donates 15% of management revenue to charity and has no investments in tobacco, nuclear weapons or landmines. It takes two minutes to join.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.