"A man is only as good as his word." -- Ancient truism

Dr. Brandon Mueller Teaches Us About Business Ethics and Personal Integrity in this on-line "Real World Curriculum."

Letter to Brandon Mueller on August 6th.


Moving into your house has been an adventure. When we toured the house before signing the lease, we thought the current residents were just messy and fully expected the house to be cleaned and repaired before we took possession. I was surprised to find the house in such poor condition.

My assessment is that you’ve taken a rather laid-back approach to property management over the years. Cheap fixes, poor quality painting, no rental permit, things allowed to go unrepaired for a long time, tenants not required to clean. The facts speak for themselves.

Now before you get all defensive about the stories into which you’re already invested, please take a photo tour of the state of the house…


On one hand, I’m sorry to have gotten myself into this situation. On the other hand, my wife and daughter like the place and the location and I think the house is sound and will turn around quickly with a little TLC.

Given my years of experience building, renovating, and owning homes, I have a lot of sage advice to give you and can direct the rehabilitation of this house as a side project, saving you money and time.

In general I am a patient and persistent person. I tolerate a lot except denial and deceit. If you want to argue about what is “clean” and what is not, I will walk away and find less troublesome activities. If you choose to bluster about professional inspectors and painters, I will quickly lose my enthusiasm for this project.

Again, the facts speak for themselves.

So what are your goals with this house? Do you want to keep renting it to low-rent tenants who will tolerate the place falling to pieces around them? Do you want to continue renting the house, but to higher-paying, more conscientious (and demanding) renters? Do you intend to sell the house? How soon? Your answer to this will be your mission statement and will inform future decision-making on house maintenance and improvements.

As we have discussed via email and on the phone, I am willing to help improve the house and have added $1,200 to the annual lease to underwrite improvements that I intend to enjoy. This money is not intended to underwrite common maintenance and repairs.

To help us make the distinction between “common maintenance and repairs” and “improvements” I’d like to suggest we work with two documents…

City of Iowa City Rental Inspection Checklist

Southgate Property Management Rental Check-Out List

These two documents represent the base or minimal expectations of a landlord and the condition of the home when it changes hands.

As a landlord, you should have two budget lines to work with: ongoing maintenance costs and turnover costs. Houses, by their nature, deteriorate. The first item is the amount you have to work with to keep the home in compliance with local regulations and the conditions you prefer. The second item is the amount you have set aside to clean and repair the home between renters. The landlord is responsible for what is legally called “normal wear and tear.” Every turnover involves repairs and cleaning that fall under the normal wear and tear moniker – beyond what is expected of the last tenants.

I expect the house to be returned to a livable condition and maintained on your dime, using, in part, the $1,200 rent I am paying you.

I do not expect my “improvements” funds to be spent on these items.

As we move forward, I suggest we use these considerations to categorize each expense as either “common maintenance and repairs” or “improvements.” (Leaving, of course, a little room for collegial disagreement…)

So, for example, YOU need new carpets to maintain the value of the house and put it into a sellable condition. As a renter, I need – and am due – clean carpets. (The cleaner had to empty her vacuum cleaner bag twice when she did the house…) I offered to subsidize the carpet replacement to hurry the process. Let’s say $200 worth.

Another example, YOU need to hook up the refrigerator’s water supply to maintain the value of the house and put it into a sellable condition. As a renter, I expected that the thing was hooked up when it was presented to me as a feature of the house.

What do you think?

As discussed, I’m charging you $25/hr for work that I do on your house. It’s a very fair price and I do good work.

So far I’ve reconnected the downstairs smoke alarm to the circuit, installed batteries in each, replaced the non-functioning light bulbs, temporarily sealed the basement drainpipe, repaired a couple closet doors (two more to go), found matching paint for the upstairs walls, and priced out replacements for screens and window coverings. (About 2 hours…)

The carpets need to be cleaned and replaced ASAP. The cleaner reported dog hair and animals stains throughout the house (old and new carpets, even in the coat closet), to which I am highly allergic. We are living temporarily in the small bedrooms and storing our stuff in the garage as we await the new flooring.

I was assuming that you were moving ahead with Lowe’s. My flooring friend in Davenport reports that $1,000 for 600 sq. ft. of installed carpet is an OK price that he cannot improve upon.

The remaining carpet needs to be cleaned. I would highly recommend a local contractor who has done excellent work for me in the past: Alberts Cleaning and Maintenance in North Liberty. His pricing is typically better than the franchises.

The range hood needs replacement, but I can’t find any on sale (moving season…) A $50 range hood cheapens the house. Believe me, every potential buyer will turn on the hood to hear how loud it is. Decent hoods are about $120 everyday, but even better hoods occasionally go on sale for about the same price. I am willing to wait to find a good quality hood on sale.

The windows need to be cleaned. I’m starting this weekend because they are driving me nuts. I’ll charge you though. I’ve contracted window cleaning before and find local prices quite high and am rarely satisfied with the quality (they usually won’t scrape paint drops or repair broken seals.) I’ll clean them again at the end of the lease as a part of my move out cleaning.

The front door screen needs replacement. I can do this in an hour.

The front porch light needs replacement. This will take me an hour.

Several windows have wood rot and broken cranks. I’m seeking out a local contractor who does repairs (most shops simply want to replace.) There are ten more years in these windows if they are repaired.

I suggest we have the custom-fit aluminum blinds cleaned professionally. A couple hours of repair will put them back into service. The plastic one-size-fits-all things should be replaced with sturdier coverings.

The deck door window coverings definitely need to be replaced. (It would cost more to repair and clean…) They run about $50-75. I can install.

The deck door is your call. The screen door certainly needs to be replaced (about $100) and the door itself needs some adjustments and sealant (about $100 in labor.) Similar quality replacement would run $700-900 plus installation.

It’s best to have several jobs before calling a plumber, since they charge $60 just to show up. Here are the plumbing needs I’ve identified:
• P-trap for basement drain
• Water feed for refrigerator
• Slow drain in master bedroom

I don’t have the right tools for the water feed, which can be tricky.

Here’s a weird one: the duct cleaners pointed out that there’s no filter in the duct system. Neither they nor I have ever seen this before. The lack of a filter would explain why there’s grease all over the house as all air gets circulated equally around the house. The filter’s first function is to keep dust out of the furnace, where it could ignite and cause a fire. Iowa Code calls for an air filter on the furnace. We’re talking a little duct work, so I can’t imagine that this would be too expensive. (I’ll spring for the HEPA filters.) Also: the automatic furnace exhaust damper is not wired up. Might be quickly fixed when the furnace people are here.

The deck is actually quite solid. It needs treatment (cleaning and sealant) as well as some minor repairs and a few screws. It should be good for another 5-10 years if properly maintained.

The house needs at least one fire extinguisher.

I encourage you to get a rental permit.

All of the aforementioned I would put into the common maintenance and repairs category.

Things I suggest to do under the improvements category:
• Motion detectors to garage and front door lights.
• Outdoor keypad to the garage door opener.
• Paint the family room.
• Move the washer/dryer to basement (switch 220v circuit)
• Duct cleaning
• Programmable thermostat
• HEPA filters for air ducts
• Carpet replacement subsidy
• Lawn mower

As far as I am concerned, Glenn is officially out of the picture. He had his chance to fix these things and didn’t. I don’t want to be subjected to his moods, workmanship, and schedule.

I’m being forthright about his business because I want as little friction as possible. I’m volunteering my time and expertise against the backdrop of a very busy schedule. I hope we understand each other clearly. I will be a good steward of your home and hand it back to you in sellable condition. It will be worth $1,300 a month rent by the time I’m finished.

Best regards,

-- Cliff


Like this site?  Want to learn more business skills like these?  Interested in further business ethics lessons?  Contact...

Brandon Mueller, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Management and Entrepreneurship
3335 Gerdin Business Building
Iowa State University
(515) 294-7261

This site copyright © 2011 by Cliff Missen.