A group of tenant advocates recently compiled a list of the top 10 complaints tenants have with their landlords. Their list may surprise you.
Below are the complaints and some suggested strategies for addressing them. Because this list came from the experiences of low income tenants, you may need to take some of these things with a grain of salt. However, there is still value in understanding how we are perceived and in considering how to change those perceptions.
1. Poor Communication
I find it fascinating that of all the complaints that could have been number one, a nebulous complaint like “poor communication” was the biggest. However, few complaints are as easy to deal with as this one. The biggest part of this complaint seemed to be lack of understanding of the rules and expectations. Tenants don’t think landlords do a good enough job explaining our expectations. A couple of suggestions to help you communicate better are:
- Read through the lease with them at the beginning and address the terms and conditions they are renting under.
- Consider sending them letters at least seasonally with reminders of expectations such as yard work, spring and fall “fyi’s”, etc.
- Don’t assume they understand basic things like how a garbage disposal works, how to plunge a toilet or that they are responsible to maintain things like furnace filters and smoke detectors. [You must be sure to maintain working order of smoke detectors and should check the filters yourself.] Politely explain their responsibilities and coach them to be successful.
- Do regular (quarterly) inspections and talk about what they are doing right and wrong. Inspections are a great opportunity to have two way communications because you can ask them what issues they are having and can explain to them anything they need to improve.
Doing some or all of these things will go a long way to closing the communication gap and helping tenants better understand the expectations.
2. Barriers to Entry and Anxiety During the Application Process
The second highest tenant complaint is the costs and steps involved in the application process and the anxiety associated with finding a new place. Many tenants live very close to the edge and complain about the costs of applying. A couple of tips are:
- Explain the purpose of fees and deposits in a way that explains the benefits to them – not to you. For instance, the application fee helps run criminal checks so they can be protected from having criminals as neighbors. Or the deposit shows they are serious and locks the place in for them so you don’t look at anyone else while you are checking them out.
- Give an answer to all applicants within 24 hours.
- Sign a lease quickly and explain what else they need to have done on move-in day.
These things will help lessen the anxiety of tenants and increase their trust in you.
3. Deposits Not Being Returned
This is an easy complaint to fix. Send the depositor and explanation of charges to the last known address (their apartment) or forwarding address within  days. NO EXCEPTIONS. If you haven’t finished the work, send an estimate. If you are deducting for charges, be clear about them and break down the work. For instance, instead of saying $200 for patching and painting walls, say $15 for patch over fireplace, $10 each for five patches in the hallway, $75 for paint and painting the hallway and $60 for paint and supplies for painting the wall above the fireplace. The more specifics you put, the less likely they will be disputed. Also, use pictures to illustrate the damage. If you had to clean red spots from the carpet, show photos of before and after.
4. Landlords Not Enforcing Rules With Other Tenants
It bothers tenants when their neighbors seem to be able to get away with almost anything or when the landlord has their “favorite tenant” they treat preferentially. This is tricky because sometimes it’s hard to be in the middle of tenants who are bugging each other or to know what’s really happening. Also, it’s hard not to have favorites, especially with long term customers who are great tenants. But a few guidelines include:
- Try to the best of your ability to be fair between tenants.
- Enforce rules and don’t make overt exceptions for certain tenants and not others.
- Deal with every complaint fairly and ask offending parties to comply with your rules and be respectful of each other.
5. Interior Maintenance
A quarterly inspection is a great tool here. Not only will you find the regular items that are wearing out and you will have to fix anyway, but you will also find damages by tenants that you can fix immediately and charge to tenants.
Inspections are also a great way to re-clarify expectations and strengthen your relationship with the tenant. They will realize that you care about the property and them as a customer and appreciate it.
6. Exterior Maintenance
Often, tenants don’t understand who is responsible for the yard and blame the landlord if it looks bad or the sprinklers aren’t working (even when they haven’t told you there was a problem). Help them understand their role in exterior maintenance. When you do drive-by inspections, look for problems that are your responsibility such as paint, siding and roofs. If you aren’t going to do something about an issue immediately, explain your plan. For instance, it’s not in the budget this year, but next year you are planning on painting the soffit and fascia, etc.
7. Unfair Rent Increases
You run a business, so charging the maximum you can seems only logical. But raising rents drastically without explaining why to the tenant can cost you money when they move out and the unit sits empty. A couple of rent increase tips:
- Try to tie increases in rent to improvements and increases in value. For instance, explain that since you are replacing all the windows this spring and this will lead to lower heating and cooling bills, the $50 rent increase is fair because the windows cost $3,000 and besides, their utilities will go down.
- Consider not increasing rent on good tenants if they lock in long-term leases. Explain you could charge more but you like them and will keep their rent as it is if they will commit to you for a longer period of time.
- Whenever you do raise rent, spend time making sure you explain to them that you wish you could keep it lower, but everyone’s rents are going up and if they move, they will likely pay even more somewhere else.
8. Excessive Restrictions
Some landlords expect too much. They micro-manage everything. A tenant has to make sure they maintain the property and don’t upset the neighborhood. You should have reasonable rules and enforce them, but consider a “live and let live” philosophy on most things that your tenants do. A couple of suggestions include:
- On inspections – don’t do it more than quarterly. Be in and out and not invasive.
- On cleaning – don’t panic too much about basic clutter like dishes in the sink and clothes on the floor. Only worry about things that cause long term damage to the property like changing motorcycle oil on the living room carpet or using the countertop as a cutting board.
9. Lack of Landlord Flexibility
Part of the reason for this is fair housing. We have to be consistent. When a tenant has a special request, it is okay to listen and see if there is some way to work with that specific tenant in a way you would work with any tenant. You can be flexible, just be consistent in the things you are flexible with.
The issue tenants think landlords are most inflexible on is working with them on “late” rent. We know that if we let a tenant pay late without a penalty, next month they will pay “later”. But often, you can salvage a customer and compensate yourself for the inconvenience by working out payment terms and charging a late fee. Treat everyone equally and don’t let them get more than two weeks behind, but sometimes working with them saves you the trouble and cost of a vacancy and earns you significantly more than late fees for being flexible.
10. Poor Customer Service
Return all calls quickly. Address all maintenance issues promptly. Talk nicely to them, (not down to them). Regularly thank them for choosing to do business with you.
If you accept tenants’ feedback on these 10 problems areas and try to address them, not only will you have happier tenants, you will have less cost and fewer problems.
Reprinted with permission of the Rental Housing Journal, Utah.