Although the proper tenant screening and selection techniques greatly improve your success in picking good tenants, they aren’t a guarantee, which mean that at some point in your rental property management tenure, you’re sure to come across a problem tenant or two. Some tenants avoid paying rent, disturb the neighbors, damage property or keep a growing collection of inoperative cars on the front lawns and you need to take steps immediately to remove these tenants and replace them.
But, other tenants, like the one who pays his rent a few days late every single month, or the one who sneaks in an animal even though pets aren’t allowed, are more subtle in the problems they present and their behavior may not warrant eviction.
This article gives you tips for handling some common tenant problems and lets you know valuable alternatives to evictions. Plus, you will be prepared for some situations you may encounter so that you know how to deal with them.
Responding to Common Tenant Problems
The level of response you have toward a problem tenant depends on how severe the problem is and how frequently it occurs. Some issues, including nonpayment of rent, additional occupants not on the rental contract, noise and threats of violence or intimidation are breaches of the rental contract and clearly call for serving a legal notice.
Documentation is critical whenever you have a problem with a tenant. Even minor problems are worth documenting, because over time, they may add up or increase in severity. If you find yourself needing to evict a tenant, you must have written proof of the entirety of the problem.
Late or Nonpayment of Rent
One of the toughest issues you’ll encounter is how to deal with a tenant who consistently pays rent late or even worse, who doesn’t pay at all. In other respects, the tenant may not create any problems, but just can’t seem to get the rent in on time. You may have to serve a notice of nonpayment of rent in order to get the tenant to pay, and even then, they may not include the late charge. In my experience, this nagging problem doesn’t go away unless you put a stop to it.
When you’re faced with a tenant who just can’t seem to get the rent payment in on time, you have many factors to consider (such as whether the tenant is creating any other problems for you or your other residents). But, the strength of the rental market is usually the most important issue. If it’s a renter’s market and you know that finding another tenant to rent the property will be difficult, you may be willing to be more flexible.
Specific legal notices are available in most states to deal with the issue of nonpayment of rent, but you should document other violations of the rental contract in writing using a Lease or Rental Agreement Violation Letter [AOA Form 104 – 3-Day Notice to Cure the Violation or Move Out.]
Don’t ignore the problem of a tenant who consistently pays late. Clearly inform them in writing that they have breached the rental contract and be sure to do so each and every time she pays late. If you fail to enforce your late charges, the tenant can later argue that you’ve waived your rights to collect future late charges. Be sure to let the tenant know in writing that chronically late payments are grounds for eviction – even if you’re not necessarily willing to go that route just yet.
Tenants frequently abuse the guest policy by having additional occupants in their rental units for extended periods of time. But you may have trouble determining the difference between a temporary guest and a new live-in occupant.
Talk to your tenant to find out what’s going on if you suspect they have added an additional occupant. This practice is sound not only because it’s considerate, but also because you need to be careful to avoid claims of discrimination, particularly if the additional occupant is a child.
If you find the tenant isn’t complying with your guest policy, immediately send the violation notice indicating that they must have the additional occupant leave as soon as possible or the individual will be formally added to the rental contract as a tenant. Remember – all new adult occupants must complete a rental application, go through the tenant screening process and sign the rental contract if approved. If the tenant fails to cooperate, you may need to take legal action.
You must be careful when determining whether an additional occupant is a rental contract or guest policy violation when the individual may qualify under Fair Housing law as a caretaker, which is a disability accommodation. Typically, a caretaker isn’t on the rental contract and isn’t responsible for rent payment and often can be a family member. He or she must, however, routinely perform assistance services and follow the community rules, except he or she is exempt from senior housing age restrictions. Seek the advice of legal counsel if you have any questions.
Inappropriate Noise Level
You usually hear about a noisy tenant from one of the tenant’s neighbors. Let the complaining tenants know that they should always contact law enforcement and file an official complaint as soon as the noise level becomes a problem. Then they should let you know they’ve done so.
Have a policy in writing requiring all tenant complaints regarding neighbors, especially noise, to be in writing. Neighbors usually don’t want to go to court to testify; they just want you to quickly solve the problem and allow them to keep their anonymity. But if the noisy tenant disputes the charges, the courts are usually reluctant to accept your unsubstantiated testimony. A report from law enforcement and a written complaint made simultaneously by a neighbor carry a lot of weight.
Under federal law, with the exception of the limited number of HUD-certified senior housing properties, you must accept children at your rental property. Unfortunately, one of the toughest dilemmas you’ll face is dealing with a tenant’s unsupervised child on the grounds of your rental property. If you don’t do anything and the child gets hurt, you may be sued for failing to take reasonable action. But if you don’t handle the matter properly, the tenant may claim that you’re discriminating against families with children. In this case, you need to be able to prove that you acted reasonably and consistently.
If you become aware of an unsupervised child at your rental property who’s in a potentially dangerous situation, immediately take the child home to her parents. Take the child home again if the problem happens a second time and send a letter to your tenants warning them of the seriousness of the matter. If the written notice isn’t effective, you can always call the police or social services while advising your tenants in writing that an eviction may be warranted.
If your tenants fail to properly supervise their children and the children damage your rental property, don’t just talk to the children about the problem. Immediately contact the tenants and officially advise them of the issue, stressing the fact that property damage by tenants of any age is unacceptable. This kind of action is usually sufficient, but if the damage is severe or continues, notify the tenants in writing and bill them for the damage. Warn them that any continued problems will result in eviction.
On occasion, you may receive a notice that a particular tenant or roommate will be leaving the rental property in the middle of a lease. The departing tenant usually requests a refund of a portion of the security deposit, even though not all the individuals on the rental contract are vacating the premises. You should retain the entire security deposit until all contracted occupants have vacated the property.
If one tenant chooses to vacate early, then the tenants need to resolve any security deposit issues themselves.
If the rental contract is going to change, require the departing tenant to complete a Deposit Assignment and Release Agreement. [AOA form #124 – Roommate Addendum.]
If you have reason to suspect the death of a tenant who lives alone, try calling the tenant or bang loudly on his door. Check with the neighbors and call the tenant’s place of employment as well as the emergency contact number from the rental application. If you still aren’t sure, exercise your right to inspect the rental unit in an emergency or contact the police or fire department.
When officials have confirmed the death and removed the body, you must immediately take reasonable steps to safeguard the deceased tenant’s property, including denying access to the unit except for obtaining limited personal effects for a funeral. Secure the unit and allow access only to legally authorized persons or law enforcement. If you have any doubts about the authority or actions of the tenant’s relatives or friends, contact your attorney for further advice.
At this time, you may also find yourself in the middle of a dispute as to who has access to the rental unit. Although you should be sympathetic to your tenant’s grieving relatives, make sure you don’t grant rental unit access to an unauthorized person or you may be held liable if Aunt Margo’s prized goldfish-shaped cookie cutter turns up missing.
Domestic disputes provide a tough challenge for rental property owners. As with disputes between neighbors or roommates, you need to avoid getting involved. You lack the authority to side with one party or another, so stay neutral. Encourage the couple the resolve their problems themselves and continue treating all parties fairly and equally.
Unfortunately, some disagreements between tenants involve domestic violence and you may receive a request from one occupant to change the locks or remove one of the co-tenants from the lease. Don’t agree to such changes regardless of the strength of the tenant’s argument without first seeking legal advice and requiring a copy of a restraining order or other appropriate court order from the requesting tenant. Insist on a verifiable letter or agreement and consent of the other party as well.
Be careful not to discriminate against the victim of domestic violence by evicting him or her, especially if the perpetrator is no longer in the rental unit and doesn’t return to the property. The Violence Against Women Act of 2005 prohibits public housing agencies and rental properties that accept Section 8 vouchers from denying an applicant because she has been a victim of domestic violence or stalking. Some states have passed legislation protecting women in similar situations, so check with local legal counsel if you run into one.
Robert Griswold is a hands-on property manager with more than 30 years of experience, having managed more than 800 properties representing more than 45,000 rentals. He owns and runs Griswold Real Estate Management, Inc. with offices in southern California and southern Nevada. His book Property Management for Dummies is available at www.LandlordBooks.com. For more information, visit www.griswoldremgmt.com.