In property management, problem tenants are an unpleasant but sometimes inevitable part of life. While a strong tenant screening solution helps to sift out bad applicants and protect your business, some troublemakers will still find their way to your properties. Someone who screening shows to have always been a reliable rent payer might hit hard times and begin paying late. A despondent tenant might decide the right therapy is to paint the walls neon pink and get a pet potbelly pig. And no screening system yet can detect the chronic complainers who will drive you insane with their demands.
Below are six common types of renters who make a single-family property manager’s job more difficult – and suggestions for what to do about them.
1. Late or partial-paying payers
We’ll start with the most common problem – late or partial rent payments. If you’re wise you make it very clear at the lease signing (in a friendly way) that your property management system is rigid and there is no leeway about late payment penalties – that the accountant must account for the late fees in the cash flow at year’s end. Along these lines, some landlords simply say that the penalty is “built into the accounting system,” which heads off a lot of pleading and begging phone calls. Above all, it should never occur to tenants that the repercussions of late payments are negotiable. If you give an inch, you can bet they’ll take a mile at some point.
But no matter how well you’ve protected yourself, you’ll still always have to deal with payments that arrive late – or in part – or not at all.
The best advice for dealing with late payers is to be firm, no matter how nice a person you (or they) are. Otherwise, you’re inviting future trouble: five days late will be three weeks next time. If you didn’t advise them that late fees are irrevocable (the so-called “good cop/bad cop” technique, with the accounting system being the bad cop), now’s a good time to do it.
When the tardiness of the rent payment (or partial payment) reaches the point where your lease indicates an action will be taken within a few days, place a call and/or send an email as a polite warning. Then, when the day comes, take action, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Usually, this is a Non Payment of Rent notice, with a specific timetable to either pay up or leave
Obviously, if you’re the manager and not the owner, it’s easier to be strict: you just tell them it’s the owner, not you, who sets the rules. But even if you do own the property, this isn’t a good occasion to be a softie. Look at it this way: a renter down on their luck should turn to family, friends or another source of money rather than their landlord. You’re not their parent or pal, nor are you a bank.
[Additional Reading: How To Start Your Own Property Management Company]
2. Wrecking balls
On the list of most common problems with renters, property damage comes right after late rent.
If you’re not already using a mobile inspection app consider ditching the clipboard and using one. They not only cut inspection time by over half – they also let you take photos with your cell phone and embed them right into the inspection report, so if there’s damage later you have the “before” photos right there in the report as evidence.
Things can get a little tricky when there’s debate about an unapproved “improvement” (such as painting or shelving) that you feel is actually a detraction. You’ll have to judge these on a case by case basis, but your lease probably does spell out that the property must be left in the condition it was in before move-in, and if the new paint is neon pink, it’s their job to re-paint before leaving or cover the cost with their damage deposit.
In the case of damage, you’ll want to first request in writing that the tenant addresses it, and keep a copy for your records. If it’s something the tenant can’t or won’t handle, you can have your own maintenance people do the job, and then send the tenant the bill. Your lease should plainly give you the right to do this in the case of damage beyond normal wear and tear.
It’s a good idea to make interim inspections of the property during the lease period. If, for example, you have a strict no-smoking policy but the home smells like an ashtray, you’re going to have trouble renting to the next person, and you need to take action immediately.
If the tenant either won’t fix the damage or pay the cost of having it done, you have grounds to kick them out with a “Cure or Quit” notice if your lease allows.
3. Hosts to all
Some renters will sublet part or all of the property without bothering to check whether you allow it. And now, in the age of Airbnb, some have been booking short-term vacation rentals on the sly. In some areas, it’s against the law. At the very least, it’s a lot different having a parade of strangers occupying the property than having the people you screened and approved there. Neighbors tend to look askance at the practice as well.
Then there are houseguests – from a friend crashing on the sofa for a weekend (no problem) to a death metal band moving in for a month-long party binge (likely a problem). The more specific the language in your lease, the more latitude you have to deal with “unexpected guests” as you see fit. If you’ve left the door wide open (pun intended), you can expect your tenants to argue that as they’re paying their rent, they should be free to have whomever they wish to stay with them.
Some renters you hardly hear from. Others call constantly, making one unreasonable request after another: The AC doesn’t seem to be working quite right (though it’s been checked out twice); there’s not enough hot water; a door is sticking – and so on. There are calls even about minor things you’d expect them to simply handle themselves or the lease requires they do.
Don’t be a sucker for whiny tenants; you have enough real issues to take care of. The fact is that you are not obligated legally or otherwise to jump into action every time they call.
5. Indulgent pet owners
Don’t make compromises when it comes to animals living at your properties. A dog that loves to chew or cat that marks its territory with urine can do major damage and even make the property hard to rent after move-out. Even if you do allow pets, you’ll want to make periodic checks on the property to ensure there’s no damage happening. If you don’t allow them (service animals do not count as pets under The ADA), but find evidence of them anyway, you’ll want to invoke consequences before the tenants have packed up and left and everything becomes more complicated. These days a lot of tenants own exotic pets, so be ready to answer whether it’s okay to have, say, a couple of ferrets living in the home.
[Recommended Reading: 23 States With Fake Service Dog Laws]
Count yourself lucky if you’ve never discovered a tenant illegally growing marijuana, abusing or selling narcotics, getting drunk on the front lawn or engaging in other such activities at a property you manage. If you do, eviction is almost always the smart move, and calling the police is the only choice in cases of things like drug sales or violence. Tenants willing to break the law are far more likely than others to eventually cause you problems. That’s the whole reason screening services check criminal records in addition to financial ones. But keep in mind that even arrest does not change the tenant’s right to occupy the property they’ve legally rented from you, so consult an attorney about the eviction first.
There are other types of problem tenants, of course, but these are some of the major ones in single-family. Various issues that are extremely common at multifamily properties, such as noise and parking complaints, are less frequent at single-family properties.
When the going gets rough, and you want them to get going
So you’ve decided enough is enough and you’re not going to take it anymore. As you probably know, you can’t just kick someone out if they have a valid lease. You also can’t take an action to drive them out, such as turning off the water, changing the locks or threatening them.
An eviction is advisable only in cases where you’ve tried hard to work things out and can’t, or the tenant has engaged in illegal activities; in either case, you must go through legal channels to execute it.
How to take action with problem tenants
First, you’ll need to serve notice based on your area regulations. Use Certified Mail to avoid the age-old excuse that “we never got the letter.” Specify the number of days the tenant has to comply. Renters who otherwise show civility can become desperate or enraged over an eviction, and there are plenty of horror stories out there of evictions gone wrong.
The eviction itself must be done in cooperation with the courts. The small claims court is not appropriate for evictions, so contact an attorney specializing in evictions and let them guide the proceedings through the regular court system. By now, you should have accumulated as much evidence as possible of the reasons for the eviction, as you might have to present these to the court.
The chances are that if you’ve been in the business for a while, you’ve experienced all or most of the six troublesome renter types above, and have been through at least one eviction. While dealing with these situations is no fun, it comes with the territory. But remember that thousands of property managers have been through the same thing, and there’s plenty of good advice out there for handling the problems.