How to Avoid Tenant Horror Stories
By Tim Hendricks, VP of Real Estate at Darwin Homes
Get a few property managers together, perhaps mix in an adult beverage or two, and the stories will start to roll off their tongues. What kind of stories, you ask? Maybe about a vendor, or a weird house, but the largest volume, by far, will be about tenants.
As entertaining as those sessions can be, we all want to avoid collecting those tenant horror stories. So, how do you do it?
1) Tenant Screening
It all starts here. It may seem like a lot of work upfront, but verifying income, confirming rental history, and a thorough background/criminal/credit check is the single best thing you can do to prevent tenant problems. An ounce of prevention here is worth a pound of cure. Property managers have access to tools and databases that can screen out many potential deadbeats that a self-manager won’t catch.
2) Establish Policies & Adhere to Them
Establish a set of policies around pets, late payment dates, late fees, NSF fees, payment methods that you accept… and more. Once those policies are set, do not deviate from them. That will save your bacon if there’s ever a Fair Housing complaint, but will also set the tone with the tenant that there are rules, and those rules will be enforced. A firm but fair hand sets the tone of the relationship from the get-go, and subtly lets tenants know that shenanigans won’t be tolerated.
3) Maintain Professional Boundaries
This is probably where I see most self-managers succumb and give the tenants the upper-hand. This is a business activity, and should be managed as such. Get a Google Voice phone number instead of your personal cell phone, and answer calls during business hours. Your tenant may be the nicest person in the world, but you are still in a business relationship. Don’t have the stomach to say “no” after hearing a tenant sob story? Time to hire a property manager.
4) Maintain Your Property
Why should a tenant care more about the home than you do? Many Landlords are overly focused on cost-control when it comes to repair & maintenance. It’s second nature to all of us, landlord or tenant, that we adjust our behavior based upon setting & context. The same people that whisper in libraries yell at stadiums. The same people that wipe their feet before entering a friend’s home will think nothing of leaving muddy footprints walking in to a dirty gas station. When you have a home with threadbare carpet, spotted walls due to old touch ups, and fixtures that don’t work, your tenants are going to be much rougher on the home.
5) Inspect the Property Routinely but not Frequently
One of the most common questions we get from new clients is how often we inspect the inside of a home. We are in the homes we manage at least once per year. I have found that to be a good cadence – just before renewal time. Knowing how the home is being taken care of impacts whether we will offer a renewal to a tenant and at what rate. In addition to owner/manager inspections, a strong vendor network can be your best eyes & ears. When it’s 100 degrees outside and the AC stops cooling, I can guarantee you that the tenant is not going to clean up or hide their contraband before a contractor shows up, the way they would for a management inspection. A good network of frequently used contractors that will whisper in your ear can be invaluable.
Alright, now that you have eaten your vegetables, let’s dish on some of those Tenant Horror Stories. Some of these are from my own experience, and others that I have collected from my fearless colleagues. Names have been changed to mock the guilty and indulge my love of alliteration.
- Trashy Tina: Tina lived in a nice, recently remodeled single family home. She lived in the home for only a year, and apparently had devised a way to save on her monthly expenses. Rather than pay for trash service (weekly or bi-weekly curbside service only costs ~$30/month), Tina elected to leave her trash in the garage. For an entire year. She had a baby. Yes, that means diapers. Yes, dirty diapers. There were 2-3 layers of black plastic garbage bags stretching the entire length and width of a 2 car garage.
- Discriminating Debbie: Debbie’s AC stopped working on a Friday night. The HVAC company was dispatched on Saturday morning. They did not have a required part in their inventory to complete the repair that day, and the parts wholesaler was not open until Monday. Debbie was told of the situation, and her AC was repaired Monday morning as soon as the parts warehouse opened. Fast forward 6 months, after Debbie’s lease was up and she moved out, and she filed a discrimination complaint with the Federal Housing Authority, claiming that her AC was not repaired due to her race. A year later, her complaint was found to be baseless and was dismissed, with no recourse to the property manager for the hours wasted in responding to her claim.
- Crappy Carl: one of my personal favorites. Carl apparently felt that toilet paper was an unnecessary invention. Carl wiped, sans paper, and then cleaned his hands by wiping them on the wall adjacent to the commode. Did I witness this first hand? Fortunately, no. But the odiferous finger-printed streak marks left little to the imagination.