Landlord Learns Being Nice is Not Enough

by Chris on December 26, 2011

Q: I had a couple living in my single-family rental for over three years. We had a one-year lease. We renewed it the second year, but then they just stayed on after that. I kept the rent the same the whole time and paid to fix the place every time they called to complain about something. I even gave them expensive gift certificates to nice restaurants every year at the holidays.

Very suddenly, they decided to move, and they didn’t give me much notice. They told me they have another place lined up so they will have to break my lease. I told them that would be okay if I could get someone else in there, but when I tried to show the place, they walked around pointing out things that they said were broken for awhile, and also told a prospect that there are mice in the crawlspace. That was the first I’d heard of any of it.

After they left, I think they took the lawnmower that I gave them to use. They transferred the heat back into my name, but it was turned up pretty high, and they left one of the back windows open.

I don’t understand what happened. They seemed like such nice people. I tried to be a good landlord, but now I’m afraid to rent to someone else. What did I do wrong?- TVS Landlord

Even the most experienced landlords run into bad tenants. All things considered, it sounds like you are in a fairly good position to recover from this–at least your tenants didn’t tear up the place before they left.

However, there’s a very important lesson here: be stricter with your rental rules.  Being nice is not enough.

That’s not to say that you need to be a jerk. Simply recognize the difference between being nice, and being too lenient with your rules. You can have a pleasant disposition without being taken advantage of. On the other hand, being lax with your rules sends the message that you are not concerned about the property, or about making a profit.

The way to avoid that scenario is to be clear from the beginning that you are in charge. Start from the moment you are interviewing prospects. Something as simple as running a tenant background check proves that you care about your property.

Go over the lease agreement with prospects and drive home the message that you are taking the lease seriously. For tips on negotiating with prospects without compromising your  authority, see our blog post How to Negotiate With Prospective Tenants.

Once the tenants are ready to move in, fill out a move-in inspection report so that you can later prove your case if you need to claim against the security deposit.  Also, perform an orientation, and make sure the tenant understands their responsibilities. Check out the website http://www.tenantsinfo.com/ for more guidance.

Be sure to perform routine property inspections. You can’t rely on the tenants to tell you when something is broken or needs maintenance.

Whenever a question or problem arises during the tenancy, be careful about relinquishing your authority. Don’t ever leave it to the tenant to decide what to do. Take charge.

When tenants leave, it’s critical to schedule and conduct a move-out inspection. If you don’t, you are setting yourself up for losses, including a possible dispute over the security deposit. Equally important, you can collect your keys, and a forwarding address.

Tenants who owe money or don’t think they’ll be getting their deposit back may try to leave without a forwarding address so it’s harder to find them if you need to collect. That’s why it’s important to catch them before they leave.

In this particular situation, now that the old tenants have left, it will be easier to find a new tenant. The specific relief you can get will depend on your local rules and what your lease provides, but it is likely you will be able to withhold at least some portion of the security deposit to cover your losses, including some unpaid rent because of the short notice. Whether you can collect for the extra heating charge may depend on whether you secured the property within a reasonable time.

It is crucial that you follow the laws regarding accounting for the deposit deductions. Only take your actual losses. For instance, the actual value of the lawnmower will have to be determined — not replacement or original value. If the deposit won’t cover it all, you will have to track down the tenants and take them to court.

These tenants were clever in that they got a new place to stay before they gave you notice. This example serves to remind all landlords how crucial it is to speak to one another — always talk to an applicant’s previous landlords while conducting your tenant background check. Eventually, the bad history will catch up with these problem tenants.

Not all tenants will behave badly, so don’t fret over the next one. You will be pleasantly surprised how well your future tenant will respond to the new, stricter you.

This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).

Click Here to Receive Landlord Credit Reports.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post in not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary January 3, 2012 at 9:28 am

Under BC law, section 38, the landlord may not withhold any of the tenant’s security deposit unless the tenant agrees in writing or the landlord files an Application for Dispute Resolution within 15 days of the later of the end of the tenancy and receiving the tenant’s forwarding address in writing. If the landlord withholds any of the deposit without this specific authority, the tenant may claim twice the deposit to be refunded.

Rob January 3, 2012 at 11:11 am

If I am reading the article correctly, this landlord did not have a long term lease at the time the tenants left.

It states

“We had a one-year lease. We renewed it the second year, but then they just stayed on after that.”

If they stayed for over 3 years then the tenancy converted to month to month after the second year. If they gave 1 month’s notice then the landlord cannot claim loss of rent, at least here in BC.

Mary is right about the deposit, but I doubt this tenant gave a forwarding address. So you can keep their deposit until they give you a forwarding address in writing, then apply to keep it.

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