Companion Animal or Illegal Pet?

Posted by Teresa on March 26, 2013 under Legal | icon: commentBe the First to Comment

tenant screeningThe Fair Housing Act (FHA) governs rental properties, requiring landlords to follow all laws established under the Act. Owners of rental properties may not discriminate on the basis of religion, sex, race, family status, national origin, or disability.

Under the disability section of the FHA, it states that landlords must make reasonable exceptions to their policies to ensure that people with disabilities receive equal housing opportunities.

This means that if you have a no-pets policy, you may be required to make an exception for service or companion animals that people with disabilities depend on to manage their lives.

But not all disabilities are obvious. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines an individual with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such impairment.”

It’s a broad definition, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that every animal kept by a person with disabilities must be allowed. Not all dogs are service dogs—some are simply pets. Certain court cases have ruled in favor of landlords, such as when a dog owned by person with a hearing impairment was found to be completely untrained, and not an assistance animal at all.

Other examples include a case where a property management company changed its pet policy to ban all animals. One tenant had lived there for years, and owned a dog. When it came time to renew his lease, he was asked about whether he would be giving the dog away or leaving his apartment to comply with the new policy. He stated that since he’d been in an accident a year before, he needed his dog as a companion animal. He supplied evidence from his physician, and was allowed to keep his dog.

If you have an issue with a tenant over whether or not the service or companion animal they’re keeping truly fits the definition, consult your attorney. Keep in mind that some disabilities, like heart trouble, depression and diabetes cannot be seen. Assuming your tenant does not have a disability can be considered discriminatory in itself. Be sensitive, proceed with caution, and give your tenant the respect he or she deserves.

Bedbugs: A Shared Responsibility

Posted by Teresa on January 30, 2013 under Landlord Tips, Legal | icon: commentBe the First to Comment

tenantscreeningblog.com, tenant screeningIf you’re guessing that New York City or Los Angeles is the bedbug capital of America, guess again: it’s Chicago. And in response to this “honor,” the city’s aldermen are introducing legislation to address the problem of increasing infestations of bedbugs in city residences.

Unfortunately, the proposed law is targeted at landlords, and calls for fines of up to $1,000 a day if they don’t deal with bedbug infestations. As one property manager said, this type of one-sided legislation simply “opens the doors for tenant rights lawyers to take advantage—and only they win.”

Landlords with experience know that bedbugs are a shared responsibility. The pests can certainly cause tenants many sleepless nights and the misery of painful bites. And most landlords are willing to take the necessary and costly steps to get rid of bedbugs.

However, when tenants fail to do their part to fight bedbugs, it becomes an unfair burden to any landlord. Two ways tenants can help are inspecting their units frequently and being more vigilant against bringing bedbugs home after traveling.

According to the proposed ordinance, landlords would be required to hire pest management professionals “as many times as necessary to eliminate the bugs.” They would also be required to maintain records of their efforts. Current Chicago law requires landlords to treat bedbug infestations only when two or more units are affected, and doesn’t require any record keeping.

Landlords say that education and vigilance are much more effective against bedbugs than legislation.

Start your tenant relationship off right by knowing who you’re leasing to. Protect your rental property and assets with tenant background checks. Proper tenant screening will ensure you are leasing to the best possible tenants.

Making Tenants Stick Around for Repairs

Posted by Teresa on December 21, 2012 under Landlord Tips, Lease and Rental Agreements | icon: commentBe the First to Comment

tenant screeningOur last post was about whether or not allowing tenants to do their own repairs is a good idea (we say, “not”). We’ve also heard about landlords who won’t allow tenants to perform their own repairs, but require them to be present while the repairs are being done.

Of course, a tenant with a leaking dishwasher would need to be notified of the day and time the plumber is coming by. But it’s not the tenant’s responsibility to stick around to let the plumber in and to lock up when he or she leaves.

That’s the landlord or property manager’s job. It’s generally understood that the landlord, building superintendent or property manager is the go-to person when maintenance and repair people need to work on rental units. Sure, it’s convenient if the tenant is at home and can be stick around while the repairs are being done. But think about the liability issues at stake here. Having strangers entering your rental units could potentially put your tenants and their families at risk of harm. You may have no reason to mistrust your contractors, but anything can happen.

Even if your plumber or electrician is the most upstanding person in the community, some people just want to make trouble. It’s possible that a disgruntled tenant could “invent” an issue – and you could have a lawsuit on your hands. Without a witness, it becomes a case of the tenant’s word against the contractor’s word.

It might be convenient to require a tenant to be at home when repairs are being made, but it could also lead to more trouble than you bargained for. It’s better to keep things professional, and handle contractor visits yourself or with the help of your property manager.

More Good Reasons to Go Smoke-Free in Your Rentals

Posted by Teresa on December 7, 2012 under Landlord Tips, Legal | icon: commentBe the First to Comment

tenant screening, tenant background checkThe trend in rental properties is definitely swinging toward smoke-free. Tenants are demanding it, an landlords are seeing that the liability and costs associated with smoking inside rental properties makes it difficult to keep allowing it.

Many tenants are sensitive to cigarette smoke. Even if you thoroughly clean the unit, paint, replace carpets and change out the blinds, some tenants will still smell the odor of the previous tenant’s smoke. It just doesn’t make for a pleasant living situation, and you could lose a good tenant over it.

Old cigarette smoke is a health risk, too. Particulates in the exhaled smoke stay around for longer than you might think. They are in the dust floating around in the air; they settle in cracks and crevices; and they set the stage for long-term health problems—particularly for children and individuals with lung or breathing issues, such as asthmatics. New studies show that it’s not just second-hand smoke that is potentially harmful. In other words, you don’t have to directly breathe in someone else’s smoke to be harmed—you could be in a room today that someone smoked in yesterday, and still be affected.

A study a couple of years ago focused on 5,000 children who lived in smoke-free residences, both detached and multi-family. It found that overall, 73% of the children were still exposed to tobacco—but those who lived in apartment buildings had much higher instances of nicotine in their blood (84.5%, compared to 70% of kids in detached homes).

The poisons and chemicals in tobacco smoke linger. They travel down hallways, and through ducting and shared walls. The long-term affects on children and other vulnerable populations are not known now. But do you want to be partly responsible for a child’s future health problems? Turning your rental apartments into smoke-free housing is good for everyone—your current tenants, your future tenants and their children, who are the most innocent victims of other people’s smoking habits.

When You See Things Tenants Don’t Want You to See

Posted by Teresa on October 30, 2012 under Landlord Tips, Lease and Rental Agreements, Legal | icon: commentBe the First to Comment

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Landlords and property managers have the right to enter their properties, with proper notice to their tenants. Whether it’s for routine maintenance work, pest treatments or safety inspections, it’s not only necessary to occasionally enter a tenant’s unit, but it’s a good idea to do so. You need to know what’s going on in your properties.

During these routine inspections, landlords and property managers sometimes see things that tenants don’t intend for you to see, such as:

  • Ashtrays, cigarette butts and lighters.
  • Pet supplies, like food dishes and litter boxes.
  • Drug paraphernalia like pipes, lighters and syringes.
  • Illegal drugs, such as marijuana or cocaine.
  • Evidence of drug manufacturing.
  • Signs of a business being run out of the unit.

What can (and should) you do when this happens? Can you evict the tenant? If the occupant is otherwise a good tenant, should you ignore it? First, it’s always important to be familiar with your state’s laws regarding grounds for eviction. But if any of the activity you have witnessed violates the terms of your lease, you probably do have grounds for eviction.

If you’d rather not go that route, then it’s possible to wait until lease renewal time comes around, and inform the tenant that the lease will not be renewed. Of course, you’ll need to provide proper notice, according to the terms of the lease.

Reasons to Consider Eviction or Non-Renewal of a Lease

  • Liability: Landlords can be liable for criminal activity that occurs on their properties—even if they are not aware of it. Landlords can be liable for injuries that occur as a result of illegal activity. Landlords can be liable for injuries caused by a tenant’s pet—even if they are not aware of the pet. Laws vary from state to state, but why take chances?
  • Health: Smoking in units where it is not allowed can affect other residents, including children. Second-hand smoke carries chemicals and carcinogens through vents, doorways and windows. In addition, cigarettes are the cause of accidental fires.
  • Safety: Each year, almost 1,000 smokers and non-smokers are killed in fires caused by cigarettes and other smoking materials.
  • Fairness: If most tenants follow your rules, such as not running a business out of the rental unit, it’s not fair to make exceptions for someone who ignores the lease. Charges of discrimination could follow.

Strict and equitable enforcement of rental agreements should be every landlord and property manager’s practice. If tenants are conducting illegal or criminal activities or are breaking the terms of their leases, your best move is to get them out and replace them with tenants who will follow the rules and abide by the lease.

And if you need to, amend your lease agreement to include a paragraph prohibiting drugs and other illegal activities on your property.

Start your tenant relationship off right by knowing who you’re leasing to. Protect your rental property and assets with tenant background checks. Proper tenant screening will ensure you are leasing to the best possible tenants.

What to do About Tenants Who Sublet Without Authorization

Posted by Teresa on September 7, 2012 under Eviction, Landlord Paperwork and Forms, Lease and Rental Agreements, Tenant Screening & Background Checks | icon: commentBe the First to Comment

tenant screening, tenant credit check, background check landlords have faced one of these situations:

  • You’re doing a routine maintenance inspection and discover an occupant in the rental whom you’ve never seen before. You ask who he is and he replies, “Oh, I live here.”
  • You sign a lease with one tenant. A few months in, she mentions that the rent will be late because her roommate hasn’t paid her share yet. Roommate?
  • You live upstairs, your tenant lives downstairs. You notice he hasn’t been around lately, but someone else is clearly staying in the apartment. You ask questions and find out your tenant is away for three months, but he sublet the place to a friend.
  • Tenants who live next to one of your rental units call and complain about the three cars that are taking up all the available parking. You reply that only two people live in the unit, but they assure you that three people have been seen regularly coming in and out.

What’s going on? Most likely, your tenant has brought in a roommate or sublet part or all of your rental property to an additional person. If your lease agreement states that no subletting is allowed without your authorization, then the tenant is in violation of the terms of the lease.

The problem with subletting, or adding roommates without your knowledge, is that you have no idea who they are, where the work, if they’ve ever been evicted or convicted of a crime, or if their credit history meets your requirements. Without a chance to perform due diligence, including tenant screening and credit checks—the same tenant screening you do on all prospective tenants—you are at risk of liability for the actions of an unknown person. Plus, your property and business are at risk.

Why would tenants deliberately violate the terms of a lease?

  • Maybe they don’t thoroughly read the lease, or forgot what the lease said.
  • They may think you won’t catch them in the act, as long as they pay their rent on time.
  • Perhaps they think the lease terms don’t actually apply to them.
  • Or they simply cannot afford their apartment or house without a roommate.

In any of these cases, you likely have cause to send a cure or quit notice. Of course, check your local and state laws concerning eviction notices. You may want to send a reminder to all your tenants that subletting or adding roommates without your authorization is strictly prohibited. If they want roommates, they must undergo the same application and tenant screening process as everyone else. Explain that this is for the safety of all residents. Keep in mind that treating one group of people differently than others could put you at risk of discrimination charges, so make sure the same rules apply to all of your tenants. Finally, notify tenants that violations are grounds for eviction.

If you do agree to a sublease situation, be sure to put everything in writing. A sublease agreement should be signed by all parties and place in your tenant’s file.

Who Are Today’s Renters?

Posted by Teresa on July 27, 2012 under Landlord Tips, Tenant Credit Checks | icon: commentBe the First to Comment

tenant screening blog, tenant credit checkWith a still-slow economy and high unemployment rate, the face of today’s renter is changing. No longer just young people starting out in life, more middle-aged and older folks are now renting homes than ever before. Some are choosing renting over homeownership. Others are former homeowners who have no choice but to rent.

Here are some tips for a successful relationship with today’s tenants:

  1. Be patient with potential tenants. Some may have been forced to sell a dream home, or have lost their home to foreclosure. They may have never rented a home before. Clearly explain your application process, review the lease carefully, and be sure to point out any rules and regulations you’ll want them to follow.
  2. Be sure to run tenant credit checks on every applicant. Many potential renters are facing bad credit scores, and could be high risks. However, higher deposits and co-signers can help ease the risk of leasing to them, as long as they otherwise qualify per your requirements.
  3. Ask prospective tenants for pay stubs from their current job, a reference from a landlord or work supervisor, and other proof that they are stable and employed.
  4. Consider giving a little leeway on painting or planting flowers. Former homeowners often take great pride in their living spaces, and are accustomed to maintaining and upgrading them. Why not allow them to paint (with approval on the colors, of course) or spruce up the exterior of your property?

Displaced homeowners may turn out to be great tenants. They may be ready to stay in your rental property long term, since buying another home might be a long way off. Work with them, and you could have a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship.

Why Some Would-Be Landlords Should Think Twice

Posted by Teresa on July 20, 2012 under Landlord Tips, Lease and Rental Agreements | icon: commentBe the First to Comment

tenantscreeningblog
Conditions for entering the rental housing market are great right now. Home prices are low, and interest rates are too. Demand for rentals is up, vacancies are low, and are expected to stay that way for the foreseeable future. That means investors could make buying a home and renting it out actually work.

But there are downsides to being a landlord, which any experienced one could explain in great detail. Here are just a few:

  • You’ll dread the sound of your phone ringing or buzzing. Too many times, it will be a call or text from a tenant, to inform you of a problem. Overflowing toilets, stopped up sinks, broken appliances or frozen pipes tend to happen when you least want them to—like in the middle of the night, on Christmas Day, or when you’re on vacation.
  • Your lease will be ignored. Sure, you’ll spend time and money creating an iron-clad lease to protect yourself and your property. Only trouble is, tenants don’t always read leases—nor do they understand what things like “no pets” really means. And if they do understand what they’re reading, they may think it can’t possibly apply to them. “Fluffy” is just a tiny kitten, so surely you won’t mind if a tenant brings her home, right?
  • Tenants will put others in danger. From allowing boyfriends, girlfriends, unemployed kids, ex-spouses or complete strangers to move in without your permission (or knowledge), to using your property as home base for a drug business, some tenants will try to get away with behavior that could put other tenants in danger. They could also leave you liable for their actions—criminal, dangerous or otherwise.
  • You may not get the rent on time. Okay, you probably won’t get the rent on time, all the time. Tenants will pay late, or just stop paying completely. In the meantime, you still have a mortgage and other expenses to pay. Landlords need several months’ worth of reserves set aside in the budget.
  • There’s a lot of upkeep. Any property requires care. Rental properties get more wear and tear, so they generally need even more maintenance and repairs. Landlords are required to keep their properties in habitable, safe condition for tenants, and professional plumbers and electricians are expensive to hire.
  • It’s difficult to get rid of problem tenants. Eviction is not fun, and it’s expensive. In many places, it’s also a very difficult process. To make it worse, some tenants are experts at avoiding eviction, by exploiting laws designed to protect them.

If you’re smart, tough and know how to run a business, landlording could be a good fit for you. Just be picky about the property you buy, and pickier about the tenants you allow to live there. Thoroughly screen all tenants. Run credit checks and criminal background checks with a reputable company. Then, make sure you enforce your rules fairly and consistently.

Prohibiting Smoking vs. Prohibiting Smokers

Posted by Teresa on June 1, 2012 under Lease and Rental Agreements, Legal | icon: commentBe the First to Comment

tenant screening, background checkMore rental property owners are prohibiting smoking in their buildings. The reasons to do so are many: avoiding the smell and stains that permeate your property, lowering the risk of fire, and protecting the health of children and non-smoking tenants. Plus, a number of municipalities are passing no-smoking laws for multi-family or public housing buildings.

However, smoking is not illegal. While you may have decided to prohibit smoking inside your rental units, can you deny the lease applications of smokers? And what can you do if you find out after the fact that someone was smoking in your smoke-free property?

First of all, smokers are not a protected class. The Fair Housing Act does prohibit housing discrimination against people based on religion, sex, disability, race, color, national origin, and family status. But it doesn’t deny landlords the right to choose tenants based on their smoking status.

To prevent smokers from taking advantage of lease loopholes, such as smoking outside their units, you might consider strengthening your lease language to prohibit smoking anywhere on the property. Since you are the owner and it is private property, you have the right to prohibit smoking wherever you’d like.

Being a hands-on landlord can help you avoid the problem of hidden smokers. When walking through your property, you may notice cigarette butts, or smell smoke. Asking tenants if they’ve noticed any smoking will indicate that you care about their health and enforcing the terms of your lease. If you do find out someone has broken the lease by smoking, you could have grounds for eviction (check with a landlord/tenant attorney for advice).

While frequent inspections can flush out smokers, many landlords don’t see the inside of their units until a tenant has moved out. If you discover signs of smoking, such as odor, cigarette burns or a layer of tar on walls and ceilings, you are likely entitled to withhold clean up costs from the tenant’s security deposit. Track all expenses (cleaners, primer, paint, new flooring) and keep receipts. Of course, it’s best to conduct a move-out inspection with the tenant so he or she can acknowledge all damages.

Protect your rental property and assets through tenant background checks. Proper tenant screening will ensure you are leasing to the best possible tenants.

Give Tenants an Incentive to Pay Rent Online

Posted by Teresa on May 15, 2012 under Landlord and Tenant FAQs, Rents and Deposits | icon: commentRead the First Comment

tenant screening blog, tenant credit check,As we reported back in March, some landlords and management companies are forcing tenants to pay rent through online services. Many question whether this is legal or not. The suit filed by the residents of Woodlake Manor Apartments is still moving through the court system, so it’s too soon to tell how that will shake out. But in the meantime, how can you convince tenants to switch over to online rent payment? And is it worth it?

Having rent payments flow automatically into your bank account can be convenient. Collecting checks, posting them in your accounting software, depositing them in the bank (or having your bookkeeper do it) takes time you could be spending on growing your business—or better yet, doing something fun.

Plenty of landlords receive rent payments through a variety of online tools—and neither they nor their tenants would go back to paper checks for anything. It seems most people you know do all their banking and bill paying online. So why not convert your tenants over to online rent payment?

Maybe your tenants won’t or can’t use online services. Perhaps they don’ t all have computers at home. Or they won’t take the time to learn how to use online services. If you are ready to be done with paper checks, maybe it’s time to help them move into the 21st century.

Try incentivizing tenants to transition to online rent payment with these step-by-step ideas:

  • Send out a notice to all tenants that you are now offering online rental payment.
  • List the benefits, such as avoiding writing and mailing a check, finding a stamp and sending the rent several days in advance of the due date. Online payments are more convenient: rent can be sent electronically on the due date. Tenants can schedule payments ahead of time to cover travel or vacations. Checks can’t get lost in the mail. And, it saves paper!
  • Offer a one-time $10 or $25 gift card for tenants who sign up right away for online rent payment.
  • You will be notified which tenants choose the online option.
  • For those who choose not to use online payment, inform them that beginning with their next lease renewal, you will be requiring them to do so.
  • If they still balk, give them the option of paying the entire new rent at renewal (whatever amount you would normally raise the rent) or a lowered amount for paying online.

Landlords may not be able to force all tenants to pay rent online. There will likely be situations where a tenant can’t get to a public library to use a computer, or is not able to understand how to use online banking. And tenants with disabilities are protected under law. Be reasonable and flexible, and collect rent online to the extent that you can.

Protect your rental property and assets through tenant background checks. Proper tenant screening will ensure you are leasing to the best possible tenants.