Smart landlords and property managers do a very thorough job of screening tenant applicants. They check references and work places, former landlords and addresses. And of course, they have a background check and tenant credit check done.
But how many of your prospective tenants are checking YOU out? And what do you need to do to ensure you’re attracting the type of tenant you want—who will be as choosy about you as you are about them? After all, if you each choose the other, the landlord-tenant relationship will have a better chance of success!
What Great Tenants Look for in a Landlord:
- Professional behavior and associations. Tenants want landlords who are professional businesspeople. Who take their business seriously enough to belong to professional associations. If you belong to your local apartment association, the National Association of Residential Property Managers, or other group, say so on your website!
- Organization: Tenants are impressed when paperwork is ready to be signed, and when processes are documented. Do you have lease applications, background check authorizations, receipts, leases, move-in and move-out lists, emergency contact information and other forms ready to go at all times? Or are you fumbling around looking for forms? It never looks good to tell a prospect that you’ll need to get back to them for necessary paperwork.
- Great reputation: People will talk, and if your applicant asks current or former tenants about you, what will they hear?
- Reliability: Are your leasing office phones answered promptly? Even if you’re a one-person operation, it matters. If you miss calls, do you return them right away? Can tenants count on you to be available when they need you?
- Honesty: Be truthful at all times, even if that means pointing out issues with the rental apartment or house. Better that prospects know up front and make an informed decision, than starting out the relationship on a negative note.
- Communication: As in every relationship, it comes down to communication. If your skills are sub-par, good tenants will know it.
You may not realize that tenant applicants are checking you out, but it never hurts to put your best foot forward, just in case!
“I thought you said I could have a roommate.”
“I told you I was going to be getting a dog after I moved in.”
“No, I didn’t realize I wasn’t allowed to park my RV in the parking lot.”
“We didn’t know we weren’t supposed to skinny-dip in the pool.”
Have you ever heard a tenant explain that they broke the rules of the lease because they didn’t know or realize what those rules were? Or because they thought they heard you say it was okay?
Many an experienced landlord can tell stories about the misunderstandings that go on nearly every day with tenants. That’s why it’s so important to establish good communication from the start of your relationship with every tenant.
Here are some tips for improving landlord-tenant communication:
- Never assume. Don’t assume you know what a tenant is thinking or planning.
- Put it in writing. Especially when it comes to changing the terms of a lease, such as allowing a roommate or a pet, put it in writing and have all parties to the lease sign and date it. Even if it’s simply to use an extra parking spot, don’t rely on verbal agreements. They’re difficult to remember, not to mention prove in court.
- Over communicate. If you’re going to err on either side, over—don’t under—communicate.
- Use multiple platforms. Some tenants will prefer to talk with you on the phone, others via text. Still others will only respond to email. All legal correspondence should be delivered through the U.S. Mail.
- Ask questions. Whether you’re reviewing the terms of the lease, or making an appointment for a maintenance call, make sure the tenant understands what you’re saying by asking clarifying questions. And if you’re unsure about what the tenant is saying, ask again.
- Listen. Be an active listener. Make eye contact. Watch body language. Repeat back what you’ve heard and ask if that’s what the tenant really meant.
- Don’t interrupt. Show interest, provide feedback and be patient when your tenants are speaking.
Good communication takes some effort, but remember that your tenants are your customers, and establishing positive communication will go a long way to keep the relationship positive.
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.
The 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.
We recently noticed a news story about a tenant complaining her landlord asked her to post a “Do Not Flush Tampons” sign in her bathroom. Apparently, the landlord blamed the tenant for plumbing problems in the four-unit building that was built in 1945.
The story unleashed quite a response, mostly consisting of stories describing plumbing problems caused by all kinds of things that shouldn’t be flushed. Whether the landlord was justified in asking the tenant to post the sign was no longer the focus.
Interacting with tenants invariably means dealing with complaints—whether they’re about you, the neighbors, the heat or any of the other approximately 10,000 subjects tenants complain about.
Here are some tips for handling tenant complaints:
- First, it’s important to establish good communication with tenants from day one. While you don’t want to encourage them to find fault with everything, do let tenants know that you want to know when they have a problem. Having the opportunity to make repairs keeps your property in top condition, and allows you to check on how the tenant is treating his or her unit.
- Devise a tracking system. Ask tenants to make requests in writing, and follow up in writing. Create an official form and have tenants complete it, or accept requests by email. You never know when you’ll need written records to back up your actions, so make this a standard procedure.
- Record details of how you handled the complaint. Include dates, times, notes about repairs made and when you followed up with the tenant. These details are important in case the tenant withholds rent for non-performance.
- If a tenant complains about fellow tenant’s behavior, parking habits, noise or other issues, don’t ask them to handle it on their own. Approach the offending tenant, point out the lease provision that prohibits whatever behavior that is offending the other tenant, and ask them to stop. It’s best to not identify the accuser. If the behavior continues, move on to written notices.
Most tenants will have issues at some time or another. Experienced landlords know that this is part of the job. But how you handle complaints can make a big difference in your tenant relationships, your stress level and your success.
As the economic recovery slogs on, tenants continue to double- or triple-up in rental units. In many cases, landlords are not aware of roommate situations; in others, property managers approve one roommate, only to find out he moved out months ago and has been replaced by two others.
Tenants often think that once they sign a lease, they can have anyone they want move in to help pay the rent. For many reasons, this is a bad idea. First, landlords alone get to decide who lives in their properties. Second, tenants don’t always make the best choices in roommates. Third, it’s potentially dangerous to have unknown people living in your apartment building or single family rental house.
That’s why most landlords insist that everyone living in a unit must apply and be on the lease. The property owner may then conduct thorough tenant screening, check credit reports and verify employment and income.
Tenants may think it’s easier to just have a friend move in and hope the landlord doesn’t notice. But it’s actually better for tenants if the new roommate is vetted and approved. Who wants to find out a month or two into the new living arrangement that their roomie is actually unemployed, has poor credit or has a felony record?
Smart landlords will stipulate in the lease that no roommates are allowed without the permission of the owner, and that all residents of a unit must be on the lease. To facilitate good roommate relationships and establish legal responsibilities, you might want to provide tenants with a Roommate Agreement for all to sign and keep with the lease.
- Include language that each tenant/roommate is liable for all terms of the lease or rental agreement. Have your attorney review it before providing to your tenants.
- Include things like the lease term, start date and lease renewal procedures.
- Have a place for each roommate’s name, Social Security Number, and emergency contact.
- List some roommate rules, stating which share of the rent and security deposit each is liable for, which rooms are designated shared and private, and how damages will be handled.
- State the procedure for paying utilities: who gathers the funds and pays the bills, when the bills are due and consequences for late payments.
- Cover parking, garbage and recycling, and other details.
- Determine how guests will be handled, where they may stay and for how long.
- Include guidelines for quiet hours, pets, cleaning, food and other details.
Putting agreements in black and white can go a long way to reducing tension and improving relationships between roommates. And helping your tenants have better roommate relationships can only be a good thing for you as a landlord or property manager.
You may not realize it, but you could be facing competition from an unknown entity. All over the country, scam artists are posing as landlords of buildings they don’t even own and preying on unsuspecting would-be tenants. One elderly woman in Maryland lost $5,000 to con artists.
In a tight rental market, people are more anxious about finding affordable rental housing. Scammers take advantage of their desperation—and willingness to let their guard down—to steal thousands of dollars that victims think is going to pay rent and security deposits. Soon, they discover that the “landlord” to whom they handed over their money is nowhere to be found. Typically, they have little recourse for recovering their funds or getting justice. The phony landlords simply vanish into thin air.
Scammers like this affect everyone. Most tenants have limited funds for rent and security deposits—so, when that money is gone, it won’t be replaced for months. Legitimate landlords miss out on the chance to lease to new tenants, and the victims are left scrambling to secure new housing—or become homeless.
How can this scam happen? Con artists search for homes for sale or rent online, and copy the information and photos to create “For Rent” listings on Craigslist and other websites, using their own contact information. When someone inquires, they say they are relocating and need to immediately rent out their home. If the house is for sale, they tell interested parties to ignore the sign in the front yard—they’ll be taking it down soon. Some even find ways to change the locks on the house so they can show it to unsuspecting victims. Others tell tenants they will get the keys after the security deposit is received.
These con artists are creative and convincing. It might be hard to understand how anyone could fall for a scam like this, but they do. Maybe some of your tenant applicants have fallen for these scams. Or maybe they’re getting ready to. As a responsible landlord, you can help prevent these con artists from getting away with their schemes—and help your future tenants save money so they can rent from you!
First, check Craigslist in your area to see if any of your rental properties are showing up under phony listings. And, when showing your rental properties or talking to applicants, be sure to mention that there are scam artists out there. If they are considering other properties, let them know that they need to do their due diligence:
• If there is a For Sale sign out front, call the agent on the sign and ask if the home is for rent.
• Never mail a security deposit to a random address or PO Box if you haven’t met the landlord and determined that they do indeed own the property.
• Check public records to see who owns the property.
• If the rent seems too good to be true, it probably is.
• If the “landlord” is in a hurry or pushing hard for a rent check or security deposit, something is probably wrong.
Going to a little extra effort could help stop these con artists from victimizing another innocent would-be tenant, so they can rent from you!
Crime happens—even in the nicest apartment complexes and neighborhoods. Despite landlords’ and property managers’ efforts to deter criminal activity, tenants can still become victims of random or targeted crimes.
So, what should you do if a crime does occur on or near your property? Is it your obligation to disclose the information to tenants?
Recently, a tenant was robbed at gunpoint at a normally quiet Seattle apartment complex. The property manager did not alert other tenants to the robbery. When word got around, many tenants were concerned about the lack of communication. “It’s not right,” said one tenant. “I need to know if there’s an increased risk, so I can be more aware and warn my daughter to be more careful, as well.”
It’s not illegal for landlords to withhold information about crimes on or near their properties. But many, like a landlord friend who owns several four-plexes, choose to inform tenants. Mike shared his experience: “Unfortunately, one of my tenants was mugged. The guy took her purse, but thankfully didn’t hurt her,” he said. “I personally informed each of my tenants about the incident, and asked them to be alert and call the police if they saw anyone suspicious in the area.”
Mike says it’s always better to have more communication with tenants than less; he also feels responsible for his tenants’ safety, to the best of his ability. “I think my tenants would rather hear from me about incidents like this, rather then from rumors or reading it in the news.”
Chances are, your tenants are going to hear about crimes in their neighborhoods. Police will generally share this information with property owners and managers, and the victim will often tell friends and family. Disclosing this information when you have it builds trust and encourages open communication between you and your tenants. After all, why should tenants tell you about criminal activity if you don’t tell them? There is really no downside to full disclosure!
Years ago, apartment residents were accustomed to receiving printed newsletters in their mailboxes or on their doorsteps. Since print is going the way of the rotary phone, many property managers now use e-newsletters to communicate with tenants. But some who started a newsletter with all good intentions have let it slide, and now find it’s been months—or years—since the last issue.
Newsletters don’t have to be difficult or terribly time-consuming. And not using them to communicate with residents is a missed opportunity. You might think residents don’t care about what’s happening around your community, the truth is that most would greatly appreciate it.
Here are some easy tips for interesting newsletters you’ll enjoy putting together and your tenants will enjoy reading:
- Add a “news” section. In it you can announce new staff, upgrades, additions to your fitness center, DVD or book library.
- Seasonal items are easy to include. Since Halloween is coming, then Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to write about parties, decorating ideas and safety tips. Add a calendar of events from your town or city.
- Include contests. Promote your Facebook page by encouraging residents to “like” your page. Offer a prize drawing each month for movie or play tickets, or gift certificates to local businesses.
- Promote early rent payment. Conduct a monthly drawing that includes only residents who pay their rent early. Offer a $100 prize and see how quickly you see rent payments come in early!
- Reminder tenants about policies. Include a short piece each month that features one policy. You might want to explain the reason for the policy and review guidelines.
- Partner with local schools and community groups to include their events in your newsletter. Include volunteer opportunities, too.
- Add interesting facts and figures. For example, list the number of dogs and cats in the community, local crime stats or the number of trees on the property.
- Have a monthly poll. Ask questions like, “What is your favorite thing about living here?” or “What is one thing we can do better?” Ask fun questions such as favorite pie, best cupcake in town or “most interesting thing you saw on your way to work today.”
Remember, the purpose of a newsletter is to improve communication with residents. Include the basics, like contact information for all staff, emergency after-hours numbers, email addresses, and website and Facebook urls. Use your newsletters as an opportunity to tell residents what’s new, help them get to know your staff better and learn more about living there. Make it fun and interesting, and tenants will read it!
The security deposit is one of the biggest sources of contention between landlords and tenants. Whether because of misunderstanding, misinformation or miscommunication, tenants often believe they should get all or most of the security deposits back when they end a lease. And landlords often have legitimate reasons why they should not.
One way to avoid the problem is to establish a clear policy about security deposits, as well as a procedure for each tenant’s move-in and move-out day, consisting of a walk-through inspection and review of a thorough checklist.
Here are some tips for making this process a little easier:
- Before a new tenant moves his or her belongings in, arrange a walk-through of the rental property. Use a checklist to note the condition of everything in the apartment or house: walls, flooring, ceilings, bathroom fixtures, plumbing, appliances, light fixtures, doors and windows, locks, doorknob and hinges, blinds and everything else in each room. Take photos, as well. Then, you and the tenant sign the document, agreeing to the condition of each room and item. You can download a move-in checklist here.
- After you receive notice that the tenant is moving, arrange another walk-through. Schedule this for about two weeks before the last day of tenancy. Take a look at each item on the move-in checklist, and give the tenant notes about the current condition. Two weeks will give the tenant time to clean, replace broken or missing items (such as broiler pans, window blinds or door handles), and generally get the place ready for your final inspection.
- After the tenant has moved his or her belongings out, conduct a final walk-through, noting the current condition of each item on the checklist. Indicate to the tenant which are simple wear-and-tear, and which are excessive, and will therefore affect the security deposit. Take photos, and have the tenant sign the document.
Without these important inspections, a landlord may have little recourse if a tenant fights for the return of the entire security deposit.
As a landlord, do you keep track of tenant lease renewal dates? It’s important to do so, for a few reasons.
If you’re on a one-year lease schedule, set reminders to contact tenants prior to the lease expiration to thank them for leasing your property and inform them it will soon be time to sign a new lease. If you will be raising the rent, now is the time to inform your tenant. You may wish to provide a perk such as an appliance upgrade or new carpet to entice them to renew at the higher rent.
At lease signing, have your tenant fill out an updated information form, so you can be sure to have current employment information, emergency contacts, current occupants and vehicle license numbers:
- You’ll want the employment information in case your tenant vacates the unit and owes you rent. If you’re forced to go to court to collect, you’ll want to know where you can garnish the tenant’s wages, if it comes to that.
- Personal and emergency contacts are important, not only in case of an actual emergency, but again, if the tenant breaks the lease and owes you rent, you’ll have a place to start looking for him or her.
- Vehicle license information is vital to keeping unauthorized or unknown vehicles off your property.
- Asking for current occupants are a great way to discover if there are unauthorized residents staying in your rental property. If there are “guests” over age 18, you’ll want to point out the lease clause that covers your guest policy (such as limiting guests to two consecutive weeks in any six month period) and require lease applications and tenant background checks from anyone living in your rental unit who is not on the lease. Of course, if the new tenant is permanent, you’ll need a to draw up a new lease that includes his or her name.
Remind tenants that they must provide written notice if they intend to move out at the end of the lease. Ask for an exact date they will be vacating. However, don’t promise the unit to a new tenant until you are absolutely sure that the old tenant is moving out.