13 Red Flags for Troublesome Tenants (+ 9 Totally Insane True-Life Tenant Stories)

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Last week, I was taking the dreaded continuing education to maintain my real estate license.

You see, although I’m not really a traditional practicing agent any longer, I do keep my license active for tax purposes (unlimited passive losses).

So, naturally, I’ve procrastinated once again, and my selection of remaining courses was somewhat limited. I ended up in a Property Management course, and the irony of which is that about eight years ago I was a practicing property manager at a RE/MAX real estate office. To be quite honest, it was a very long day, but I did still pick up a few pointers.

As I was daydreaming in class, I was thinking back over the last 25 years of managing tenants and about some of the craziest stories I could remember.

First, let me preface by saying I’ve had lot of great people over the years, who actually paid their rent, took care of the property, and helped me and my investor clients acquire and pay for many a nice piece of real estate. And, although we managed every type of residential real estate, we had some doozies along the way too.

9 Insane Tenant Issues That I’ve Seen

So, here’s a list of some of the worst tenant situations I’ve encountered and not necessarily in the order of severity:

  • A tenant with three kids defecated all over the house after living without water for three months in the middle of Summer before the Board of Health shut them down. By the way, the Board of Health is a quick way to evict.
  • A tenant shot a cop, and then a SWAT team destroyed the unit in pursuit of the suspect with everything from teargas canisters to battering rams.
  • There was a DEA drug bust. They ripped out every drop ceiling tile in the unit.
  • I witnessed a tenant barbequing in an enclosed hallway of a multi-unit. (It wasn’t even raining out!)
  • One unit had fleas, bedbugs, and termites so bad that the Township condemned the building.
  • A tenant filed bankruptcy and lived in the unit for a year rent-free. (It’s harder to do that today based on the new bankruptcy law.)
  • A tenant burned the basement steps and floorboards as firewood to heat the house with the fireplace.
  • A tenant burned the house down cooking fried chicken for breakfast and falling asleep drunk.
  • I even had a tenant, whose snake ate a neighbor’s small dog.

Some of these tenants may have already been in the property when I bought it, or they may have lived in properties that I managed for others. Even so, many of these situations could have been prevented through better screening or recognizing any red flags.

Related: Tenant Screening: The Ultimate Guide

Tenant Red Flags

So, here’s a list of thirteen red flags that we all need to look out at when selecting tenants:

  1. Are they on time for the appointment? If they can’t even be on time for the appointment, it’s likely that their rent won’t be on time either.
  2. What type of first impression did they make?
  3. What was their personal appearance and what did their car look like? How they take care of their personal belongings is probably how they’ll take care of the unit.
  4. Are there gaps in rental history? This could signify that were incarcerated or in a facility of some sort for a period of time. Ask questions.
  5. Did you see where they live now? That’s what your unit will look like.
  6. How many occupants will there be? This helps you predict the level of wear and tear to the unit.
  7. Any pets (or other dangerous animals)? Townships may have ordinances that only allow certain pets.
  8. Any long-term guests or adult children? What’s your policy? For example, are the people on the lease the only ones allowed to live there? Or, will the rent increase if an adult child moves home?
  9. Will they take the unit sight unseen? If they don’t seem to care about where they’re living, how well do you think they’ll take care of it?
  10. Are they flashing cash? This could signify that that the person is selling a drug or product illegally, has received some type of settlement (who you may have to evict later, if they don’t have a steady income), or maybe the previous landlord paid them to leave and they’re using that to money to get the new place.
  11. Do they want to pay the security deposit in installments? If they’re having trouble paying the security deposit, they may have trouble paying the rent. Of course, this isn’t always the case.
  12. Did they get upset you’re considering others? If they’re too aggressive, or get upset easily, they may get in your face or be very hard to please during their leasing period.
  13. Do they whine and complain about their current landlord? They could’ve had an awful landlord, or they may whine and complain about everything.

These are just some of the many red flags I’ve seen over the years, although not all of them will lead indefinitely to troublesome tenant situations.

Related: 16 Big Red Flags to Watch For When Looking for Tenants

Typically, I ask a perspective tenant, “Why did you move?” Once, I had one respond with, “We couldn’t afford the late charges anymore.” Inconsistent payments in their rental history may be one of the more obvious red flags. But, we do need to be careful out there. As my instructor and property manager, Mike Perry of RE/MAX, taught in class, you have to be proactive and discuss expectations repeatedly, and upfront, with any and all tenants.

In fact, he even gives tenants a list called, “21 Ways to Lose Your Security Deposit,” and it includes things like not returning keys, leaving a dirty oven, etc. He also sets the stage for any restrictions on building use. Personally, I’ve seen everything from auto repairs and rock bands, to meth labs. So, we all do need to lay down what our future expectations will be.

Obviously, I might sound like I’ve seen a few things, but I’m sure the BiggerPockets Nation has a few stories to tell as well. So, what’s your craziest tenant story, or what red flags have you seen over the years?

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About Author

Dave Van Horn is President at PPR The Note Co. - an operating entity that manages several funds that buy/sell/hold residential mortgages, both performing and delinquent. Dave has been in the Real Estate business for 25 years, starting out as a Realtor and contractor and moving onto everything from fix and flips to Raising Private Money.

38 Comments

  1. Your number 3 is a good one– look at the people s appearance and look inside their car — I asked one couple if they smoked– they reeked of cigarettes- both denied they were smokers- I looked in their car and ashtray was overflowing with cigarette butts– and.lots of Empty Beer cans on floor and seats- Their children’s clothes were unkempt and dirty, If their children are dirty , and their car is full of trash , that is exactly how your house will look — if people do not care about their OWN things, they certainly won’t care about yours. .

    • If they drive up in an expensive car but don’t have any savings in their bank, I start asking questions. A nice car is a red flag for me because it means they value their car over the place they live and they will be more likely to skip rent than a car payment.

    • Daniel Keating on

      also look for a rental car sticker on the bumper–some “posers” will rent a car that looks nice while owning a beater. worse if they borrow a relatives car. Beware of the bicycle enthusiast who has the cleated shoes if you have hardwood/laminate floors

  2. Shawn Holsaple on

    Great article!

    I take #5 one step farther. I peek inside and ask myself this question: “If they offered to make me a bologna sandwich, would I eat it?”

  3. Beware of the married couple with 2 incomes that were staying with the in-laws to save money so they can finally get their own place.

    Major flag as mentioned about the deposit. If they can afford it right up front, they cant afford the rent.

      • Hello Dave,
        I say that because their purpose for living with in-laws was to “save” money to be able to afford their own place, then they started alluding to not being able to come up with the deposit at the time off turning in an application. They wanted to turn in an application but wouldn’t have the deposit until a week later.

  4. Ok, at the risk of showing myself to be a complete fool, here goes: I had such a great tenant. He stayed 10 yrs and never asked for anything. I’d call (later send e-mails) to check in: “Hi. How is everything? Do you need any repairs or anything?” No, he said – for 10 yrs. I offered new carpet or paint. No, I’m fine, he said. Last summer the hwh collapsed upon itself. The plumber said that based on the rusted coils that the thing hadn’t worked in months. The kitchen sink was rusted out. The place was what you would see on an episode of “Hoarders”. Mold from a long-term water leaks permeated the place. The HOA called the County and I was served with papers.

    So now I inspect every property every 6 months – more frequently if I feel it necessary. Yes, I had the greatest tenant ever and even gave him a terrific break on the rent. He fixed all the small stuff himself and never needed to call me. I now know why he didn’t call me about rusted pipes, no hot water, mold, etc. I feel like an idiot.

      • dont feel stupid– one of our worst tenants (in our decades of renting houses) was the best paying, least complaining renter–the reason they pay on time and never want you to fix anything is because they are hoarders or worse & they don’t want you IN the house— we were like you in that we thought they were great and how nice to have a tenant who is handy & not calling you for every tiny thing–you find out WHO you have rented to when they move out , or when something happens like your hot water heater and then you see what a nightmare is in your house—don’t feel stupid, it happens to all of us–its just always a very expensive horrible learning lesson !

        • Same thing happened to me! After being our tenant for six years, he happened to die and when I went into the unit and all the junk was piled up to the ceiling with little paths snaking through to the bedroom and bathroom. It cost $1000 to get a dumpster to throw it all out.

    • Daniel Keating on

      yep–3-4 month inspections–Oh, time to have the AC/Furnace looked at–I like to change the filters just to make sure it gets done…any leaks under the sink….? And your eyes are everywhere… I had one tenant take issue and I had to explain that I do not look in sock drawers or dry closets–only where there is water/gas/appliances that might need servicing… I’m telling you a lot of times it is their lifestyle –like I’m going to discover a bong & rolling tray in the sock drawer and call the FBI or something. So they will want to block you from coming in while a slow drip from a sink faucet runs up your water bill or dribbles behind a wall & grows mold

    • Dave Van Horn

      Cheryl, thanks for sharing! It is definitely a great idea to inspect your properties, and sometimes, certain townships will do their own inspections. Don’t beat yourself up too bad, though. You did avoid the cost of turnovers during that time, along the cost of vacancy.
      Best,
      Dave

  5. I use credit score as a major indicator and predictor. It rarely fails. I have had murderers, stranglers, slobs, roaches, bedbugs, etc. But never a solid credit score tenant that went bad.

    Do your diligence on the front end, and your problems are reduced or eliminated. And you are MUCH more profitable.

    • Dave Van Horn

      Hi Eric, I agree with you that credit score is your best indicator, along with background checks. However, bad things also happen to good people. I’ve had many good credit score tenants, who became victims of the big four (death, illness, divorce, or job loss). The only better potential tenant is someone with good credit and additional assets, as opposed to a tenant with only good credit, but, granted, they are rare.
      Thanks for your comment!
      Dave

  6. Oh boy, whenever some discusses tenants I think about one potential tenant. It is my montra to always know who is in my unit. I know it’s a bit more difficult if you have numerous units but I make it a practice. I do use a prop mgmt co. to manage my property after tenants are in place but I do all the screening (hey it’s just the way I operate).

    I have a unit I recently updated and was screening potential tenants and I had a lady that was very aggressive so #12 is important she was disappointed that I had other interested parties. To make a long story short, she was a felon with 8 counts of child abuse and neglect ( one of the biggest child neglect cases in Illinois history). She used her boyfriend that was charged as well as the previous landlord, and a friend of the family. After running credit and a background check I knew immediately she would not make the cut. When I contacted her she showed her true demeanor. Thank God I did my due diligence.

    “Enjoying the Journey”

  7. Gina bisaillon on

    I’m very lucky to have a friend who knows everyone in the village — I’m not from there– because all I have to do is ask her about the prospective tenants. I disregarded her advice once, and lived to regret it. Never again!

    Gina

  8. Dave Great Advise on Tenants I especially Liked number 1 if they are late for there Appointment then they will be late on the Rent that is a big one in my book seems true on that.

  9. Just had an interested couple at our latest rental open house yesterday; guy says he makes 150k a year running his own business, and he was not happy learning I would need to pull his wife’s credit because her score is below 600 because there are some bills she had that they decided not to pay since they only care about his credit score for his business. Also, they are trying to short sale their house where the bank would take the loss, not them, because they don’t like the school district (it does have the worst reputation in the area) and rent in a better school district until they can buy again. I decided if I do hear back from them to apply I will turn them down; I want someone who pays all their bills no matter who’s credit score they affect, I want someone who follows rules and not someone who knows how to play the system!

    • For applicants who are self employed– we require the last two years IRS returns (or pay stubs ) or bank statments to see consistent deposits of income to verify their income–this is pretty standard with property management companies also- (if you go onto any property management company website they list their criteria for tenancy–it always states self employed must provide paperwork,) because anyone can tell you they make anything—-if they are lying, they will run out the door- that happens all the time with self employed applicants when we require income verification–also gross income is not net income, he might make $150,000 and net $20,000— rule of thumb is they must make 3 1/2 to 4 times the rent to rent the house. I had a man tell me he made one million a year running his fireplace business– when we asked for income verification, he said “well its mostly cash, and I don’t report it, but I really do make one million a year”–so I asked why are you renting then if you make one million a year?? “oh, my wife and I just don’t want to buy right now”–

  10. Though there are other strings about Section 8, I’ll add this. Some landlords still think Section 8 tenants are “pre-screened” by HRA, That may be true in some places, but many have so much money to give away they advertise for clients, and don’t screen them anymore, ALWAYS run a full criminal & credit check anyway. And, if a caller, when I ask “where do you work?” replies “I get (insert one of a hundred handout programs here)”, I always say “Oh, what do you do all day?” I get answers ranging from “hang out” to “play video games” to “volunteer at my kids’ school.” Which one do you think I prefer to hear?

    • Dave Van Horn

      Thos, I agree. I always run background and credit checks on applicants regardless of if they’re section 8 or not. If they are, I also check how long they’ve been in the program and many children are under 18. When a child turns 18, it could be a case where they are no longer considered a dependent. Then, the family may have to move out sooner if their voucher has changed to a lower number of bedrooms.
      Best,
      Dave

  11. Love the list. Number 11 about security deposit in installments is right on. Inherited a tenant that wanted to pay in installments and now they can’t make the rent. Won’t make that mistake in the future.

    • Dave Van Horn

      Hi John, I definitely agree. Sometimes I’ll advertise one month’s security and one month’s rent. However, that’s only if they’re credit score is pristine. If they don’t qualify, I’ll want first month, last month, and one month security.
      Best,
      Dave

    • Dave Van Horn

      Hi Brian, I agree with you in the sense that with nicer properties, you don’t have as many issues. But, I’ve had to evict tenants out of nice properties before as well, and sometimes it is even more difficult.
      Best,
      Dave

  12. Note, even running a credit check is not foolproof. Once had a section 8 tenant, credit check came out ok, supposedly screened by HRA. Found later credit under own name was fine, because they used alias for everything else from the electric bill to the cable company. Should have called the previous landlord out of state. Had HRA rep come by house to show what tenant had done or not done, house stunk and had not been vacuumed or cleaned in a year and amount of stuff left for us to dispose of. She just shook her head and still granted him and two children another place. They don’t care about your property, they inspect it for cleanliness and expect it to meet code and habitable standards. The people they place are just another case file to close. Due diligence and follow-up are key-never rush to place tenants in your properties.

    • Dave Van Horn

      Hi Tracey, I agree. I’ve been renting out properties for 26 years now, but I can’t say that anything is foolproof. For example, the tenant, who shot a cop, was seemingly the nicest guy in the world until he got tied up with the wrong crowd.
      Best,
      Dave

  13. Mike Knudstrup on

    Are they in a hurry? Anybody I’ve rented to who was in a hurry has ended up being a less than desirable tenant. They’re in a hurry for a reason and it’s generally a bad one. The two main ones are that they’re getting kicked out of their current place or that they do not plan well for the future. Of course, the first one is bad but also an inability to plan and think things through ends up affecting their tenancy in some way or another: they lose their jobs, relationships go bad, or they don’t treat your property with an eye for the long-term.

    I really enjoyed reading the red flags from the author and the additional contributors.

  14. Great article. Can you please post or tell us where to find the “21 Ways to Lose Your Security Deposit”? I would love to include that in my next lease application.

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