So you’ve got five residential tenants. Joe consistently pays late. Christine got in a fight with her boyfriend and kept everybody awake on Christmas Eve. Alex leaves his trash out in the halls. Richard calls you around the clock to complain – about the other tenants, but also about the traffic noise, about the heat, about the shower, etc.
And then there’s Mary, the undemanding tenant. The tenant you love. Mary never complains. Mary always pays. Mary is your buddy. Do you have to worry about Mary? Yes.
The other tenants demand your attention. Mary never gets any attention because she never causes a problem. However, your lack of communication with Mary means you don’t really know what’s going on with her unit.
Mary may, in fact, be very unhappy, and planning to go. A lot of people are like this – they don’t complain about a situation until the day they decide to walk out of it. In that case, the first call you get from her will be the one saying “I’m leaving at the end of my lease.” Even then, she may not say “I’m unhappy.” But suppose she is? Suppose she had real complaints and issues that you could have fixed if only you had known about them? You’d be kicking yourself when you got the “I’m leaving” call, because it came too late. Offering to fix the problems in response to the “I’m leaving” call probably won’t work, because chances are Mary has already signed a lease somewhere else.
You Must Call First
Because Mary’s not going to call you, you have to call her. Do this every couple of months, and any time a problem happens elsewhere with the building that might affect her. These are “check-in” calls. You can ask how she’s doing, if she was affected by the other problem (assuming that prompted the call) and so on. If your call was prompted by an issue elsewhere in the building, let her know what you are doing about it.
By making frequent calls, and soliciting her views, you are letting her know that it’s okay to complain. It’s highly unlikely she will have any concerns to address at first, but eventually she will open up. Now bear in mind this is not a bargain – “If I pay attention to you, you won’t leave.” However, you are increasing your chance that she will stay.
I must confess, there are times I’ve been really reluctant to make these calls! If it’s the end of the day and I’ve dealt with four or five major issues, the last thing I need is another potential hassle. But consider Mary’s value. She’s the best tenant I have. If she leaves, I’ll have a heck of a time replacing her with someone of the same quality.
What if She Just Doesn’t Notice?
It may be that Mary seems satisfied, not because she is reluctant to complain, but because she just doesn’t notice problems. The whole place could be falling down around her, and she would really think everything was fine. Great, right? Let me repeat:
The whole place could be falling down around her, and she would really think everything was fine.
Since you don’t want the whole place to fall down, you need to make sure this isn’t the case. Little problems often develop into big ones, especially with plumbing, pests, or electrical work. To prevent this, you must – at a minimum – schedule inspections of Mary’s unit with the same frequency as the others. When inspecting Mary’s place, you’re not looking for problems she caused as much – those are unlikely. Rather, you’re looking for problems that happened for other reasons.
You may also want to take a few minutes to teach Mary about little signs of trouble that she can catch early. Frame it as a matter of avoiding inconvenience – “if this turned into a major problem, you wouldn’t be able to use your stove for a few days.”
Don’t Take Her for Granted, or Give Her a Break
I’ve noticed before that when contractors form a friendly relationship with you, they may start taking your good nature for granted. Rather than getting special treatment from them, you’re moved to the back of the line. We have the same tendency to do this to our best tenants. When they do have an issue, because they’ve been so nice to us in the past, we may say “Mary can wait a little bit, she’s patient.” But that’s entirely unfair to Mary and may cause trouble for you down the line.
How about a break on the rent? I don’t mean a one-time break, allowing a late or partial payment without penalty. That’s probably not going to come up with Mary. I mean not increasing her rent at the same time you increase everybody else. I personally would raise her along with the others. The good reason not to (you want to keep her) is overshadowed by the good reasons to. One good reason is that having everybody pay the same reduces resentment among tenants. Another is that if you charge market rate but provide superior service, you’re still giving Mary a good deal.