The Best Landlords Are Firm But Fair: Here’s How to Adopt Their Principles

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One of the best pieces of advice you will ever receive as a landlord is to stick to your policies and to avoid making exceptions. This is certainly a sound piece of advice. Unfortunately, many landlords have to learn the hard way the importance of enforcing agreed upon rules and policies for their tenants.

As a newcomer to the landlording game, it’s easy to get hesitant when the time comes to act on one of your rules. You may try to avoid confrontation and convince yourself that it won’t be the end of the world to “let this one slide.” This is a major mistake that almost always leads down a slippery slope of more broken rules. The result can be an unbearable landlord-tenant relationship.

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People Want to be Liked

This is a simple truth and a common characteristic of human beings. A new (or seasoned) landlord may feel pressure to make exceptions for tenants breaking rules or not making payments. They want to be perceived as the “nice guy.” This is a natural desire. The landlord may feel that if she imposes a late fee, the tenant will get angry and dislike her.

Related: The 9 Things I Hate the Most About Being a Landlord

Therefore, the natural tendency is to make an excuse about why an infraction can go unenforced. While this may feel good at first, it doesn’t take long for you to go from being a “nice guy” to a “pushover.” Your failure to enforce your lease is a sign of weakness. A tenant will see this as an opportunity to continue breaking the rules set out in the lease.

For example, if you fail to impose a late fee when your tenant is late with rent, what incentive does the tenant have to pay next month’s rent on time? You didn’t do anything the first time — why would you do anything the next time? What makes things even more complicated is when you fail to impose a late fee for the first offense, but then decide it’s time to toughen up for a future offense. This creates a double standard and is confusing to the tenant. You need to be firm and consistent with the enforcement of your lease from the onset of your relationship with each tenant.


Tenants Expect You to Enforce the Rules

Think about your personal rental experience. If you were late with your monthly rent, would you expect your landlord to void the late fees? If they didn’t void the late fees, would you blame them for being a “bad person”? Almost certainly not! You realize that by imposing a late fee, your landlord is simply doing what is best for her business. You don’t think of her as a bad person. In fact, the majority of tenants actually feel bad for the landlord for forcing her to impose late fees!

The fact is that you and your tenant signed a contract. It is your obligation to follow that contract and impose the applicable penalties.

Don’t Get Caught With a Double Standard

A major issue with “letting it slide” is that your inconsistent enforcement of rules makes things very confusing for your tenants. If you let one tenant slide on late rent, other tenants will expect the same treatment. If you wait to impose the late fee on one tenant but hit another tenant immediately, the second tenant will feel that you are out to get him.

Late Fees Work

Landlords use late fees for a reason: They work. You might be shocked at how well a $20 late fee or the potential for a $5 per day late fee will motivate your tenants to round up their rent on time. The fact is that most tenants will pay their rent. Sometimes they forget; other times they are waiting to get paid.

Regardless of the reason, the consistent and strict enforcement of late fees is a proven motivator for tenants to pay their rent. What’s more, sometimes tenants plan on being late and expect to pay the additional late fee! This is the best case scenario: You get your rent a few days late, but you get an extra $20-$50 because your tenant broke the rules. It almost feels like magic!


The Best of Both Worlds

It’s possible to impose late fees and other rules of your lease and still be the “nice guy.”

Related: 6 Things Every Landlord Should Do to Win Over the Hearts of Tenants (A Renter’s Perspective!)

Here are a few tips:

  • Set up your late payment notices so that they are (or seem) system-generated and/or automated. If you are using an invoicing application like Quickbooks, use the email feature to send a professional invoice indicating the due date and the penalties if that due date is missed. You can start by sending the invoice ~10 days before it is due. After the first day that the invoice remains unpaid, send a friendly reminder urging the tenant to pay before an “automatic” late fee is added to the invoice. After your grace period ends, “drop the hammer” and add your late fee to the invoice. If you craft it right, the late fee will seem like an automatic feature set in motion by Quickbooks. The tenant doesn’t see you as the bad guy. Instead, they blame Quickbooks and your magical invoicing system!
  • Stress the importance of maintaining consistent standards for all your tenants. Tenants would not expect to be given special treatment. If a tenant is begging and pleading with you to let something slide, stress the importance of being fair to all tenants.
  • Tell the truth. Sometimes tenants have a misguided perception that their landlord is a wealthy real estate tycoon who burns cash to keep warm at night. We all know that investing in real estate requires a ton of hard work and is by no means easy. Inform your tenants of the business you are trying to build. Let them know how hard you have worked to acquire and run your properties. Stress that you sympathize with their situation, but that you are in no position to ignore the rules and let your business suffer.


Maintaining solid landlord-tenant relationships is one of the most difficult aspects of real estate investing. The successful landlords are able to eliminate emotion from decision making so that they can diligently follow their business processes. It may be difficult to enforce rules on your tenants. Nonetheless, learning to adhere to your systems is an essential skill on the road to a successful real estate investing career.

Landlords: How do you keep a good relationship with your tenants?

Leave your tips below!

About Author

Nick Baldo

Nick Baldo started investing in real estate in 2011 with a focus on flipping houses in the Buffalo, NY area. He has since expanded his business, NY Home Solutions, to focus on value-added rental investments. Nick created and manages the real estate educational site, Income Digs to help aspiring real estate investors get started.


    • William Morrison

      Interesting, I tried looking up where is illegal. I found a wide variance in the grace periods and limits on the amount. The only state I found that came close was one that does not allow a preset limit but only the actual cost to the landlord, liquidated damages. Couldn’t tell if that would include the late fee on a mortgage even though you might pay it from other funds. They did have an interesting alternative though. If the rent is late the lease in void and you can give them notice and raise the rent or evict. Not sure that’s the course you’d take, but interesting just the same.
      They are legal in the three states I’m involved in. It must be in the lease and have a grace period and there are limits.
      What states were you dealing in which they are illegal?

  1. James R.

    Nick, good topic to cover, especially for new landlords.

    I have found that no matter how “nice” one is with tenants, you will always be seen in a negative light as their landlord. I have had tenants who see me as a business person and respect me for that though, so there are always exceptions.

    I readily meet my tenants demands for maintenance etc. and in return when it comes time to renew their lease and raise the rent, it is my “turn” to play my hand of cards. If I have “earned” the ability to raise the rent I do, usually 3 – 4.5% a year. Tenants stay on average 5 years.

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