How to Deal with Verbally Abrasive Tenant

39 Replies

Hey everyone.  I have a tenant that I need help with.

Husband/wife, 4 kids.  Moved in about 6 months ago.  Month-to-month tenant.  Made some demands, I met them. Everything seemed great until St. Patrick's Day, I get a call from the local police saying there was an altercation at the apartment, and they say there was a domestic disturbance in the apartment.  There was an altercation, and he broke two exterior windows, the TV, and then left.  He was missing for a few days, but now he's back in their lives, although I'm unsure if he lives there.  I'm in contact with both of them, though they only call me back in an unreliable fashion.

They had a couple issues with the apartment and I said I would look into possible solutions.  Nothing major, just cosmetic stuff.  Their attitude was "don't worry about it, whenever you get to it is totally fine!" But since the altercation, she has turned into someone completely irrational and aggressive.  Instead of contacting me to solve these problems, she called the city's Health Department and had them walk through the apartment, and I received a notice to correct the issues.  They ranged from valid to silly.  I feel she was walking around looking for any possible defects for them to write down.  Of course, even the silly things are on the official report to correct.  The city wrote down everything she said and included it in their report, valid or not.

This happened in early July, and they have been withholding 100% of the rent ever since.  She says "ever since our last apartment, our landlord refused to fix stuff, we know our rights".  She brought up an issue with some outlets, and I called a local electrician to come by and look.  He called her to set up a mutually convenient appointment, and it was booked for nearly 2 weeks away.  She never leaves the apartment except to drive the kids places.  I am making every effort to fix their problems, and I believe she is delaying the electrician to come in to delay paying rent.

I called her just now to ask if there was any way we could get it done sooner.  I am nothing but professional when I speak to them, and she is incredibly verbally abrasive and refuses to let me talk, then hangs up on me.  

What are my options?  Obviously I would love for them to hit the road, but that might not be an option just yet.  Is there a certain protocol they need to follow when withholding rent?  I know Massachusetts is heavily favored towards the tenant, but surely I'm being taken advantage of.  Would I be able to hire an attorney to review this?  A local attorney represented me in an eviction (same unit different tenant, go figure!), and I liked his work.  I need to solve this major problem, and if I need to pull out my checkbook, I will.  Help me  Bigger Pockets, you're my only hope.  Thanks so much!

It sounds like you need an attorney. Withholding rent for repairs and then not allowing you entry to conduct the repairs? She isn't going to pay rent. Since there was a domestic disturbance, the husband probably has a restraining order against him. If there was a criminal prosecution, it may have settled out and he may be serving a sentence. Some states have extra requirements when dealing with domestic violence victims. I'd go over to the local criminal courthouse and see what is going on husband.

In Texas (a very landlord friendly state) you would give them a thirty day notice to get them out and could then sue them for unpaid rent.  I wouldn't put up with that.

I have had that happen....not sure how MA is but in Indy they hold rent they get evicted for breach of contract period. If it were me here I wait and let them not pay rent then evict. I can have someone out in 3--4 weeks. Contact health dept and let them know eviction is pending and work to be completed once gone. It is nice owning rentals in a landlord friendly city!

He really needs the advice of an attorney. Because the tenant has filed a complaint, if he evicted, she could claim retaliatory eviction. To protect himself from this, he needs an attorney's guidance. 

I'd keep all communications in writing from now on.  Give notice of entry to do repairs in the manner allowed for by lease and state laws.

I would correct all of the issues before trying to evict, because that's clearly what her defense in court will be. If you try to do it before then, she may actually have a case. Although, I can see how you might try to point out her delay, I'm not sure that would work. I'm not sure about Massachusetts, but in Oklahoma, or my lease, I can give a 24 hour notice to enter the premises for inspections/repairs. If you do have that in your lease, or state law, I would go ahead and schedule the repair with the electrician. Then, give her a written notice at least 24 hours ahead of time. I would hand it to her in person or post on the door, and I would also certified mail a copy.

Hopefully that's helpful. 

Talk to the attorney.

MA sucks for this kind of stuff.  You have lots of very specific details you have to follow and if you don't you are screwed.  Good news is if she is pulling that kind of BS SHE also has guidelines she needs to follow and the attorney should be able to see if she is doing anything wrong and can break any claim she is making with the rent if she is.

Good luck and god speed...  

Thanks everyone.  I wouldn't even think of moving forward with eviction until all the repairs are completed.  Even after that, I'm worried about being blamed for using retaliatory eviction. I think an attorney's advice is best here.

The husband is back in the picture, but I'm just not sure he lives there.  She said they were out celebrating their anniversary yesterday, so he's back to some degree.

@Shaun Reilly Yes Massachusetts sucks for this kind of stuff.  It doesn't seem she is following ANY guidelines, just saying "we are not paying any rent until the situation is solved".  If there are any guidelines she needs to follow with rent withholding, she's not following them.  It would be helpful if they were cooperating with the repairs, but they are not.  They don't want the problems solved, they want to create more problems for me so they "don't have to" pay rent.  Lawyering up.

Thanks for the replies everyone!

Christopher Reynolds this is hard for anyone not living in the state your property is. Two strategies I see are, 1.) Screw being nice and mutual, provide notice, you meet repair persons, and make entry, 2) Check with City Health to see what happens if you refuse to make the repairs. For example, if they say they'll "condemn" the unit then that may be great because the tenants will lose the place to stay pet the City's order. Then make repairs and get the clear from the City. Of course, if there are LARGE fines involved, may have to take that into account. But it's a thought, check with them.
Christopher Reynolds I didn't mean to suggest not making the repairs, but surely even MA doesn't mandate cosmetic repairs. If the City nailed you for them but not legally required, let City kick your tenants out for you lol.

@Christopher Reynolds no need to run out and spend hundreds of dollars or even thousands to take care of this situation. I've been through a very similar situation in the past. The board of health came in and gave you a letter which outlines the repairs that must be made. You can give your tenant reasonable notice (24 hours is considered reasonable in MA) and you can go in to make the repairs whether or not they are home. They have to allow you to access the apartment. Just leave them a note on their door and leave them a voicemail and meet your contractor there at the specified time unless  you are taking care of things yourself. 

Let the health inspector know if they tenant is not being cooperative about letting you in. The health inspector is there because the tenant wants the items taken care of. The health inspector can call them and explain all of this to them as well. At this point they have withheld one month's rent (July) and I'm guessing they have not paid rent yet for August. 

The tenant has a right to withhold rent in MA but once the repairs are made and the health inspector signs off they must immediately pay you the back rent. If they don't you can evict them for non-payment of rent. The day after the health inspector signs off if they haven't paid for July and August serve them a 14 day notice for non-payment of rent. A judge may decide that they are entitled to some discount of rent for the time that the violations existed but we are talking about a month or so at the most and it sounds like the violations are minor so they have a weak case. 

If this is the first time you have served them a 14 day notice they can pay the back rent in full within 10 days and reinstate their tenancy. After the ten day period has expired if they do pay the rent you can accept it and give them a receipt noting that the rent is being accepted for use and occupancy only. This way you are not creating a new tenancy and you can continue with the eviction. You can then proceed with summary process and have them evicted. If they do pay within the ten days and reinstate their tenancy but they are even one day late again in the future, you can serve them a 14 day notice and they have no reinstatement rights. That was a one time deal within a 12 month period.

God luck. Save your money. Make the repairs, have a constable serve the 14 day notice and proceed with eviction. Message me if you have any questions anytime. 

Also keep in mind that there are specific steps that the tenant must follow before they can withhold rent. There is no reason to get into this with the tenant. Let them screw up on their own. When you get to court and they tell the judge that they were withholding rent because of repairs that you did not do the judge will determine whether or not they followed the proper procedure. It's likely they didn't (did they give you written notice BEFORE they started withholding rent?) so they will lose in court. And you can always bring in an attorney if things get hairy but you are talking about a very simple process at this point. 

Thanks @Rob Beland !  Interestingly, the property is the next town over from you.

The repairs are not purely cosmetic, although that's how they were initially proposed to me.  There are some light sockets that had loose covers, and I said I'd replace the covers and they were satisfied with my answer.  After the freakout, it became a "serious safety issue" and she called the City.  It's strange, the serious issue can now wait 2 weeks to be fixed even though I have an electrician waiting to come in and solve their problem.

If there are issues with the apartment, I need to fix them no matter who is in there.  I'm still going to hire an attorney because of the extremely hostile demeanor she has towards me.  I don't trust her, I feel she's the type that would claim I assaulted or threatened her, or some other nonsense.  I might be able to not spend as much money, but I can be assured I'm following the letter of the law.  

@Rob Beland I received no notice from them at all.  Their general words are "we have no problems paying rent once this stuff is solved", but I have received no written notice from them.  I have only received the written notice from the City, but that only concerns repairs.  I feel they are screwing themselves over pretty badly.  Even still, I feel much more comfortable hiring an attorney.

Didn't you say that they are month-to-month tenants? Why not just take your losses and not renew the lease next month? You could even say it is because all of the work that needs to be done; you need to close up shop and have a chance to get in there and make necessary repairs (but you haven't been able to due to the tenant's schedule). But yeah, I would definitely bring an attorney into this ASAP as well.

This is one of those things it does not pay to try to handle yourself. I would present all of the facts to an attorney then wait for their advice.

I hear Massachusetts is pretty tenant friendly so I do not know if the following will apply but in most areas the tenant cannot simply withhold the rent due to repairs. They need to deposit it with the court system and the court will decide when to release the money to you. If this is the case in your town I would imagine the attorney would advise you to evict for non payment of rent.

Originally posted by @Jennifer L. :
It sounds like you need an attorney. Withholding rent for repairs and then not allowing you entry to conduct the repairs? She isn't going to pay rent.

 I agree with Jennifer.  The tenant is not going to pay.  I would initiate the legal eviction process immediately.

Also, if you had to evict a different tenant earlier and now you want to evict this tenant, I'd say it's time for you to review and tighten up your screening practices.  It won't do you much good to evict this tenant, then get another bad tenant two months later.

Call that lawyer you like, discuss the situation with him, and hire him to conduct the eviction.

EDIT: Once again, Rob seems to have the best advice!

With all due respect to all you Texas, Virginia and Indiana guys, who are trying to help him, I'm not disrespecting you, but MA is the Peoples Socialist Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

@Christopher Reynolds , please don't listen to advice from any state except MA.  In fact, if you are going to evict, or even thinking about it, get a good landlord attorney now to consult so you don't trip yourself up and have to start all over.  MA is brutal on landlords.  Learn the eviction laws inside out and don't try to do your first one yourself.  

@Ann Bellamy Thanks Ann.  I know these guys are just trying to help, but they might not know how different it is up here :)

Eviction is obviously on my mind, but I know to proceed carefully. I've already called the attorney that represented me in my eviction this winter, hopefully he can advise me in this matter as well.  

Thanks @Randy E. It's always a good idea to keep your screening practices tight anyway, no matter what.  There's nothing that would have prevented these tenants from getting through my screening, as they were perfectly normal before the domestic disturbance on 3/17.

Originally posted by @Christopher Reynolds :

There's nothing that would have prevented these tenants from getting through my screening, as they were perfectly normal before the domestic disturbance on 3/17.

 I'm not so sure about that.  It might be Monday morning coaching, but I bet a review of their application information will reveal a clue or two.  Here's why I think so.

1) The domestic disturbance seemed a little over the top for a first-time minor incident between the couple.  Breaking multiple windows, breaking a television, and staying away for that long a time is not something most emotionally stable husbands would do in a stable relationship with young children in the household.  That one police report speaks volumes of what might have happened in the past, and I bet something recorded in his past would reflect this.

2) The way the wife is punching all the right buttons with her fake legalese and filing just the right paperwork/complaints with the city says this isn't her first rodeo.  Dig a little deeper into her rental and financial history and I'll bet something shows up.

I'm not saying that a review of their application and maybe even a deeper inquiry into their rental/credit/criminal history will definitely reveal something that should have been caught. I just think it might shed a little more predictive light on the couple. Maybe you'll pick up on something you should add to your screening process. I learn new things about all aspects of REI/landlording all the time.