Tenant Threatening Legal Action For Landlord Responses to Repairs

70 Replies

Hi All,

Need some insight regarding some issues I'm experiencing with some tenants. I had a couple move in to my townhouse and in the few months they've been here there's been a series of repairs that were needed for the home. Most were minor but the last couple were major fixes (air conditioning and leaky pipe). The home is located in a suburb of Chicago. I've tried searching for various tenant laws and other legal guidance via google and through the BP forums but wasn't able to find specific guidance under short notice. Appreciate any advice you guys can give!

To give you some background, prior to the couple moving in. I had my parents show them the townhouse during which they communicated a couple minor repairs that were needed such as a faulty dish washer. I live over an hour away from the property and have my parents manage more of the day to day needs of the property since they live closer. After the couple moved in, I told them to notify me if there were other issues that need to be addressed as items are bound to come up as they settle into the home. I made a point to reimburse them for various out of pocket expenses such as new blinds, minor fixtures etc. Overall I feel that I kept good communication by responding timely (often within hours) and was able to get all their concerns addressed.

However, a little over a month ago the air conditioner which was only 2 years old had failed during a week of high temperatures. After getting a few estimates I discovered the issue was related improper installation from when it was installed 2 years ago. The process for getting estimates took over a week and the actual repairs happened several days later due to weather delays. The initial quote was over $5K and I spend around $900 all in. Obviously, due to the significant financial implications, I wanted to take the time to get a few diagnosis and estimates. During the due diligence process (about week in) one of the tenants reached out to complain about the heat so I had my mom purchase a portable unit for them to use the next day. Throughout the whole process, myself or my parents were providing statuses on estimates and repairs all while they threatening to have a lawyer look into the lease.

Flash forward to a few days ago. They reported a leak from the drain that was leading from the dryer which soaked the carpet on the first floor. I sent my dad over the same day and he was able to stop the leak. We think it was clogged by lint but they claim it was related to the air conditioner. Him and my mom also worked to remove the water from the carpet as much as possible that same day. Yesterday, they reached out complaining of wet carpet and concerns about mold. Subsequently, I received a flood of text messages with pictures and various complaints regarding maintenance issues and their frustration of having to deal with my parents rather than myself which was all new to me.

Below are some of the things/claims they've brought up:

  • Never explicitly stated in lease I would have property managers - My name alone is on the lease. However it was communicated to them during their showing that I'm self-managed and have my parents handle minor repairs. I don't even see how this is an issue as it states in the lease that I'm allowed to appoint agents.
  • Didn't like that my parents show up at the property late at night (8/9pm) - This was primarily around the time we were having air conditioner/pipe leakage issues). My parents have day jobs so need to fit property management responsibilities around work and due to the sense of urgency they always tried to stop by the same day even if it wasn't until evening.
  • Mold concerns due to wet carpet - I informed them I will have a professional inspection done after the carpet is dried. Also, will have the mold removed professionally if necessary.
  • Claimed I shouldn't have rented the property with defects - I had no prior knowledge of any issues other than the minor fixes that were already communicated to them and addressed shortly after their move in.
  • Air conditioner need to be fixed within 7 days - I was not able to verify this, to my knowledge thought IL provided 14 day window to address major defects AFTER tenant writes in writing the request for remedy.
  • Kept insisting that I come by the house personally to discuss issues and clauses in the lease. Claiming I'm bound by the lease as the landlord - Are they valid? Rented various apartments and have never met the landlord and only dealt with property managers. They also turned away my parents when they showed up to help dry the carpets.
  • Stated they will withhold rent/sue due to the water damage and mold concerns - Do they have a right to do so? I've taken steps to address their concerns by having my parents fixing the leak and helping with water removal. Not sure what else to do at this point.
  • Now claiming they had a mold inspection done related to a unrelated repair in the ceiling and there was evidence of mold - If true, they never provided me the report. Do they have recourse if I have my own report conducted with that current knowledge?

Apologies for the long winded note and possible spelling errors (it's 3am). Wanted to provide as much detail as possible. My concern at this point is that they will seek monetary compensation or sue in small claims court. I'm not sure they have a case since I have fairly detailed documentation of emails and texts detailing actions however IL is very tenant friendly. The wife has been badgering me with 19+ emails and strings of texts since late yesterday so any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,

Jia

Jia,

 Sounds like you found some winners there, they started complaining as they moved in, that was a sign right there. you can hire who you like to help manage the property, just because your name is on the lease does not mean that you are the only one they have to deal with, that just means they have the agreement with you the owner. as far as the mold, bring in someone to check for mold, you seem to be doing everything right, you supplied some a/c while the unit was down and kept them updated. I do not know what the time frame in Illinois is to get major repairs done, but you provided a solution while getting it fixed. you are bound by the lease agreement that you present to them and you both signed along with other tenant laws that you are bound by. as far as the rent, they were planning on not giving you rent for a long time, all this is a way for them to try and justify not giving it to you, make sure you keep all your correspondence and a time table of when you were contacted and when you took care of things just in case a suit does come up, most likely it will not be from them, it will be from you during the eviction process for non payment.

@Jia Lin

So I think you should start looking at getting a lawyer. I can't help with any of the legalities either so I'm sorry.

It does seem that these people have done this before, you should still go ahead with your own mold inspector and have him also look at the new mold spot.

Removing yourself from communication with them and using a lawyer from here on out may be the best option. 19+ emails seems like they are trying to pressure you.

I wish you the best of luck.

-Chris

Two options live with them or invoke the happy clause. The happy clause goes something like this, you are really unhappy I see we can just relieve you of the rest of the term of the lease if you move out in 30 days. This is for people who will never be happy. If you want to live with them then all repairs should be formally submitted by them,no calls, notice of entry given by you x hours before as legally required in your area except in emergencies like washing machine leak. You can enter right away for emergencies. Have a meeting to lay out how you will work going forward.Point out any rent withholding needs to go into escrow. Unless you have a freestanding floor ac, the ac doesnt flood the floor and how do you discover a dishwasher issue on showing anyway? Talk to someone who knows the local laws.They sound like PIAs.

"They reported a leak from the drain that was leading from the dryer which soaked the carpet on the first floor. I sent my dad over the same day and he was able to stop the leak. We think it was clogged by lint"

This makes no sense. Dryer vents do not contain water,  You dont vent into a plumbing drain.  If this is happening it is a major defect, You need to figure out where the actual leak is coming from and address it.

As far as mold from carpets, have ur parents pull carpet back and rip out pad. If any mold spots clean with 10% chlorine solution which kills mildew on contact. These people seam to be a pain so I would mop whole area with it and then check walls or base for it. Replace pad after carpet is dry. Find installer to powerstretch it back in but the key always is to get it up and dry as fast as possible. Might be smart to get a whistle fan at Lowe’s or HD. Oh and get rid of them tenants. Save ur self a brain ache.

Wow, sounds like you got a team of pros.  

@Colleen F. is spot on--if a tenant withholds rent, it must be deposited in a separate escrow account (in a bank or similar institution).  (I like the phrase 'happy clause.)  @Patrick Liska is correct--you can hire whomever you choose to do your maintenance/management work.  You are the landlord/owner, not Mr. Fixit.

Advice:  

1.  First try to be diplomatic--tell them if they suspect mold (which has not yet been established) why would they want to continue living there?  Offer to let them out of the lease immediately, and forego the month's rent.  That's cheaper than #2

2.  Get thee to an attorney familiar with l/t law.  Start eviction proceedings ASAP.  From what you've written, it would seem you have complied with the obligations of a landlord in dealing with repair requests.  Fear no tenant!

3.  Going forward, make sure you check with the previous 2 (two) landlords of any applicant.  Check the l/t court filings in the county from which the applicants are moving.  Do complete background checks on ALL applicants, including judgments/liens, criminal, Meagan's law, etc.  

BTW, I personally NEVER disclose I am the owner of the property--I am ALWAYS the manager.  I'm not telling you to lie--my real estate is all held in trust--but being the manager will give you a little breathing room... "let me check with the owner on this".

4.  Don't give up.  All experienced investors have had to deal with this type of situation (professional tenants) at some point.  You'll get through it, learn valuable real-life lessons, and be better and more prepared in the future.

Best of luck.

Your tenants are full of $hit and trying to push you around. Don't let them. Basically nothing they claim is true, and sounds like a true entitlement complex coming through. The only one that may hold clout is the A/C repair, in some states it is considered a habitability issue and would have to be remedied ASAP. I HIGHLY doubt that is the case in Il though, and if not, it is considered a luxury and you are perfectly ok getting it fixed in a little over a week. Especially since you provided them replacement A/C for the interim. You quite literally, did everything you could.

This is the juncture where you will determine if you are in charge of the property or your tenants. You can use the "happy clause" as mentioned above, and this may help whip them into shape. From here on out, record every single correspondence with them. You should also document a timeline of what has happened so far, just in case they do sue. Its likely they will not as they probably know they will lose.

If they are blowing up your phone and emails, my suggestion is to not respond to ridiculous parts. Only focus on responding to true issues and necessary topics. Keep a cool head when dealing with them, and do not get emotional about issues.

I also agree with the "happy clause" - it is the best way to resolve the situation.  I have done it before and it usually solves the problem.  

It sounds like you’re doing a fine job. I don’t know IL laws, but most really just focus on heat, running water, etc (think real slumlord kind of issues). Things like a broken AC for 2 weeks doesn’t really fit into that category.

So all in all, let them sue. It will cost them quite a bit and you’ve always been working with them.

I think the only ‘worry’ that I’d have is mold. But I think you’re handling it correctly with getting in pros.

You're getting some good advice above. I have invoked similar things to @Colleen F. 's "happy clause" with a few tenants, and @Andrew B. is right that your tenants are full of [what he said.....I've gotten nastygrams from the mods for talking like a contractor too many times already, so I'll clean it up here].

But I really think the main issue is that you're trying too hard. These guys may be "professional tenants" or they may just be people who naturally take advantage of others. But when a tenant like that senses weakness and unclear boundaries in a landlord, that landlord will never get any peace.

I try to be a really responsive landlord. But we are also really clear about boundaries, and about what is an emergency, what's not an emergency, what's my responsibility and what's the tenant's responsibility. It doesn't always feel "nice" telling someone that no, that's not an emergency and you'll get to it in the next few days, but it does help establish clear boundaries. And it keeps you from fielding dozens more phone calls down the road that would occur when they feel like they can take advantage of you.

Good luck!

Oh, and @Scott Rogers is right. Drains and dryer vents don't connect. Do they have one of those steam dryers that has a water fitting and drains into the washer drain? If so, any leak in that system should be a tenant issue with their own dryer, not something you're responsible for. If you really have a drain running into the dryer vent, you need to get it corrected.

All,

Appreciate everyone for taking the time to respond!!

@Colleen F. - Would love to get rid of them but I think they just want money. Have given them an option to move out/ suggested a meeting to go over the lease and conduct going forward but they're still being unreasonable and continued with harassment via email and texts. Also wanted to mentioned that the husband has multiple felonies for forgery and other petty crime from over 20 years ago so serious question of character and integrity. Credit wasn't great either. I had over 15 inquiries on the house but they were the first to apply. RE agent who helped with the background check didn't know what she was doing and took 2 weeks to get back to me so I got stuck with them. Will never make that mistake again!

@Scott Rogers - Meant to say washer. My parents indicated there was some sort of clog that was creating the issue so I assumed lint. 

@Marc Winter - All great advice. Definitely will look into transferring property into a trust/LLC.

@Michael Hayworth - Agreed, I have been too nice. Had my share of bad landlords so have made it a point to make sure my tenants are comfortable. I told them when they moved in, if a repair was missed prior to their move in they could send a list and I'll have them addressed. Have reimbursed minor defects such broken slat on blinds (they bought a new set) so now they think they can walk over me. Lesson learned!

@Jia Lin it is important to deal with the wet carpet by pulling back the carpet and remove the pad. Dispose of the pad, because once soaking wet it is no longer usable. Prop up the carpet and run fans on it. Have a dehumidifier running in the room to pull all the water out. After the carpet is dry, install new pad. Leave the dehumidifier there for a week until it is not sucking any water out of the air.

Tell the tenant that mold is a serious allegation, as is threatening withholding rent and legal action. They need to send you the report they received on mold so you can investigate. If they refuse to provide the report then withholding rent would result in you taking legal action to evict them. The point is you can't solve a problem that doesn't exist. Wet carpet will not create mold within a couple days. The only way to know is to pull the carpet back and inspect so do that TODAY.

I would probably have a face to face meeting with them. I would offer to let them out of their lease so they can move at the end of the month. Clearly they are unhappy and I would say that I didn't feel I could make them happy. Better to move on. As far as the crap about suing you, I would tell them if they continue that threat that all future correspondence will be through your attorney. Two choices, either they stay and you work TOGETHER constructively to fix any problems or they leave and find a different place. It is their choice. Just tell them you want them to be happy and pick whichever option they prefer. But be clear, staying and continuing to threaten you is not an option.

It's better to use Borax than bleach as Borax will kill the roots of the mold and also prevent it from coming back. The professionals basically use Borax in a liquid form that they can spray on all surfaces. I doubt you would have mold in the carpet unless the leak has been ongoing for a long time. Also, mold is usually visible but can come in many colors. I would start by simply steam cleaning the carpet in that area and see if that solves the concern before ripping up the carpet.

Originally posted by @Colleen F. :
Two options live with them or invoke the happy clause. The happy clause goes something like this, you are really unhappy I see we can just relieve you of the rest of the term of the lease if you move out in 30 days. This is for people who will never be happy. If you want to live with them then all repairs should be formally submitted by them,no calls, notice of entry given by you x hours before as legally required in your area except in emergencies like washing machine leak. You can enter right away for emergencies.

Have a meeting to lay out how you will work going forward.Point out any rent withholding needs to go into escrow. Unless you have a freestanding floor ac, the ac doesnt flood the floor and how do you discover a dishwasher issue on showing anyway? Talk to someone who knows the local laws.They sound like PIAs.

 @jia, I agree with Colleen about the "Happy Clause".  It's something I've used before myself.  I once had a couple move into a newly renovated house and almost immediately I realized they were high maintenance.  At first, it was minor complaints unrelated to the quality of the house itself, but the final straw was when they began complaining about possible mold that only appeared on their clothing.  I offered them the chance to move without any early-move penalty and they were out in three weeks.  I had the house rented again almost immediately -- to new tenants who never complained.

Let them move.  They'll be happier.  You'll be happier.

EDIT: I see that you don't think they'll move.  In that case, go with Splitrock's advice.

Originally posted by @Christopher Wedde :

@Michael Hayworth

@Scott Rogers

I thought the same thing about the dryer, they don't have drains. But come to find out there are condensing (ventless) dryers. I learned something today, which will help me in future rentals...

-Chris

 Is this your dryer or tenants? If its the tenants dryer, you should handle cleanup yourself (or preferably through a company), but then bill them for damages to your property.

@Jia Lin Is this property in Evanston as well? If so, most of the legal advice you'll get here won't apply because Evanston (like Chicago) has its own Landlord-Tenant ordinance: https://www.cityofevanston.org/home/showdocument?i...

Don't address any of those items the tenant threw at you, simply ask them what is it they want from you at this point? Maybe they want money, rent credit, break the lease, or just to feel in control and have someone to unload on (I've had a couple of those). It sounds like they are threatening you, but they haven't given you an actual threat IE "if you don't ___ we are going to ____". Get them to tell you the solution they want.

@Jia Lin ,

It sounds like things got off on the wrong foot with these tenants. I've seen this kind of thing on numerous occasions before I sold my property management company. Usually this type of conflict comes when a property is not properly prepared for a new tenant. However, it sounds like you've done what you should to prepare the property.

Most of the time, tenants just want a clean, safe place to live their lives. When there are a lot of repairs required in a short period of time, they start looking more closely at the house and patience runs thin. Small issues become big ones and this all can lead to a big mess.

I would recommend 1 of 2 courses of action...

  1. Provide the Option to Leave - You may be at the point of no return. If they're completely unhappy, your interests may be best served by finding another tenant. Make sure the house is inspected and any additional issues addressed before the next tenant moves into the house. Then reset and move forward.
  2. Get Written Resolution - Schedule a time to meet with the tenants. I know you are far away, but the personal touch may be what is needed to put this issue to bed. During the conversation, makes notes of all of their concerns and complaints. Determine what repairs/improvements you are willing to complete, and then talk about time lines and what they can expect. Finally, talk to them about the other issues they bring up (i.e. property manager, communication regarding repairs and your expectations regarding rents). The most important part of this conversation is to communicate that you are fully invested in providing them with a safe, clean place to live, BUT that you expect rent to be paid on time. Have them sign the list of agreed repairs and get them done. When things calm down, send a hand written note thanking them for their patience throughout the process and praising them as great tenants.

The goal at the end of the day is to make money. Whether you are right or wrong, if the tenant withholds (or threatens to withhold) rent, its a bad situation. Likewise, even if you are legally correct, it doesn't give you a rent check.

Try to get them back on the same page with you. If they insist on taking advantage of your kindness, start the eviction process. It'll all come out in court. You just need to get your property back - sooner than later.

Good luck. It sounds like you have your hands full on this one.

Continue looking for which landlord/tenant laws apply to your location. Call property management companies, google landlord tenant laws *your location*, find other owners on BP in your area, whatever. It will give you a LOT of comfort and easily allow you to see through BS with threatening tenants.

Generally, tenants cannot withhold rent unless you don't take any action to fix the "problems" within a timely manner (in VT that's 30 days, of course this doesn't apply to issues that would make a unit uninhabitable, like if the furnace goes out in February). 

You've clearly been communicative the entire time, and attempted to fix the problems ASAP. As you already know too, you are allowed to have whomever you want act as an agent for you on your property, it doesn't matter that your name is what is on the lease as owner. It's points like that that make it clear they don't know what they are talking about. Maybe during your sit down make it more clear that you won't necessarily be the one making repairs or dealing with them on a regular basis.

All communication needs to be in email or text for your records. 

as others have stated, figure out what the "leaking dryer" deal is, that doesn't make any sense. 

Other than that, I'm leaning towards they are just being a-holes. Don't let them scare you with legal action threats, based on the info given, they have no claim against you.

I guarantee if you go in person and have a meeting with them all of the animosity stops and you guys can work through the issues like professionals. 

This is very common behavior for tenants when they first move into a property without meeting the owner first, but they know the owner is close by enough to show face. Just go an appease them and you will make things a lot easier on you and your parents.

It sounds like they either want to move OR want a rent concession for the period of restoration. You should find out. Feel free to let them out of the lease and turn them out into the open range.

Download and save all text messages.

Before renting again do the following.

1.  Make sure you have lots of liability insurance. 

2. Go to the court house and start a sole proprietorship. You also have the option of starting a corporation or LLC. The LLC is the most expensive in Illinois.

3. Go through your lease and insert the phrase "Owners or their representatives" wherever applicable.

4. Create a remote opponent who you can consult before making any decisions on the spot. "Sorry, I will need to speak to Mr Jolly or, Nguyen or whoever you can ask questions of.

5. Join your local Real Estate Investors Association. Can't find one, call me and I will help you. Maybe your Mr. Jolly is waiting there to meet you.


Happy clauses and such are nice, but ask yourself these questions first: Are the systems that were failing near the end of their life cycles? Did the systems suffer from benign neglect (washer leak from lint clog, etc.). The air conditioner failure could have taken a tougher response from you, but you probably did the right thing. As for the wet carpet, would you prefer tenants who said nothing until the mold got established? NEVER, EVER, let a water problem sit. You know that.

Once you finish asking yourself those questions, then you can decide whether the tenants are unreasonable or not. Act on that.

You should also prepare a checklist for every system/appliance in the house that you go through for preventative maintenance between tenants (e.g. washer lint tube clean out, dryer lint house clean out, inspect gutters, fridge compressor check, window drafts/movement, etc. etc.). Nobody moves in until everything is checked out and disclosed to the prospective tenant.


I had a landlord who was pissed at me because everything started breaking/leaking while I was there. His own repairmen told him that things had gone beyond their expected life cycles, and there was no sign of abuse. He and I stayed friends. Sounds like your air conditioner was just bad luck. I don't think I would have given the tenants a portable conditioner, but you did the right thing, and if the tenants raise cain later on something, it's an example of you trying to do the right thing.