Okay, I’m not going to post all of my tenant rules here (although I will if commenters want to know). This is more about why tenants need rules, why I have many more rules than most landlords, and how I enforce rules with a minimum of pain.
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The TV That Woke Me Up
When I started landlording, I did what most of us do – grabbed a sample lease off the Internet, plugged in a few additions that made sense to me, and hoped for the best. I realized the magnitude of my mistake one night as I was standing outside the building. It was brought home to me in color. Well, ex-color. An ex-color TV that one of my tenants had left on the street in a forlorn hope that the city’s recycling center would take it away.
Now as homeowners, we know that just won’t happen. Cities don’t take a lot of items in their recycling pickups, usually because those items may contain hazardous waste. But the tenant didn’t know that – just like tenants often don’t know that leaving food waste in open bags attracts animals – or that when you play Led Zeppelin loud at midnight, not everybody in the building appreciates it – or that junk cars in the parking lot are less than attractive.
So why are tenants often so clueless? One likely answer is inexperience – they may not have lived in apartments before. Others are just not very swift. In any case, the solution is rules – lots and lots of rules – combined with unbending enforcement. Here are some rules for rules.
- Give each tenant a separate copy of the rules and include the rules in the lease by reference. This means including a lease clause to the effect that the tenant must comply with all rules; that the tenant will be charged fines for some violations, and that other violations will be grounds for eviction; and that the failure to pay fines is also grounds for eviction.
- Be specific in your rules. It’s not enough to say “Don’t throw out hazardous waste materials in the trash.” You need to spell out which items are unacceptable.
- Don’t nitpick with ridiculous rules. I once knew a landlady who insisted that window shades needed to be at the same level for each unit in the tenant’s apartment. Her tenants almost never renewed their leases.
- Go through the rules, one by one, when you take the application. Make sure the prospective tenants know that almost any landlord will also enforce these rules.
- Watch out for rules that make sense to you, but are not legally enforceable. Some landlords do include unenforceable rules, hoping they can intimidate tenants into following them anyway. These landlords are breaking the law and may be fined or sued.
- Although state and local laws vary, they typically do govern such things as occupancy limits (so many residents per bedroom), eviction proceedings, security deposits, and limits on visitors.
- Be reasonable with your fines. A $100 fine for key replacement is likely to be thrown out in court. A $100 fine for disabling a smoke detector probably will not. What’s the difference? Key replacement is mostly an inconvenience for you – it costs you time and money to make the keys and get them to the tenant. On the other hand, a disabled smoke detector is a hazard that threatens the lives of everyone in the building.
- Be reasonable with your eviction penalties. In this economic environment, we are all struggling to find qualified tenants. Do you really want to throw somebody out over a minor infraction?
- Remember that you can only change rules in the middle of a lease with the tenant’s agreement. That’s one reason to make your list comprehensive from the start.
- Make frequent drive-bys in the first few weeks to make sure your new tenants are following the rules. If you cut the tenant somee slack for the first infraction, make sure the tenant knows you spotted the problem and he’s getting a one-time break. The second time you must charge for the infraction.