Landlords: Don’t Get Axed By Your Tenants

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A couple of weeks ago, newspapers in my part of the world were buzzing with the news of a local landlord who had allegedly been attacked by his hatchet-wielding tenant.

The landlord, Edward Berthiaume, occupied one unit of his multifamily home, and the tenant, William Skarbinski, occupied the other.  At 1 a.m. on January 7th, Skarbinski visited Berthiaume, saying he wanted to talk about a rent payment plan (he was hugely behind on his rent).  But when he got into Berthiaume’s unit, he allegedly attacked Berthiaume instead.  And this was not a minor attack (as if an attack with a hatched could be).  Skarbinski’s being charged with first-degree assault.  When you read the chilling details, you’ll see just how bad this could have gotten.

Tenant attacks don’t happen often, but they do happen.  Another landlord in Franklin, NH was murdered by his tenant in 2006, and a Georgia landlord was murdered by his tenant in August of 2008.

All three of these incidents have something in common, which is that the landlords knew their tenants well.  Two lived in the same building as the tenants and the third owned a convenience store in the same building as his tenant.

Your Safety Should be Your Priority as a Landlord

Yet even us landlords who don’t live or work near our tenants can be at risk.  I’ve been scared by a tenant who was erratic and violent in his behavior, and who threatened me.  Might that person (long since evicted, thank God) have attacked me instead?  You bet he might have, and if he had, I would have been at a severe disadvantage.

The truth is that most of us will be the underdog in a violent confrontation, simply because we don’t expect it.  This was very clearly explained to me a few years back by the chairman of my local landlord association, a former policeman.  People who are not violent never expect violence, so we don’t react quickly to it.  And when we do realize what’s going on, it may be too late.

In fact, Berthiaume’s reaction is pretty much par for the course.  It had never occurred to him that he’d be attacked with an axe.  He did nothing at all to ward off the initial blow, and by the time his brain processed what was happening (“This guy is trying to kill me!”), the axe was digging into his neck.

Learn the Keys to Your Safety

Three of the keys to our self-protection are judgment, awareness, and distance.  Judgment means trying to avoid situations that may make an attack more likely.  It means things like never accepting rent in person, never accepting rent in cash, and not advertising your home address to tenants.  It also means developing an understanding of when tenants may become erratic or scary.

One problem we have is that we usually can’t evict people just based on a gut feeling (“he freaks me out.”)  At best, we will have to wait for specific evidence we can document and present in court.  The other problem is that we may not know which tenants are the crazy ones until it is too late.  Heck, if we had had any idea that they were nuts, we would never have rented to them.

That brings us to awareness, which we want to apply to most situations involving tenants.  Obviously with some tenants, we can let our guard down.  A few years back one of my units was rented by two female elementary school teachers.  I can’t imagine either of them attacking me for any reason – the worst thing they would do was write a strongly-worded letter.

With other tenants, however, much more caution is required.  Watch out for raised voices, evidence that they are concealing items, sudden movements to you, and the like.  This is especially true in when you are already in a stressed situation with the tenant because of some dispute or complaint.

The third key is distance, which in a violent confrontation equals time.  You’ve obviously got a much better chance of surviving an axe or knife attack if you are 10 feet away from your assailant than if you are within his arms-reach.  Hopefully you’ll have time to process the events and take defensive action before he gets too close.  Even if your opponent has a gun, the further away you are, the better your chances.

There are other precautions you can take if you have reason to suspect that a tenant is going to be aggressive or threatening.  Obviously if you can avoid a face-to-face confrontation, do so.  If you can’t, perhaps you can bring one or more friends as backup.  Just the site of your pals may make a tenant think twice about causing trouble.

Finally, learn the skills you need to defuse anger and aggression, if your tenant wants to argue.  Some of the things you can do are:

  • Listen respectfully to the tenant.
  • Try to show some empathy – “I understand why you’re upset.”
  • Keep your body language non-aggressive.  Keeping distance is helpful here.  Don’t lean forward and don’t point.
  • Don’t let anger enter your voice.
  • Don’t interrupt or correct.
  • Reframe the tenant’s point – “I understand where you’re coming from.  You want to…”
  • Back out if the argument starts getting intense.

None of these techniques require you to lose an argument or concede anything.  However, there may be a point where you need to change your tone dramatically, to make it very clear that you are in control.  You see examples of this all the time on TV shows like “Cops” and “Dog The Bounty Hunter.”  Those guys are polite, respectful and easygoing – to a point.

When their target starts getting really crazy, they change tactics, taking control in the firmest way possible.  Of course, “Dog” and the cops are also skilled in hand-to-hand combat, and the cops are armed, so they have resources you don’t.

Photo Credit: Picture Perfect Pose

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3 Comments

  1. Serbian finder on

    I would like to say that the landlords should take the rent in advance from the tenant and shouldn’t allow the tenant to live in the apartment until they don’t give the rent..

  2. I like mail, certified mail. I try my best to make it the only time a tenant sees me is at open house and signing of lease or if there is an emergency at the property..ie fire, roof collapse. Other than that, they can call me in addition to submitting request or concern in writing. I go over that in the welcome package. Yeah, it takes time but It will pay off if it ever comes time for it to.

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