13 Rules Great Landlords (Almost) Never Break

by | BiggerPockets.com

I’d like to convince myself that it’s not my fault… but I’m a terrible liar.

It is my fault.

At least 99% of the time.

I’m talking about my landlord problems. We all have them and 99% of the time it’s because I don’t follow “the rules.”

When we are children, we believe our parents set up rules just to be mean, but as we grow, we realize those rules are fundamental in keeping us safe and progressing properly through life.

The same applies for the “landlord rules.”

They matter, and they are there for a reason.

When I follow the rules, things generally go well. When I deviate from my rules, and decide to do my own thing… well, things go down hill fast.  I get crazy stressed, my wife and I start arguing, I don’t get to watch “House of Cards” with my sweetheart, and I go to bed hungry.

And somewhere a puppy is crying.

It’s not fun.

So today I decided to write down “the rules” in hopes that I won’t break them as often.  When I look back on the problems I’ve faced in the past few years, nearly every major incident could have been avoided or better managed had I simply stuck to the rules. 

Hopefully this list will help you as well.

If you notice any item on this list I forgot to include, do me a favor and add it in the comments at the bottom. Let’s get this list up to 100. Maybe more.  Then maybe landlords, as a whole, won’t make so many mistakes.

With that, I give you:

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13 Rules Great Landlords (Almost) Never Break

1.) Always Screen

Being a landlord is like gambling. At any moment, there is a chance that your tenants are going to destroy their property … and your financial future. However, you can increase your odds by simply screening out the bad apples.

For my step by step screening guide, check out Tenant Screening: The Ultimate Guide.

2.) Require a Security Deposit

If you are having trouble filling a unit, don’t waive the security deposit – lower the rent. The security deposit is designed to give the tenant incentive to clean up after themselves and without it… they won’t.

3.) Enforce the Due Date

A tenant will walk all over you if you don’t enforce a late fee when they pay late. You might feel like “the bad guy” but at least you won’t be the “broke guy.” Do yourself, and your tenant, a favor: charge a late fee and train the tenant to pay on time.

Related: How to be a Landlord: Top 10 Tips for Success

4.) Never Rent Out a Dirty Unit

Don’t be a slumlord. Come on, people.

5.) Turnover Units Quickly

Vacancy sucks – because you are not getting any rent. A broken toilet or water heater may cost you a few hundred bucks… but an empty unit can cost you thousands. Get your maintenance people in and out quick to minimize turnover costs.

6.) Treat Tenants with Dignity

There is a difference between authority and value. As a landlord and the owner of a property, you have the authority to make the rules. However, your value is no different than theirs. Keep this in mind and treat your tenants with the same dignity you treat everyone else.

7.) Stay Current with the Accounting

Oh, how easy it is to get behind on the paperwork. However, as most business owners know … this can be a death sentence if you let it get behind. Set aside a few hours every month to carefully document your spending, income, and other aspects of your business. Your future self will thank you (and be wealthier because of it.)

8.) Plan Ahead for Expensive Fixes

You are crazy if you don’t plan ahead for expensive repairs and problems. They are going to happen. The water heater will go out. The carpet will need to be replaced. The parking lot will need to be re-paved.  Be sure to set aside money each month for this!

9.) Keep Your Business and Home Life Separate

If you allow your business life to bleed too much into your personal life, you are always going to be stressed. Don’t let your tenants come to your house to pay rent. Don’t leave your family dinner to take care of a tenant who got locked out. Keep it separate, and treasure your home life.

10.) Document Everything

As you grow wealthier through real estate investing, you become a target for law suits. Often times – the winner of a law suit simply comes down to “who was the most organized.” So document everything you can, especially problems, to make sure you are covered in case anything happens.

11.) Hire a Professional

There are a lot of people who claim to know how to fix things. However, don’t just hire your friend’s neighbor’s cousin because it’s convenient. It may be easy, but it won’t be easy to clean up their mistakes and failures later on. Hire the right person for the right job.

12.) Plan for Property Management 

Whether or not you plan to manage yourself is irrelevant. When you invest in real estate, always calculate your numbers as if you were going to use property management. After all, when you grow … you will no longer be able to manage yourself, and if you don’t have property management factored into your numbers, you won’t be able to afford them when you need it.  If you do plan to manage yourself – great… but pay yourself what you would pay someone else.  I’ll say it again: always calculate your numbers as if you were going to use property management.

13.) Create Systems

Finally, always think of ways you can streamline your business to run smoother. By creating systems, you allow yourself to grow and prosper without getting bogged down in the day-to-day stuff. It’s not bad to be a part of that system, but make sure you are a “replaceable” part for optimum flexibility in the future.


As I said before, following the rules is important.

These rules have been tested and proven to work by millions of landlords who have come before, so don’t fall victim to the easily-avoidable problems.

Stick to the rules, and you’ll become the great landlord you want to be.

Did I miss any? Let me know below in the comments!

About Author

Brandon Turner

Brandon Turner (G+ | Twitter) spends a lot of time on BiggerPockets.com. Like… seriously… a lot. Oh, and he is also an active real estate investor, entrepreneur, traveler, third-person speaker, husband, and author of “The Book on Investing in Real Estate with No (and Low) Money Down“, and “The Book on Rental Property Investing” which you should probably read if you want to do more deals.


  1. Act with time of the essence to complains, whether is a repair or a complaint from a tenant on another tenant. Don’t let it get out of proportion, be quick to solve the issues, whatever it may be.

    Happy wife, happy life. Happy tenants, happy investment.

    – John N. Rodriguez

    • I actually disagree on that point. I used to do that: jump whenever I got a call from a tenant. But over the years I’ve noticed, especially if it has to do with some drama between tenants, if I wait a day or even two before contacting them back, the issue often resolves itself without me having to get involved. Now I just wait for a second text message before I do anything cause I know it’s not gonna be as big a deal after a bit of time goes by. 😛

  2. 2) “The security deposit is designed to give the tenant incentive to clean up after themselves and without it… they won’t.” After renting in different places, the renters learn, that even when they clean, they rarely get their deposit back (at least in full), landlords just grow too attached to it. When I was a renter I’ve had landlords that were charging me (when the unit was spotless) a cleaning fee for the blinds, that was more than the purchase of new blinds. When you rent a two story house, this fee accumulates to almost 1k$. It’s pretty much not worth cleaning if you count the hours you spend and the money you get back ($/hr). If I were in the position of renting now, I wouldn’t clean, so I don’t expect the tenants to clean. Off course my definition of “clean” and someone else’s “clean” is different, I’m sure every landlord’s “clean” is different from the tenant’s “clean.”

    4) Never Rent Out a Dirty Unit. Once, when we were renting, we just had to move out of our previous house into the new one literally over a weekend (which I never do). The old landlord had someone interested in our old place and offered us to move to another place he owned, while our new place with another landlord gets cleaned. We prefered to get into a dirty place and clean it ourselves, than to move twice. And we did offer the old landlord to pay for the next month since our yearly lease was over, but he just was afraid he’d miss the “renting season.” In the end everyone was happy. But, now I know what was the old landlord’s mistake, he didn’t have us sign a new lease and trusted our word, that we would stay another year. We found a new place just before the end of our old lease. So, I would add another rule:

    Always renew your yearly lease, especially if you don’t have a clause that states it automatically becomes a month to month lease, or it automatically renews to another year.

    • Brandon Turner

      Hey Galya, thanks for the comment! My only thought – I’ve found that tenants may not want to clean ’cause they’ll assume their deposit is gone. Which is why I always drop the line, somewhere, “We absolutely love giving security deposits back. However, if the cleaning charges are more expensive than your security deposit, we do pursue any money owed to us through all legal means. So please leave it exceptionally clean.”

      Works pretty well 🙂

      • Galya, I think your addition about renewing a lease is absolutely essential. Letting lease expire puts landlord in a weak position legally wise. For tenants it serves as a reminder about the rules of the game.
        As far as security deposit concerned I think Brandon is making a much broader point than just the cleaning issue. The deposit is also a peace of mind every owner should have. Tenants just tend to respect your property more if they know their deposit could be forfeit. Speaking of the dirty units I have to agree with Brandon again as it aligned with #6 Treat Your Tenants with Dignity. As a tenant I would hate to move in to a unit that wasn’t cleaned professionally. It doesn’t mean I won’t do any additional cleaning. Cleanliness of the unit indicates the level of respect from your landlord and it’s good set values right from day one.

  3. Don’t be friends with your tenants, and don’t make tenants out of friends. If your tenant has financial difficulties and you have to evict, you’ve lost a friend. If your friend has personal issues and can’t pay the rent, you’ve lost either the money or the friend, or both.

    Same goes for co-workers or employees. Don’t put employees in your units, or rent to co-workers. Again, if one relationship goes wrong, both of them will.

  4. great article – gets right to the heart of the matter – all great rules to follow – @Ann Bellamy – great follow-up advice – I feel the same way about family – I do not want to be the one having to put them on the street – but I don’t want to subsidize their life either, so it is safest to avoid renting to family – though it can be hard when they know you own rental units and need a place. I’ve broken the rule myself, but always forewarned them that they would get no breaks on rent and were expected to pay on time as any other tenant would – that I cannot afford to hang onto a unit that isn’t paying for itself – so far I have never had to evict a family member – still, I try not to mix family and business when possible

  5. Hi Brandon. I think you’ve covered most things pretty well. When we entrust our investment to tenants, they have a responsibility to take care of things. They become our eyes and ears to problems that could develop into bigger ones if ignored. It seems like a pain – the natural reaction is to not want to be bothered by tenants once we hand them the keys – but we should welcome open communication to issues that need to be addressed. Small issues that do not translate into bigger ones could be addressed later but keep in mind that tenants that are happy tend to stay longer.
    While a lot of time and attention is spent writing up the lease and including rules we expect the tenants to abide by, often there is no process in place for how to approach rules that are broken ~ except for a lawful notice to comply or vacate. For smaller or less concrete issues, serving a lawful notice can be too extreme as a first step. For example, yard, house, not taken care of to our expectations. If no process is in place for dealing with those issues, it can be awkward mentioning them, especially with no prior plan in place. Some landlords tend to look the other way and just deal with it at move out. In my opinion, that sends the wrong message – you can break rules and it’s OK. It shouldn’t be OK. It also makes for more work at turnover and the possibility the inability to show the unit resulting in delays re-renting the unit. Therefore, not only is it important to be upfront and let our tenants know what our expectations are, it’s a good idea to have an upfront process for dealing with issues not meeting our expectations. If we are upfront about those things and lay out what steps will be taken if things do not meet our expectations, there should be no surprises, no drama, and just follow the process. You’ve planned ahead so you just follow the plan which includes a process for the tenant to correct the issue. In the end, the lawful notice to comply or vacate can always be used if necessary, but doing so right off the bat may not be the best appoach.

  6. Great article. Each and every landlord should follow these guidelines. I think you’ve covered most things pretty well. One most important guideline is insurance considerations for real estate investors. They should cover the liability insurance, dwelling insurance by going to an independent insurance broker who is experienced in this type of coverage and who can write policies for several different insurance companies.

    • I agree. I was a loyal customer of AmFam Ins. for years, thinking that it would take care of me with the best rates available, especially since I never filed a claim in 15+ years. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Loyalty means NOTHING. I jumped ship to an insurance broker two years ago and have saved substantial dollars on my annual premiums due to his ability to shop around for me.

  7. Leases: We always rent month-to-month, except when the situation requires a lease ( e.g. Section 8 ). Why?
    1. At the level of people we deal with, they are pretty much judgement-proof. In general,
    I’ve discovered that you can’t make people live where they don’t want to live. I prefer to
    keep them because we’re doing a good job.
    2. I check out my prospectives pretty carefully, but what if I make a mistake? It’s really nice
    to be able to kick that drug dealer or party heartier out with a 30-day. Can’t do that with a
    I have people who have rented from me for YEARS on month-to-month.

  8. I’m just starting so these are lessons I won’t have to learn:) Rented for many years, and recently over 10 years in the same complex, so this is coming from a tenant perspective.

    Tenants who constantly create problems that give your property the appearance of a police substation or completely ignore your guidelines regarding noise and pets should not be allowed to remain in your units, no matter how ‘friendly’ they are to your staff.

    If you put something in writing, stick to it and follow through. Your good tenants are watching what you do as a landlord. Once the word gets around that you’re an easy mark, the terms of the lease are bogus and you personally are a whimp, it will be a very long time to restore your reputation within the community, much less with your long term tenants.

  9. I agree with Jerry — month-to-month let me get rid of a problem tenant (drugs, dogs, illegal sub-tenant, etc). months sooner than I could have otherwise. I’ve had good tenants leave on 30 day notice too, but what am I going to do, tell a struggling young family that I won’t let them out of the last two months of their lease in order to take the better-paying job out of town? The town is too small to have a bad reputation. My vacancy last turn-over was 2 DAYS. The tenant left the place spotless, & I have been able to get top-quality tenants.
    Other “rule” – I always tell my prospective tenants that my fondest hope is to return 100% of their deposit because everything has been left in good condition, then I explain exactly what that means — normal stuff they won’t be penalized for (traffic paths on the carpet is normal wear & tear, crayon on the wall they need to take care off). I explain their full legal rights as a tenant — the first few months I text every month right after they pay there rent to see if there is anything, AT ALL that they have noticed that needs fixing.
    I make my rental as tenant/kid/pet resistant as possible. Legato carpet tile! Best. Invention. Ever! Small child + green marker = 3 minute fix! If it’s only one or two carpet tiles at the end of a year tenancy I don’t even charge. New bathroom/kitchen floor is groutable vinyl tile – if one spot is damaged it can be cut out & replaced — no need to do the whole floor.

  10. Deanna,
    Legato carpet tile and groutable vinyl tile sound like great ideas – just remove the bad tiles as needed. We have used vinyl planks which also look great, wear well, and are water proof. Do the Legato carpet tile come with any pad like regular carpet has or is it just carpet squares glued down with not much padding?

    • Better have pad. The stuff is $3/square foot.
      I’ve been doing ceramic tile on some of my apartments, because even though it’s expensive, you only have to do it once. Unlike carpet, which you often must redo for every movein.
      Carpet cost me about $1/square foot for the carpet & pad
      $0.50/square foot for the installation labor

      Ceramic tile costs me about – $1/square foot for the tile itself.
      $1 for the other stuff ( backer board, grout, mastic etc )
      $2 for installation labor
      No matter what flooring I go with, there is a cost for ripping out the old stuff. The carpet
      guys used to throw this in for free, but no longer. Inflation….
      On a related subject, I’ve been thinking about doing ceramic tile or granite countertops instead of formica. Formica’s cheap, but with tough tenants it doesn’t last. It seems to me
      that a tile countertop shouldn’t cost THAT much – not much square footage involved.

    • Or the lady who looked so good – who had two running businesses and a raft of good references. And good credit. She was real all right. Unfortunately, she wasn’t renting the apartment for herself, but rather for her drug-dealing auntie.

      Hindsight being 20/20, I should have read between the lines. She just didn’t fit the profile of people who would reasonably rent in my building. Specifically she owned her own mobile home, and some of her references commented on how nice her mobile home was, with its brand new white carpets etc. I should have asked myself – why would a lady with her own ( albeit mobile ) home want to rent my apartment?

      I occasionally get somebody who wants to use their own credit report. I explain that we can’t do that, it’s way too easy for somebody to print out whatever they want these days.

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