Zen & the Art of Property Maintenance: How to Gracefully Handle Tenant Repair Calls


“Logic presumes a separation of subject from object; therefore logic is not final wisdom. This is Zen. This is my motorcycle maintenance.”

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I’ve been involved with a lot of rental house maintenance lately.

Actually, it’s not any more than my business partner and I have handled in the last couple of years. I’m not even the one doing it, although we are taking the calls and writing the checks. And when you manage your own 50+ units, many of them older, you’re bound to have maintenance every week, right?

I guess I’m just more aware of it lately.

Do you remember Mr. Miyagi, the wise old Japanese teacher of Karate in the classic movie The Karate Kid (and also Jackie Chan in the newer version)?

He was part rental property maintenance man, part karate master. What a combination!

Is your kitchen faucet spewing water 3 feet into the air? No problem. Mr. Miyagi will fix it.

Bullies from school beating you up on your way home? No problem. Mr. Miyagi will fix it.

I have to admit that I don’t yet have the calm, collected Zen response to all of those inevitable weekly maintenance calls. My pulse still races, my blood gets warmer, and I just anticipate: “What will it be this time? How much will that cost to fix?!”

Give me another 30-40 years of meditation and maintenance man practice, plus add a few more free and clear houses, then maybe I’ll be better.

But in the meantime, I thought I would share a few of the many calls I’ve received lately. Some are humorous. Some are scary.

If you already have your own maintenance calls, you too can learn to become more Zen-like in your maintenance man or woman response. If you’re just starting and don’t have calls yet, then this may help you anticipate how to karate chop your future maintenance problems.

Related: Act Now, Thank Yourself Later: A Preventative Maintenance Checklist for Landlords

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Call #1

Ms. Tenant:

“Yeah, I just moved into the trailer in Seneca. Everything’s good, except the baseboard heater in the bedroom isn’t putting off any heat, and the refrigerator isn’t putting off enough cool.”


(In my head) “I wonder if you could try using some of the non-heat from the heater to cool off the non-cool in the refrigerator?”

(My real answer) “Check the breaker switch. Bottom left is the heater. Is it flipped on? No? Ok. Flip it. It works now? Great. And look at the dial in the back of the refrigerator. Is it on ‘very cold’ or just ‘sort of cold?’ Sort of cold. Ok, move that to ‘very cold,’ and you’ll be good. Great. Have a good evening. Thanks for the call.”

(My thoughts) Phew. That was an easy one. No checks to write.

Call #2

Mrs. Tenant:

“Hi Chad, my toilet just keeps running, and I’m worried about my water bill being high. I’ve jiggled the handle, hit the top of it, done the stop-the-toilet-running-dance, but nothing seems to work.” [I added the stop-the-toilet-running-dance ;)]


“That is frustrating. I’m sorry to hear that.”

(In my head) “Didn’t our handyman just fix that? Why can’t he get it right!? Should I ask him to do it for free this time? No. He still charges me half of what anyone else would. Let’s just see what it is.”

“Ok. I’ll call the handyman and see when he can come out. He may need to change or adjust some parts in the tank. Will you be there tomorrow? You will? Good. Ok, anytime before 2 p.m. when you have your doctor’s appointment? I’ll send him out there. Thanks. Bye.”

(In my head) “So it wasn’t a cliché when they said management is all about tenant and toilets.”

Call #3

Mr. Tenant:

“Yeah. This is Mr. Tenant over in Liberty. The guy who hauled off the big boat leftover in the backyard still hasn’t come back to replace that one segment of fence! You told me he would be out here last Friday afternoon, and it’s Tuesday. I can’t even let my dog in the backyard without me watching because he’ll take off across the neighborhood!”


(In my head) “That fence repair guy! That’s the third time he said he’d go out and finish what he started. Didn’t I learn 8 years ago not to pay someone before they finished?! I can’t believe him.”

“Mr. Tenant, I’m really frustrated, too. I will never be using that guy again. I guess he just doesn’t want to earn money anymore. I’ve got one other guy who I trust who I’m going to call now to come out there and fix it. If he comes out tomorrow, will that work? It will. Ok, I’m sorry for the trouble. Let’s try to get this settled once and for all. Ok. Bye.”

(In my head) “Two hundred dollars more down the drain to get this one fixed. Man. I guess I didn’t need that money.”

[By the way, how that 40 foot sea-going vessel ended up in the backyard of our rental house is another story, for another article.]

Call #4

Mr. College-Aged Tenant:

“Uh, I like, have some bad news.”


“Bad news? Usually someone asks me what I’d like first, the good or bad news. You’re telling me it’s only bad and I don’t have a choice? I like choices.”

Mr. College-Aged Tenant:

“Uh, um, yeah. We tried to tell our friends not to, but when they came over last night, they drove over the waterline in the front yard and it’s busted again. I guess it’s good news that I know how to turn the water off now, so it’s not flooding everywhere like last month.”


“Ok. Well first of all, we need to get someone out there to fix the water line. I’ll call him right after we get off the phone. He is going to be nearby this afternoon to fix a toilet anyway. And you do know this is going to be billed to you again, right?”

Mr. College-Aged Tenant:

“That’s fine. Do you think he could bury the pipe lower this time?”


(In my head) “Do you think your friends can pay attention to the 5 flags in the ground telling you not to drive over the water meter?!”

“I’ll see what he can do. But no matter what, you can’t drive big, huge pickup trucks over it, especially after rain when the ground is soft, you know?”

Mr. College-Aged Tenant:

“Yes, I know. Sorry. I appreciate your help.”


“You’re welcome. I’ll call the handyman now.”

(My thoughts) “Now where was I…? Oh yeah, the rest of the to-do list to actually make the money to pay for the maintenance.”

These were all true situations, and they were just a few of the dozen or so calls we took in the last few weeks.

Are maintenance calls fun? Not really.

Will all of your tenants be thankful and appreciative of what you do? No, but it sure feels good to help the ones who are appreciative.

Related: 5 DIY Investment Property Maintenance Tasks Every Investor Should Know

Can’t we find ways to minimize the time and costs related to all of these maintenance calls? You bet, and we continue to learn more every day.

Is it worth doing this every week, every month for many years if it means you own rentals that give you amazing freedom in the rest of your life? I think so.

All I needed was a telephone, patience and a bit of Zen-like composure, and these problems were fairly easy to solve.

Hanging in there with patience and composure isn’t always easy. Doing the dirty work isn’t often glorified. But every worthwhile project has dirty work.

After all, Mr. Miyagi didn’t just rub his hands together, only for his star Karate pupil to magically become a master. No. He had to sand the floor, paint the fence, and wash the car — i.e. do the dirty work — in order to become better. And mastery takes even longer.

I can’t claim that I’m a Zen maintenance man yet, but from time to time, I do find that the dirty work actually becomes satisfying work. And the process of growth towards better and better finances never gets old.

If you are going to be in the investment real estate business, go ahead and accept the universal truth: the practice of Zen rental house maintenance never ends.

Landlords: What’s been your experience with calls from tenants regarding maintenance? Any interesting stories?

Be sure to leave a comment below!

About Author

Chad Carson

Chad Carson invests in Clemson, South Carolina. He also writes at coachcarson.com about using real estate investing to retire early & do what matters. For practical advice each week — join his free newsletter at coachcarson.com/newsletter.


  1. serge s.

    Hey Chad – funny stuff. I’ve been going through the HVAC blues this summer so I can relate. I like your articles, especially your philosophy that less is more. I’m managing around 100 units of my own and I have a word of advice on how to handle all the maintenance calls …. make all your tenants submit requests online. I can’t tell you how much of a life saver this is. The request form is fully integrated into my PM software (Buildium). It keeps a log of complaints and can be updated online. I get it, forward to my vendor and its done. The form has the description of the problem and contact info. I update and close the request online when complete. If I had to take an actual phone call every time a tenant complained, I would literally go crazy. No amount of Zen would help:) Best of luck with your investments.

    • Chad Carson

      Thanks Serge! Yeah, HVAC repairs or replacements will hurt.

      I am a Buildium user as well, so good tip. I wrote this article a while back and have been waiting to share it, so I actually have someone else taking the calls now. But I like your point because it cuts down on a lot of time on the phone and data entry. We’ve been manually entering the work orders by smart phone to buildium.

      Do you have any phone line for tenants to call? I’ve thought about getting an answering service to take calls and then enter them into buildium so that we can get notified.

      Best of luck to you as well. thanks for the comment and compliment.

  2. I liked that you used Mr. Miyagi as a reference of a rental property maintenance man. Now that I think back on The Karate Kid, I remember what a good property maintenance worker he was. It seems like he was a good example of what you’re talking about in this article about being patient with tenants. You’re right, property managers need to maintain a calm composure to resolve tenants problems.

  3. I’ve been trying to come up with a good way to keep my rental property tidy. I didn’t know that you could hire someone to maintain it for you! That seems like a great way to ensure that everything is taken care of. Thank you for sharing!

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