As a Landlord, Your Job is to Do the Right Thing. Here’s Why.

by | BiggerPockets.com

All of the stories below are about people in my hometown.  They are real, but the names are not.

There is a certain stewardship that comes with being a landlord. It’s an understood or implied role when you invest in houses or apartments. And it’s not optional. Part of the job is doing the right thing.

As landlords, we should not take the position lightly. We should not abuse the position by digging every last penny out of a person. Do not kick someone when they are down, but help them up – maybe just help them maintain. Do right by the neediest of people and be service-minded when it comes to their welfare. We can certainly afford to help.

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Calamity

With 20 years of landlording and over 160 units, I have had tenants from all walks of life. With few exceptions, at some point or another all tenants need help, need consideration, or need empathy.

Jocelyn was a Section 8 tenant of mine that lived for about four years in a 3/1 that I own. She was always on time with her part of the rent. Always on time that is, until the police kicked down the door one night and arrested her and her boyfriend for selling drugs.

Easy answer, right? No sympathy. Pack up your bags and get out. You are of no benefit to me. Time to move on.

Related: Are You a ‘Slumlord’?

It’s not that easy for me. I couldn’t just put the property manager between Jocelyn and me to keep her problems at arm’s length. See, Jocelyn had 4 kids, all under about 9 years old.  Two of them had sickle-cell anemia and were in the hospital on and off the whole time she lived in the house.

So Jocelyn got my sympathy. She did not appear to be a drug user to me, although certainly suffered from depression. Her boyfriend took advantage of and bullied her. He lived in the house at the time and was the cause of the drug dealing issues. Jocelyn was somewhat (though not completely) an innocent bystander.

I made sure that she and the kids had a place to live for a rough 3-4 months by not kicking them out and taking whatever she could pay. I gave her money occasionally to order all of them pizza.  Eventually she returned to making her part of rent on time. Yes, I lost a couple of bucks out of the deal, but the kids kept their normal routine while their mom worked things out. It was the right thing to do.

give-back

Ms. Patrick lost a daughter who was about 10. Don’t even know the reason, but she called the PM terribly upset and just did not know what to do. She had no money for a funeral. 

Should I have filed for eviction and charged late fees? No, her rent was forgiven for a month and no fees were assessed to help out. It was the right thing to do.

Mr. Joe was in the local newspaper about a year ago.He was being featured as someone in the community who gives back by feeding hot dogs and other easy-to-make meals for hungry, mostly older folks in his neighborhood and church.

Now I make a point of seeing Mr. Joe occasionally and giving him a few bucks to help out. It’s the right thing to do. By the way, Mr. Joe is about 85 years young.

James and Martha rented a house on Eaves Road in a rural area. The volunteer fire department was not able to respond in time to same anything meaningful. They lost everything because they had not listened to our advice to put renter’s insurance in place. 

Should we have said “Sorry, not sorry?” Or ignore them? We did not ignore them. We did not say “I told you so.” We put them up in a hotel for a couple of night and then moved them into a unit that was available along with some donated furniture at no charge for as long as they needed it. I think they moved into a new home after a month or so.

These are just a few stories where I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. When you spend twenty years in the rental business and have over 160 units, bad things will happen to people. Life will happen to people. So much of what happens to folks can be the consequence of bad choices. But even though that is true, it is no excuse not to render aid and be compassionate when people genuinely need help. That is your cue to step up.

Care-taking

There in another way in which we are obligated to be service-minded as landlords. We provide a product to paying customers. That product includes a roof that doesn’t leak, an air conditioner that cools when it’s 100F outside, and a toilet that flushes. Though they are just houses to us, they are homes to our tenants – a most basic of human needs.

This may seem obvious but. . .

In my hometown there is a landlord we will call Slumlord Larry. Everybody knows him. Every banker. Every insurance agent. And certainly the city codes enforcement staff.  Almost every renter has probably run across him at one point or another.  He drives a trashy old pickup with a trailer (not hating on frugality here). Both are filled with garbage, leftover building materials and I suspect dead animals. He is a complete embarrassment to anyone that owns a rental property.

My daughter’s friend used to live in one of Slumlord Larry’s properties. It was an older mobile home on about an acre. Mom and Dad didn’t make much money, but the family was tight knit and they made it work somehow.

Related: Can Investors & Landlords Own Real Estate Anonymously (Or is Privacy Dead)?

There was a hole in the main bathroom’s floor that the family had to keep covered with a piece of wood because Slumlord Larry would not fix it. Every time it rained, the roof leaked into the house. The first few times they called Slumlord Larry and ask him to fix the ever-worsening leak. He promised to get by there, but never did. After apparently getting tired of getting calls to fix the water problem, he finally told them that if they wanted it fixed they would have to do it themselves. That was just wrong (and foolish) on so many levels, but it came down to Slumlord Larry not wanting to drop a dime on the trailer.

Don’t be a Slumlord Larry.

Even when money is tight, get the job done. We owe it to our tenants, not simply from a business and contractual standpoint, but from a moral and humanistic standpoint, to take care of the shelter we provide.

It’s the right thing to do.

Are you a landlord? Do you agree or disagree?

Share your opinion below!

About Author

Jay Strickler

Depending on which day of the week it is, Jay is a 30-year oil and gas project manager and owner of about 160 rental units in three states. He harbors faint hopes of ditching corporate life someday to travel and spend more time with family and friends.

35 Comments

  1. Dennis Patterson

    Yes- we as Property providers with integrity- always need to know when to show some grace and compassion and we face this situation often ourselves. When sometimes we have a tenant fall behind for various reasons and we try to sit down and work out a suitable compromise that works for both of us. this is a business of course- but its like the author has stated- its a people business as well. Good article.

  2. Anna Watkins

    Agreed. I tell my tenants our relationship is a two-way deal — they’re responsible for paying on time, dollowing the lease and keeping a decent place. I’m responsible for making sure they have a safe, comfortable and working house to live in. Last year, a 100-year-old oak fell on one of my houses in a rain storm, shattering the roof and then soaking everything in the front two rooms. I couldn’t help the family financially, but I did make sure the repairs got done as fast as possible (contacting the insurance and the contractors every couple of days), asking the family for color choices in the repainting, and finding almost all of the replacement furniture they needed for free on the local NextDoor list. We’re past that now, but I’ve given my word they can stay as tenants (it’s a very hot area for sales & flips) at least until grandson graduates from high school (4 more years).

  3. Karen Denker

    Thank you on behalf of the people you have helped. I too have found myself dealing with some renters that have fallen on a rough patch. I always try to keep a list of organizations that can help out beyond what I can do also. The great thing about it is that they have become my most loyal renters!

    • Jay Strickler

      Thanks for the kind words, Karen. I recently changed PMs. one of the unexpected benefits was being able to take advantage of a charity they had already set up. It helps me lend a hand anonymously so that we don’t inadvertently train tenants to expect help. having a separate entity name and an application process puts the requester in a totally different frame of mind

      • David Mincey

        ” It helps me lend a hand anonymously so that we don’t inadvertently train tenants to expect help.” Excellent point Jay. Unfortunately, there are MANY who will take advantage of your kindness. Good to be in a position to help, but you have to do so wisely and with firm.

  4. Dave Rav

    Ok, yes philanthropy and just helping folks in general is a life goal of mine. That said, now hear this…

    So, let’s get this straight. You granted sympathy to a drug dealer’s accomplice, basically a criminal. And let’s also make mention that, the tenant’s personal housing bill is pennies compared to what everyone else pays for housing. That right there is “sympathy “ enough. After all, they’re paying like 1/6 or 1/8 what everyone else is. Isn’t that enough? We’re talking a few hundred bucks, dude. Many folks out there pay thousands each month.

    I hear you about the family matter. I do. However, the decision and choices made by this tenant don’t make you the fall guy (no pun intended here in October!). It was not your choice for her to grow such a large family, assoc with a criminal, remain in a bad relationship, and on and on.

    Choices choices, my friend. We all have the **opportunity* to make them in this great country.

    I do not agree with the landlord being the “friend” , social worker, father, or fall guy. We have one job: provide safe, good quality housing at value to folks (subjective definition). And Yes, you can do small things to help too. To me though, allowing someone in this scenario to stay for 3 months is a big thing.

    • Jay Strickler

      Rob, my core resonates with a great deal of what you say. I believe in helping yourself first. I believe in personal responsibility. I do not help 95% of the people that complain, but select folks that I don’t think have much hope or help. And I’ll be the first to say that relying on my judgement may even be a bit arbitrary.
      Maybe this article was a result of me being older and a bit worn by the years – which i hope translates to wisdom. When I have struggles I realize that I am not different than those others who have struggles.
      One example that is related – some time ago, maybe 2-3 years, my approach to tipping changed overnight. I used to be that person that really wanted to make sure that my tip reflected my experience. They forgot a drink refill? Not getting 15%.
      But something clicked. That tip judgement, plus or minus a couple of percent, was only a matter of a buck or two. And when I considered it like that I thought, do I really need that one dollar or will it make a much bigger impact with this server who no doubt lives day-to-day. So unless something is just grossly wrong, I leave 15-20% or more
      That process helped me see my tenants a different way, more as neighbors. And as a result, if I help with an effort or a few bucks, I know that the positive impact to them is orders of magnitude greater than the loss to me.

  5. Jerry W.

    Jay,
    nice article. I have had it go both ways, people taking advantage and leaving and folks who worked through a bad time and became good renters again. I guess I try to look at whether the person is really trying or really cares. I try to give a hand up, not a hand out. Most of the time it works out reasonably well for me but not always. I try to remember what it was like to be $20 short on rent due day and simply not having enough money and not knowing how I would get it. I have given a few renters lots of very short term jobs, rake leaves, pick up trash, etc. If someone is willing to work a few hours I know they are serious. I am truly blessed that I am in a position where I can give. Life wasn’t always that way.

    • Jay Strickler

      Honestly Jerry, I can’t think of very many times when my flexibility, especially on late rents didn’t bite me in the but. One of my friendliest ten=ants, that I wanted to help ended up just stringing me along for 3 months promising to pay and then disappear. Not only did they owe me about $1200, they took the refrigerator when they left. As long as I know what I am dong is charity and don’t expect payback, I can’t be disappointed. Took me a while to figure that out.

  6. Rob Cook

    As you can imagine, much of what you shared, stuck in my craw as I read it! I have about half as many units as you, and over a long period of experience have seen a lot of heartbreak too, even tenants dying in our units. I consider myself “cheap” in that I do all of my maintenance and repairs and renovations myself, even though I could easily pay others to do it for me. So coming from that perspective, it is often difficult to think or act generously when tenants fall on hard luck, regardless of fault.

    However, in the last 4 years, I have become much more involved with property management, due to lack of pro PMs available to hire for many of my properties. As a result, I consider myself a relative rookie PM despite being in the rental business 40 years off and on. My point is, my style of PM is to 1) treat tenants like people, not things or paychecks, 2) I give my cell phone # to ALL of my tenants, even those pro managed by others and 3) we usually bend over backwards to accommodate the typical bumps in the road many tenants experience, occasionally if not regularly.

    We (my wife and I) remember being broke and working poor, and understand how a minor auto breakdown (an resulting loss of job) can cause a spiral into the depths of financial disaster, instantly when cash is not available to remedy it quickly. Most of my rentals are low-cost rentals, not low income per se, so not a lot of buffer capability in their budgets and finances.

    We enjoy being landlords and treating tenants as peers, not underlings to us. We believe this encourages the tenants to respond in kind, respecting us and giving us consideration they might otherwise not have. Win-win. And we fix issues fast when they are brought to our attention, regardless of the cost involved. As you stated, it is our responsibility to do so, both business wise and ethically.

    Since turnover is our largest expense as landlords, developing and nurturing good, functional relationships with tenants is a key factor in our success in keeping tenants paying and staying. Being nice and decent is not only the right thing to do, it is good business.

    • Jay Strickler

      These are such a thoughtful comments, Rob. I love how you talk about your empathy – just remembering back when you might have wanted an extra few bucks for a hamburger.

      I am going to go out on a big limb here are share one of my secret motivations. I hope, that just in a small tiny tiny way, with just one relationship at a time, I can offset a little bit of the crap in the world and help mend things like racism and other types of discrimination. I am a mere stitch in a vast tapestry, but I want to be a good stitch.

      • Rob Cook

        Jay,

        I admire your attitude towards business, and life. I am 60, and have 3 children in their early thirties. One thing that has helped me be more empathetic and compassionate in life, is thinking when challenged in a situation with tenant, waiter, etc. is to think, “How would I want strangers to treat this person if it were MY kid.” That reminds me to be a “bigger person” and chose kindness towards my antagonist, instead of being mean and hurtful to them, just because I could. I get your motivation. And respect it. If only MORE people felt, thought and behaved as you do, including myself more often, the world would be a better place for us all. It is hard to “turn the other cheek” and tolerate being slighted or offended or cheated, but doing so is usually the right thing for all involved. It is easier when we can financially better absorb a loss, and therefore be more “charitable” in a challenging situation, but often it is more about our ego than mere money. And that is always a choice – choosing kindness over meanness. Easier said than done of course. And not necessarily a 100% of the time accomplishment, but a direction and path we should aspire to. We are all a work in progress, and at varying stages of life and experience and skill, but the direction is what counts long term.

  7. Rob Cook

    An afterthought I meant to mention.

    I consider land-lording, a BUSINESS, not an investment. And I also consider it a Customer Service Business, NOT a real estate Business.

    I have even recognized in myself the attitude that land-lording should be tenant-driven from the outset, in property acquisition decisions themselves. Not build it and they will come, but what do tenants want, and then provide that orientation.

    A recent post by a fellow BP member, provided this excellent download making this tenant-orientation clearly the right way to think as a landlord.

    https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2Fassets0.biggerpockets.com%2Fuploads%2Fuser_file%2Ffile_object%2F1573%2FAuction_BulletProofRentals022017_v2.pdf&h=AT1zzKQNauMuahKI165CltXtngkrjfiWtFSCm0eR8zQUTp2btZEPmy8EoqnLTi124cqpH636iXeEM8sRlbjRTr2W39SG8z1Ytqxyjb9nt2hvUcBRVRQuDiFS5cmUsGhnWA

  8. Brian H.

    Thanks for this. One of my biggest issues with BP is the lack of focus on this issue. Private developers and landlords have huge and lasting impacts on communities and individuals. In my view it’s frankly immoral not to acknowledge that and discuss it as part of development and investing. Everyone’s approach does not have to be the same as yours, but there should be some addressing of the responsibility that comes with every landlord when dealing with the lives of others. I hope to see more discussion of this on BP in the future.

  9. Lynne Condellone

    I’ll go against the grain here. I DO have empathy for my tenants, and yes everyone has a rough patch, even me!

    I also remember being young and poor tenant, too. Lots of ramen and box mac and cheese.

    Here comes the “however”…
    Free month’s rent to a drug dealer who caused your home’s door to be busted in? (Did you pay for that damage, too?) Nope.

    3rd rule of land lording: Don’t make their problems your problems.

    I also often say, I choose my charities, they don’t get to choose me.

    I hope to be able to be as generous as you are when they’re all paid off….right now, I am not letting someone else’s hardship become a hardship for me.

  10. Andrew Lee

    Jay, thanks so much for this inspiring article! Your heart is in the right place, and I fully believe in karma (actually, in God who rewards us for our kindness to others), so I’m sure you’ve received many blessings through the years as a result of your caring attitude. Yes, there’s a fine line between being taken advantage of, and I can at times be as cynical as the best of them. But you have the right attitude and the right heart, and I try to do the same when I can. Well done! This was one of the most impactful articles I’ve seen on BP, from a personal standpoint. 🙂

  11. Dave Rav

    More likely, did the tenant REVEAL they had someone else living there. This happens quite frequently.. I know it’s happened in mine.

    Let’s stop making excuses and read this thing for what it is. Come on folks.

    And harboring a drug dealer then getting caught doing so, doesn’t constitute “falling on tough times”. Therefore limited consideration can be granted.

  12. Winnie Beach

    Thanks for the post. I, too, try to work with my tenants. Some are not able or worthy, but I know that I have bent over backwards before moving on to eviction. At some point in the process, I become aware that it isn’t a situation that is going to turn around and then we need to move on. But for the temporary bumps in life’s road and especially for the tenant who communicates as soon as THEY know they have a problem, it has worked more often than not. And the loyalty of a good tenant gets a super boost after a situation is resolved.

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