The 4 Types of Horrible Tenants (& How to Deal With Their Shenanigans)

by | BiggerPockets.com

Anyone who has been in property management long enough will have a few tenant horror stories. Indeed, my dad recommends anyone getting into the business watch Pacific Heights just to scare you straight and remove any illusions you might have.

We’ve all heard of professional tenants that find a way to clog you up in the legal system and live for free for months on end. One property manager told me they spent $10,000 trying to get one guy out!

My father got sued for almost $10,000 because his maintenance tech threw out a bunch of stuff he thought was trash. Let me rephrase—it was all trash, but in Oregon, you have to store any belongings a tenant leaves behind for 30 days. And it’s hard to prove it’s all trash. The tenant also wrecked the unit, which was probably why the settlement was pretty reasonable in the end. But those damages just makes for more money wasted.

So let us begin down this frightening path of tenant horror stories and what to do about them. First, there are, broadly speaking, four types of horrible tenants, many of which overlap:

  1. The Destroyers
  2. The Non-Payers
  3. The Pests
  4. The Professional Tenant

We’ll take each one individually.

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1. The Destroyers

“I have become tenant, destroyer of houses.”

I will tell you, the amount of damage one bad tenant can do to a house is truly spectacular. Furthermore, it will take a long, long time to make up for those losses with rental income. We have one turnover we’re working on now that will cost almost $10,000. And it’s on a 650 square foot house!

This tenant treated our precious home like the Russians treated Moscow when Napoleon was on their heels. His scorched-Earth policy left little recognizable in the wake of his unprecedented destruction. Here’s a set of before and after pictures you won’t see on any late-night infomercials.

Related: 5 Legitimate Reasons to Allow a Tenant to Break Their Lease

Before Tenant

After Tenant

It may be a bit hard to tell, but yes, the entire lower half of that door is missing.

What’s important to know about this story is that he had been accepted by our previous manager based on a lower set of criteria because he had a voucher. This is the first no-no. Just because someone’s rental payments are guaranteed doesn’t mean you want them to live in your house. This leads to the first recommendation on how to deal with these situation—namely, stop them before they start:

  1. Don’t rush on getting a tenant. It’s better to have an empty property than to rent to someone you don’t want. Make sure to screen, screen, and then screen some more. And be patient if need be.
  2. Don’t stand on principle. Don’t get caught up in long battle to try to get the money back in collections. Just keep the deposit and send the remaining bill to a bills collector. The tenants who leave properties in conditions like these rarely have the money to pay for the damages, so it’s not worth your time and energy to try and squeeze blood out of a turnip. One time a tenant stole our toilet on the way out. This petty injustice may feel like it demands reprisal, but trust me, it does not. Just move on.
  3. Evaluate each case independently. In this case, the house was almost immediately destroyed. So we just let the tenant stay there, as there wasn’t much more damage he could do. But if such a tenant lives in an apartment complex or you do believe there is more damage they can do, you should try to get the tenant out ASAP. For example, we had a tenant at an apartment that was such a slob, it brought cockroaches to his neighbors. In these cases, you want to try to get the tenant to leave. Consult an attorney because it’s much harder to get an eviction if a tenant isn’t behind on their rent. State laws differ, but it will certainly require a paper trail of notices and warnings. If you can get the person to leave voluntarily, perhaps with cash for keys, that is all the better.

2. Non-Payers

Sometimes non-payers are deadbeats, but oftentimes they are just regular people who fell behind for whatever reason. The big thing with these tenants is to take emotion out of it. Create a system and stick to that and avoid falling prey to any sob stories. Repeat to yourself over and over, “I’m sorry, but it’s company policy.”

Our policy is that rent is due on the 1st and late on the 5th. Late fees are non-negotiable (other than extreme and proven circumstances). Seventy-two-hour notices go out on the 12th, and we begin the eviction on the 15th. Tenants are allowed one payment plan, but must meet it entirely or the eviction will proceed.

We explain this to tenants beforehand in a long lease signing and then follow through when it need be applied. So, as far as rules for these situations go:

  1. Create a system and follow it. Landlords need to have a backbone. Everyone has a sob story, and they will want to make their problems yours. Don’t let it happen. And don’t just wing it. Create a written system of procedures to follow.
  2. Screen, screen, screen. This is basically a requirement for each type of problematic tenant. We don’t accept evictions unless they are 20 plus years old, and even then, we’re not happy about it. Tenants also need to have three times the monthly rent in income and a good landlord and employer reference.

3. The Pests

These types of tenants may be either a pest to you or to their neighbors. Pests to you will call and complain about every little thing and want you to do all sorts of minor maintenance. This is one of the reasons we have an hour-long lease signing. We want to hammer in every detail about what we will and won’t do as well as what we expect from them.

Such tenants may want a new storm door or for you to replace the locks or whatever. Or they will want discounts for standard maintenance items. Or they will demand something be fixed immediately, perhaps even calling after hours because their sink is clogged up. As my brother says, “If a homeowner couldn’t get someone to fix it any quicker, then we can’t be expected to.” I would recommend other managers think that way.

Sometimes, these tenant complaints will be legitimate, but when it goes too far and they’re basically just complaining for the sake of complaining or trying to get something for free, you need to stand your ground. If you capitulate, you will only incentivize such behavior.

Other times, these tenants will cause problems with neighbors. We once took over a property where one of our inherited tenants had let two prostitutes stay with him. Apparently they got into a fight around 2:00 a.m. and one was holding the other off the third story balcony while screaming at her at the top of her lungs.

Fun times.

Another guy basically panhandled the other tenants every day for spare change and rides. Another had a boyfriend who broke in through a window and cut himself and ended up bleeding all over the hallway. And we’ve had several drug dealers.

Related: 5 Ways Landlords Can Achieve Better Tenant Stability

A friend of mine in the business made an astute observation. There are generally two types of these tenants: 1) the ones that cause problems and 2) the ones that blend to their environment. So if the building is good, they will be good; if it is bad, they will be bad.

You need to target the first group and get rid of them as quickly as legally possible. Here are the keys:

  1. Screen like it’s a broken record. Always be screening, folks. Indeed, behavior is something to look for, which is why we also don’t accept violent or recent felonies and want strong landlord references.
  2. Use psychology. For more tips on dealing with challenging tenants, see here.
  3. Follow the law. Talk to your attorney about the best procedure to follow in your state. Again, it will almost certainly require a paper trail of warnings and notices. Written complaints from other tenants may be required, so be prepared to ask for these. Or if it’s a month-to-month lease, just give them a 30 day no-cause notice (if your state allows that).

4. The Professional Tenant

This monster from deep that haunts us all is the main reason we must be particularly careful to follow landlord-tenant law to the letter. These folks know how to exploit the system and are more than willing to do it.

This is the Pacific Heights scenario. Other than screening, the key thing here is to not take things into your own hands:

  1. Follow your system and keep emotion out. These types of tenants are basically just thieves. But they are also extremely frustrating, much more so than just someone who steals your A/C unit, because the whole thing just drags on and on. You just have to see this as a cost of business and move on, though. Getting angry will likely lead to a mistake, so just follow your procedures, be patient, and don’t take it personally. Remember, professional tenants may get a free place to stay, but they don’t get rich, which is what we’re trying to do.
  2. Follow the law carefully. It’s best to use an attorney here and do everything by the book. These tenants will often take advantage of small mistakes to drag things out or get concessions. Indeed, I’ve heard of attorneys who just look over eviction fillings for minor mistakes so they can contact the tenant and sue the landlord. Be careful.

Conclusion

The most important piece of advice, other than screening, is simply to see bad tenants as a cost of doing business. Don’t let one bad tenant turn you off from real estate or even just ruin your day. It’s just a cost. Think of it like a furnace going out. Just fix it and move on.

What’s your least favorite type of tenant? Any other usual suspects you’d add to this list?

Leave your comments below!

About Author

Andrew Syrios

Andrew Syrios is a real estate investor in Kansas City and a partner in Stewardship Properties along with his brother and father. Their company owns just over 500 units in four states.

27 Comments

  1. Christopher Smith

    My solution to the problem is to buy into B or better properties into B+ or better neighborhoods and put an experienced, reliable and competent property manager in charge. Not a 100% guarantee of problem free tenants, but it gets very close.

    In almost 18 years, I have had only one really problem tenant and even he was reasonably good until he lost his job and tapped out all of his relatives for loans. At that point, he was buying time by being evasive and telling many lies about how he was to come into a bunch of money. We knew he was on the edge and of course the money never came.By the time he was asked to leave he had trashed the place to the tune of about $5,000 of which probably at least $3,000 was way beyond anything resembling simple wear and tear.

    The article is right, normally not too much you can do but move on. When we went to clean out his mailbox (which was a very large one) he had so many delinquent letters from debt collectors they didn’t even really all fit inside the mailbox – bursting out in all directions. So of course any thoughts of collection were dashed and hiring legal assistance to pursue a claim would have been utterly futile.

    Just turn them over to a debt collector so its on their record making it just a little harder for them to stiff another unsuspecting landlord down the road.

  2. Andy Ballester on

    I had an extreme tenant situation once. I did screen and he did tell me he was on parole. He was honest on application and it was not a recent. He had a good credit score. He had a very good paying job, his references checked out so I figured I’d give him a chance. He did ad his girlfriend to the lease and I mistakenly did not screen her. 6 mths everything was going fine. Paid on time no complaints. And somehow he violated his parole. And the checks stopped coming. This is a 2 bedroom 1 bath. Property manager excepted a partial payment with promise of the rest. And then complaints started coming in. Waste backing up in the basement. (Female hygiene products). The girlfriend did not no I was the owner. And I told my property manager I would like to go the maintenance call. So I went to my property this is a 2B 1bath, half duplex. Turns out there is a guy living in the second bedroom, I talked to him casual conversation he tells me he is paying her rent and he found this place on Craigslist. Another roommate and a couple of children staying in the living room. Plus she has 2 children I was unaware of staying in the second bedroom. There are like 7 people living in this 2 bedroom half duplex and she is collecting rent and making money. The whole house was only 700$ and I asked the guy how much he was paying for room and he quoted 450 and I’m not sure what the other family was paying. Needless to say I filed for immediate eviction, and I did get extremely lucky. No one showed up for court. So obviously won the eviction case I guess you could call it. And 30 days later they seemed completely shocked when they seen me show up with the sheriff for them to leave the property. This could of dragged out for months.(Pennsylvania). It felt bad putting basically 3 separate families on the street, but I know they were not completely on the streets. That’s my horror story.

  3. Screening! I met my wife 30ish years ago when she worked in a property management company. We’ve had rentals for the better part of 30 years and have never had an eviction. We were fortunate enough to know a property manager who managed 300+ properties who pushed the concept of screening onto us.

  4. Pamela Veselinovic

    I’ve had experiences both as a landlord with bad tenants (a home that had a meticulously refinished wooden staircase, tenants painted GREEN, then moved out, leaving a lot of garbage, and a cat still living inside). And I have had bad experiences as a tenant. Living in a rental home without water for 2 weeks because the well broke, for instance. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I had to take that landlord to court to get my deposit back after we moved out. The judge said he wished I had moved into a 5 star hotel and stayed 2 weeks so he could make her pay my expenses. Instead, we just toughed it out. Another instance – I rented an apartment in Oregon, BTW. $1000 per month for a 500 square foot out of date place that had steep stairs to and from everything. Every day the shower backed up with water from the rest of the building. Every day, I called to complain. They would send a guy up later in the day, when the slow drains had finally pulled the water down into the pipes, and do nothing. I would have to clean the tub everyday. Repeat daily for 6 weeks, and finally I said enough. I had paid rent for the month – it was the 13th and I told them I was vacating the premises. I cleaned the apartment much better than it was when I moved in, brought my keys to the property mgt office and moved out. The rent was paid for that month – they should have found a tenant. But they never tried. Instead, they denied receiving the keys – kept my $800 deposit, and said I owed them another $1100. for breaking the lease. They sent the bill to a collection agency immediately and when I called the collection agency, they told me the dollar amount was too low for them to bother with so they wouldn’t take the ding off of my otherwise perfect credit. And 3 years later, that’s the only thing on my otherwise perfect credit – that ding.

    So there are bad tenants and bad landlords. It is not fun to be on either end.

  5. Ken Oz

    I had a tenant who I discovered later gave me false landlord references. They were friends who lied about her rental history for her. She stopped paying rent. She brought a friend to court who accused me before the judge of threatening her with physical assault. The Judge told her to sit down and not speak again in the court room. Someone broke the window out of my car the day she received her eviction notice. My advice is to double check and verify that landlords are truly landlords and not just friends posing as landlords.

  6. Tim Sabo

    Nice work, but you forgot one: the Inviter! This tenant is able to secure a rental property because they have a clean criminal record and a decent credit score. You screen them, check them out twelve ways to Sunday, and find nothing. You invite them in, sign the lease, and hand over the keys. Then all hell breaks loose, as the Inviter welcomes every loser, bum, deadbeat, and loafer they know to move in. And these folks don’t know the rules your tenant signed up for and they don’t care: they will stay as long as they want, do whatever they want, and there’s little that you can do about it. Except to evict the tenant, which is tough, because this is the person you wanted to rent to, the person that was nice, polite, and seemed like a good fit.

    This has happened to us a number of times, and it seems to happen more often with tenants that get rental assistance (Section 8). The drifters can sniff out a free ride like a hound dog running down a prison escapee, and they know how to ruin a good situation for you and your tenant. Be sure to write into your lease about who can live there and what happens when the rules are broken.

    Be aware of the Inviter!

    • Andrew Syrios

      Oh the shame, how could I forget the infamous inviter!?!? Shockingly, when such inviters invite their boyfriends or whoever that have been lurking in the shadows, those invitees always seem to be utterly terrible tenants (if you can even call them that).

  7. Bernie Neyer

    With destroyers you need to litigate as that judgement follows them for 10 years. You may no collect now, but eventually you may.

    While each state’s Small Claims action varies, when you win, and you will viewing the pictures, the defendant has to fill out a Debtor’s Statement off assets. Mail them one EVERY month. Eventually they’ll get bored and not fill one out. Go to the clerk of the district court and fill out a Contempt of Court claim.

    The court will serve them, or you may have to hire a Special Process Server to serve them. If they show up the court will force them to fill one out and may even allow you to ask questions in open court. If they don’t show up, and it happens a lot, the magistrate will issue a bench warrant for their arrest. This arrest will stay on their record forever.

    When they get arrested they will be allowed to bond out for the amount of judgement against them. In my state I can’t claim that money as it is a shurity against their no appearing to fill out the Debtor’s Statement of Assets. Even if they appear the magistrate usually tries to persuade them to surrender that money to retire the judgement against them.

    I have collected on several deadbeats with just this scenario.

  8. Nathan G.

    This was a good article. As a manager of over 200 units, I can confirm a proper screening will reduce these problems to almost zero. Screen, screen, screen. Then have ever solid policies and procedures in place to deal with the few problems that pop up.

  9. tim boehm

    I have had to threaten eviction if the tenant didn’t move and I have had to evict once, normally a smart person will take the bait and move. I say you have violated the lease agreement three times, and I will evict you, but rather than having an eviction on your record if you move out by the end of the month that will put an end to it! The one eviction I did have to do, court ordered 5 days, the tenant said to the judge, ” I usually get a month, can’t you give me at least two weeks”

  10. Eileen Mark

    As an insurance agent who helps several of my property investor clients protect their investments, it is important to ask you agent if tenant vandalism is covered on your policy. It might be! The Farmers Landlord Protector offers this essential coverage. Knowing that if this were to happen to you, and you are covered, no doubt would put your mind at ease as a landlord/property investor. Other endorsements, like loss of rents, repair cost, and replacement, are important to consider as well. A good agent will make sure you have what you need to protect yourself and your investments.

  11. Curtis Mears

    So far I have been lucky, and I also have a strict screening process. Once I get any response (phone, text, or email) from my ads, I always send the following text before I ever talk to the client:

    Thank you for contacting me regarding property. We do have some minimum requirements for tenets. They are: verifiable income of $3,900 per month, good reference for previous housing history, pass a credit check, a clean criminal record, and no previous evictions. If you meet these requirements, then please contact me for an appointment. The home is available to view immediately.

    Even though I put this in the actual ad, I still am able to reduce the time in showing to people who would never qualify. Once I take an application, I first verify all phone numbers via internet and try to confirm they are legit numbers and not friends. Once this is done, I use MySmartMove and wait to get a green light from this site. It checks credit history, criminal, and past evictions (they pay the $35 fee directly to the site). Finally, once they have cleared these hurdles, I always call for income and previous rental history. Only then do I offer the rental.

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