Rental property inspections are a frequent request from homeowners hiring a property manager for the first time. This is very reasonable, but as with most aspects of rental management, there are more questions that need to be addressed than simply do you go view the property. It’s important to understand exactly how the inspection process plays into being a landlord though. For this subject, we are going to draw up a 3 part series to help landlords understand the difficult question of what are reasonable expectations for tenant care and concern for your rental property. In this series, we’ll cover…
What is considered unreasonable behavior from a tenant?
The first question we have to ask is what would be considered unreasonable behavior by a tenant? This is a tough question as most homeowners would consider the slightest damage to be unreasonable, but this isn’t realistic. It’s also not very useful as legally, that outlook could leave you standing in court being chastised by a judge. We always prepare new landlords by explaining that even the best of tenants will not care for a property the same way an owner would. Recently in a conversation with a landlord, we discussed the difference in their outlook regarding the home they had just moved from and were now renting to a tenant, versus the home they were currently renting to live in themselves. Surprisingly, or not if you’ve been managing rentals for some time, the owner made it clear they gave little thought to their current rented residence and instead thought often about how to preserve the home they no longer occupied. When you really think about it, it’s human nature to concern ourselves with that which we own, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
No one will treat your home as well as you would
That brings us back to the question of what is unreasonable tenant behavior. We’ve already established that a failure to treat a property as well as you would is not unreasonable behavior, so where do we leave the gray area and enter into the clear-cut place in which actions should be taken against your tenant? First, let’s explore the legal outlines for tenants. Tenants are required by law to keep a property in reasonable condition throughout their tenancy. Landlords are responsible for normal wear and tear. Anything more is the tenant’s responsibility, and shortcomings could be considered a breach of contract giving the landlord / manager the right to evict the tenant. However, you may notice a couple of weaknesses in this explanation.
First, what is reasonable condition? Second, what is normal wear and tear? Finally, evictions are messy procedures, to say the least, even if you can legally make the case, is that definitely your best option? The courts have used this rather vague language intentionally so as to allow the various judges and court systems to set the precedent on exactly how to interpret it. Something many landlords do not realize is that eviction processes can and do vary to some degree from county to county. In our experience, Durham County, for instance, has a tendency to be more friendly to tenants than Wake or New Hanover. While it’s not a good feeling to see damage in your home, we have found a conservative rule of thumb on what constitutes unreasonable damage / condition to be the point at which visible damage starts to take a serious bite out of the typical one-month security deposit. Or any serious safety hazards. If you can go before a court and demonstrate that the tenant has already damaged the home to the point of seriously diminishing the security deposit, it seems to us most judges would have a tough time justifying inaction. This is still a somewhat gray area, so having a firm handle on repair pricing is important. It would be smart to involve a third party such as your handyman or manager for input on both costs, and also to make sure your judgment isn’t clouded by the ownership bias.
For your mental and financial health, give good tenants the benefit of doubt
Once again, while extremely uncomfortable for most, it’s important that you give the tenant the benefit of the doubt. If you don’t, the courts almost certainly will, and you’ll be left in court with wasted time and money. Often in our materials, you’ll hear us refer to our Golden Rule policy. What this means is that we as a matter of philosophy, we try to treat our tenants as they treat us. This means if they are paying their rent on time, not driving us crazy with trivial maintenance calls and unreasonable demands, in most cases we want to show them as much respect and understanding as possible. Damage happens, it is not a clear sign that you have a bad tenant. Just because you come across some problems does not mean that your tenant has broken the law, breached the contract, or even disrespected you. It often simply means they’re very busy, unconcerned, or simply unaware. None of which we’re implying you should be happy about, but also not a slap in the face. One example that comes up more than any other is minor pet damage. Often, despite the massive benefits that accrue to homeowners who allow pets, once a little damage is spotted, it’s often cited as proof that pets should have never been allowed. However, this almost certainly fails to account for the fact that the tenant is paying an average of 10% more in rent, plus the pet fee (not to mention you’ll rent the home much faster). We often do see minor pet damage, however, once the tenant vacates we go in and replace the scratched trim, or replace the torn screens etc, and charge the deposit. These tenants almost never complain because they realize this is reasonable and they are simply happy to have been allowed to bring their beloved pet. So upon inspection, it’s not helpful to have a meltdown over the fact that the dog has torn the back screen and scratched the trim (the most common issue we see). The fact is, 90% of inspections uncover minor issues that will only lead to small percentage deductions of the deposit, and we’ll address these in a later series. Screens and a little trim can easily be replaced for a small amount.
Don’t treat minor damage that most tenants cause by accident, with disrespecting your rental property
So we’ve determined a pretty good line of reasoning for what damage should be met with extreme action, and what should be handled with understanding. Now let’s discuss what methods are best for these two situations. First, should you identify that your tenant has indeed blatantly disrespected you and/or the property, you absolutely should take that opportunity to show force as passivity will almost surely lead to major headaches and lost money. As we mentioned earlier though, evictions are messy procedures, and rather than being the first option, in our opinion, this is almost always the last most desperate option.
You don’t have to wait for them to move out to bill for damage, use a renewal as leverage
We recommend the following. If you aren’t offended beyond repair, either aggressively requiring the tenant to pay for damage already done, or adding funds to their deposit would be an option. Of course, problems don’t usually go away, so this method would then require you to keep close tabs on the resident and continue in a relationship fraught with tense communication. For us as managers, this is not a major problem, but for a private landlord, it can be a nightmare. We tend to utilize this method most often in situations where the neighborhood or property makes finding great tenants very difficult, or a re-rental is typically costly and lengthy. Those situations are relatively rare though. We’ve even inherited a couple of cases where we identified major damage, but since it was unlikely to get worse and the tenant was paying on time, it actually made sense just to manage the condition but let them stay as long as possible to spread out the cost of that terrible situation with a longer lease term. These situations are very rare.
Exhaust all possible options to get the resident out of the home before you evict, but do it quickly
This brings us to the method we most often employ, and with phenomenal results. Force the tenant out of the property on your terms. When you have the leverage of a strong court case, to a large degree you call the shots. In our experience, the confident threat of eviction backed up by evidence and lucid reasoning is almost always powerful enough to convince the tenant to vacate the property despite having a lease in place. Assuming you’ve done a timely inspection / kept an eye on the house, you should be able to pay for all repairs using the deposit, with the main loss coming from the added vacancy as a result of a shorter lease. Assuming you handle the repairs quickly enough, and you made your move during a better rental season, this process shouldn’t be too terrible. Touching on the seasonal issue, most landlords know that winter for example is a poor time to market a rental (we touch on this in-depth here “Reduce vacancy by timing your leases properly”). Knowing this, you would be very smart not to force your tenant out in January, but rather to negotiate tenant-paid repairs up until March or April, then make your true show of force if you find yourself at an impasse, or grow tired of the whole situation. Bear in mind, this is for repair issues, we do not allow tenants to stay in properties without paying their rent at any time of year, and you shouldn’t either. This method has served us extremely well over the years. We have a phenomenal track record of forcing problem-causing tenants out of our properties before the situation gets seriously out of hand, or non-payment / repair costs pile up far in excess of the deposits. (read more on how to get tenants to move without evicting here…)
Sometimes you just have to dig in, and evict at any cost
Finally, should you reach an impasse or grow tired of bickering which would be completely understandable, eviction is the last option, but not one to be completely avoided. Life is short, and money isn’t everything. If your tenant is seriously infringing on your happiness, you’ve determined they are indeed acting unreasonably, and you aren’t able to force them out with the threat of eviction, it’s time to act.
How do you make sure your eviction proceedings go smoothly?
Prepare! First, take tons of photos. Second, send the tenant a formal 10-day notice to repair damage or be evicted. Keep it short and simple. Third, contact a reputable contractor and have them quote repairing the damage you photographed. Assuming this quote plus court costs are near or above the deposit amount, you should have no problem finalizing the eviction. After the 10 days have elapsed, complete a final inspection and make detailed notes on what has or has not occurred. Bring printouts of your photos to court, as well as the formal notice, and your final inspection notes ( for more on NC evictions read here…). At this point, you should have no problem gaining possession, and you simply need to follow a few steps to finalize.
In the next series, we’ll cover how frequently you should inspect your rental property, and why your manager may not always report every issue even when they do inspect. Coming soon! Follow us on social to keep up.
Read part 2 here for info on…
- How frequently should an owner inspect?
- What behavior may be considered a red flag
- What if a tenant tries to stop you from entering
- And more!