When I was in college, my friends and I rented a house from a landlord who lived out of state. We were young and inexperienced when it came to the world of rental properties, but our parents had instilled in us the importance of avoiding landlord-tenant disputes by communicating all requests, concerns, and potential problems in writing. There were issues from day one, as I fought for the inclusion of every dinged floorboard and scuffed bathroom tile on the rental inspection checklist, and relations with our landlord from that point forward were fraught (to put it kindly).
Written Communication is Key to Avoiding Landlord-Tenant Disputes
Over the course of the year that we lived in that property, we ran into many issues with the old house, which was in poor condition, but we never received a single response to our emails and text messages, the landlord instead insisting to only communicate via phone call. When the landlord attempted to keep the entirety of our security deposit over alleged damages, we took them to small claims court—and we won. When the judge ruled in our favor, he cited the landlord’s seemingly deliberate avoidance of written communications (which we had thoroughly documented) as a significant factor.
It’s in the best interest of each party—landlord and tenant—to avoid disputes altogether, and (written!) communication is the cornerstone of any smooth rental, from lease-signing to move-in to move-out, and everything in between. Read on for our guide to the common tenant disputes and more of the measures you can take to prevent such problems with your rentals.
Eliminate Rental Disputes With an Ironclad Lease
A clear and thorough rental lease agreement can resolve landlord-tenant disputes before they even begin. Let’s say your property’s HVAC system suffers a serious malfunction due to the tenant’s inconsistent replacement of the air filter, and the malfunction calls for an expensive repair or replacement. You explain to the tenant that they will be footing the bill, and they balk. But if your lease explicitly states that it is the tenant’s duty to replace the air filter, and that the tenant is responsible for any damages resulting from the failure to do so, all you have to do is point to the tenant’s signature. Most tenants will realize that disputing their own signature is pointless, and the few that attempt to sue you will be unsuccessful.
So what are some areas you can cover in your rental leases to eliminate the issues and problems that can lead to landlord-tenant disputes? Here’s a list of some of the common items that can become points of contention if they aren’t clearly addressed in the lease:
- Modifications to the property
- Lawn mowing
- Snow removal
- Renter’s insurance (see our in-depth guide)
- Occupancy limits
Thoroughly lay out your expectations in the lease—whether something is allowed, the responsibilities of the landlord versus those of the tenant, the penalties for violating the various items of the lease—and you’ll avoid problems and issues with your tenants later down the road.
The Common Landlord-Tenant Disputes
The rental lease is the first line of defense against landlord-tenant disputes and the mediations and evictions that can ultimately result from them, but even so, some issues call for more than just pointing to the tenant’s signature. Here are four areas that can get particularly hairy
If communication breaks down or a vendor drops the ball, what starts as a leaky faucet can end up as a heated landlord-tenant mediation—or worse, a judgment in the tenant’s favor—saddling you with costly attorney and court fees.
Thorough and consistent processes are your best friend when it comes to maintenance. By handling maintenance requests the same way every time, efficiently and with the appropriate sense of urgency, you keep your tenant happy and your property in excellent shape. Have protocol in place for each type of request that may come your way, with varying levels of importance: a sliding closet door that comes off its track doesn’t necessarily need to be addressed within twelve hours of the tenant’s request, whereas issues such as a broken fire sprinkler or flooding should be considered emergencies and taken care of much more quickly. For more on emergency maintenance requests, check out our article on security and safety in rental properties.
Just as important as consistent processes (and this goes for everything else we’ll talk about in this article) is immaculate record-keeping. Should a landlord-tenant dispute arise that does escalate into a lawsuit, mediation, or eviction proceedings, you’ll be glad that you kept such detailed records (and backups of those records). Even if a tenant informs you of something as simple as a squeaky gear in a garage door track, take note of it. This is one of the many advantages to using Lula’s streamlined property maintenance technology: if tenant communications and maintenance visits are logged and timestamped automatically, you don’t have to worry about keeping track of it yourself in an Excel file.
Unpaid Rent, Lease Violations, Etc.
Eviction is usually a last resort, and it’s a conclusion neither side of a lease agreement wants to reach. It means a costly premature vacancy for landlords, and the loss of a living space (and personal property, in some cases) for tenants, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to avoid. If a tenant suddenly stops paying rent, causes significant damage to the property, or engages in any other kind of activity that is in flagrant violation of one of the more serious aspects of the rental agreement, your best bet is to be prompt, open, and assertive in your communications regarding the issue—and put as much of it as you can in writing (preferably email or via some kind of property management app/software). If you can reason with your tenant and try to determine the cause of the issue, you may be able to remedy the situation before it worsens. Ultimately you are beholden to the landlord-tenant laws of your particular state, so if a dispute between you and your tenant reaches the point where you do decide to evict, you’ll want to consult state and local ordinances (and an attorney) to make sure your case is airtight.
Tenant vs. Tenant Disputes
For landlords overseeing multifamily complexes, this one can crop up quite frequently, and it helps to determine ahead of time just how you plan to deal with disputes between two tenants. In your lease agreements, lay out your expectations in clear terms. What are the hours of your laundry room, and if they’re 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., what is the penalty for putting six pairs of wet shoes in the drier at 2 in the morning and waking up the tenants of all the adjacent apartments? Can the early birds in your apartment complex swim laps in the pool before the sun comes up? Are tenants allowed to host large gatherings around the communal courtyard barbecue? (And what if they leave the grill blackened and filled with ash, and beer cans in the grass?) These are the kinds of complaints that you should expect to hear from your tenants at some point, and you should be able to point to your lease agreements to address them. If the issue is something that doesn’t quite fit into a lease agreement (strong cooking smells, for example), you may need to step in as a third party to help mediate, but be careful not to issue directives or judgments outside of your legal capacity to do so—otherwise a dispute between tenants might become a landlord-tenant dispute.
Treating a tenant unfairly, as we alluded to in the previous section, can lead to trouble. This can take many forms, many of which fall under the umbrella of the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act provides federal protection against discrimination based on protected classes such as race, religion, disability, and sex. This means that landlords have to exercise caution when crafting the wording of their leases, screening tenants and deciding who to rent to (and why), and responding to tenant communications—whether they be straightforward maintenance tickets or complicated requests for reasonable accommodations.
Know When to Ask For Help
Let’s be clear: if a landlord-tenant dispute reaches fever pitch and a tenant files a lawsuit against you, you shouldn’t be reading articles online about what to do—you need to hire an attorney. There are plenty of things you can do to reduce the likelihood that a tenant will end up suing you, but there are simply some things you won’t be able to foresee, and over the course of many years in the property management industry, you can expect to run into a few significant road bumps. Know when to ask for help. The potential costs are simply too great to risk going it alone.
Anything found written in this article was written solely for informational purposes. We advise that you receive professional advice if you plan to move forward with any of the information found. You agree that neither Lula or the author are liable for any damages that arise from the use of the information found within this article