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What to Do About Tenant Damages

Tenants have a responsibility to use care when they live in a property. They do not have a license to do damage. While they are not responsible for ordinary wear and tear, they are responsible for deliberate or negligent damage, no matter who did it (except the landlord, of course).

Proper care of the property by a tenant begins when they move in. The rental agreement should state that the tenant is responsible for damage over and above ordinary wear and tear. You can also put that on the Move-in Checklist. When you do the "Condition of Premises Report" walk through with the tenant, you can explain in detail examples of what damage is normal wear and tear and what is excessive, negligent and/or deliberate.

Working with tenants who have had problems in the past provides a special challenge in seeing that they maintain the unit appropriately. You have to make it crystal clear what their responsibilities are and what is expected of them. Spend as much time as necessary to make it clear. This subject is probably where you need to spend most of your time with a new tenant whom you know has had a problem with other landlords or who has never lived on his or her own before.

Sometimes they are simply so inexperienced that they don't know what sorts of things cause damage. Slamming doors and windows, swinging on doors, climbing up and down drain pipes, climbing lattice work are all things that cause damage, but of which some people have no idea of the cause and effect relationship. It is your job to make it clear, even at the risk of sounding nit picking.

Whatever the problem, it should not be yours, but the tenant's. If it is a repair problem, give them the name of someone who can do the repairs, telling them he can work at a reasonable price for them. If there are crayon marks on the wall, tell them that you have an account at a certain paint store where they can buy paint at a lower price. Make them solve it.

Tenant Responsibilities

The laws of most states say the tenant has the following duties to his or her dwelling:

* Use as intended in a reasonable manner
* Keep clean and free of rubbish and filth
* Dispose of garbage, rubbish, ashes and debris in "a safe and clean manner."
* Keep plumbing fixtures clean
* Use all parts in a reasonable manner
* Not remove or tamper with a functioning smoke detector, including removing batteries
* Not deliberately or negligently destroy, deface, damage, impair or remove any part of the premises or knowingly permit any person to do so

Getting the Tenant to Pay

When you discover damage, such as a broken window, hole in the wall or door, garbage piled up or crayon marks on the wall, send the tenant a note. In the note, remind them of their responsibilities and suggest how they can solve the problem.

If the damage is too much for the tenant to fix on his or her own, do it or have it done yourself and send the tenant a bill. In the bill specify when it must be paid and remind them that any damage can be deducted from their security deposit. If the tenant cannot pay it all at once, make them call you to arrange a payment schedule.

If none of that works, you have the final option of the 30-day Notice with Cause terminating the tenancy. That gives them 15 days to correct the problem or move out 30 days. Should the security deposit be inadequate to cover the cost of their damage, you would have to first, bill the tenants for the excess, and then, when they don't pay, obtain a judgment for the rest.

If you have done your job right at the beginning, though, the tenant will want to work out a solution with you. Some tenants have a history of not getting along with landlords, probably mostly their own doing. But on rare occasions, it is because of the attitude of landlords whom they have rented from. Regardless of the reason, doing your job right means that you have made it clear at the beginning of the tenancy that you want them for a tenant, that problems are solvable, and that they can talk to you. If you expect good results you are likely to get them.

Robert Cain, publisher of the Rental Property Reporter, has been providing solutions for the rental property industry for seventeen years. He is author of the landlord manuals Profitable Tenant Selection, Can Section 8 Work for You?, Using the Gross Monthly Rent Multiplier, the tape series “Avoiding the Tenant from Hell,” and several other booklets and manuals for landlords and property managers. In addition, he writes and produces newsletters for other companies that serve the rental property industry. He is a highly sought-after speaker, seminar leader and consultant on property management and real estate topics.

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