In an earlier post, we talked about using the good cop/bad cop method to resolve tenant disputes. But if you own and manage the property by yourself, that doesn’t really work. If you fully commit to the split personality, you might be sent to a mental institution. So if you’re flying solo, you have to take a different approach.
Strategy #2: Setting Boundaries / Expectations
Uncertainty is nobody’s best friend. It’s pretty awful, in fact. Even the dictionary lists these synonyms for it: “doubt, qualm, misgiving, apprehension, quandary.” Not soothing words. If you’re not sure what you expect from your tenant, and if your tenant is unsure of what you expect from him or her, you’re both going to be uncomfortable. And odds are good that one or both of you are going to be disappointed with the result.
So set clear expectations. Try to anticipate issues that might arise, and tell your tenant in advance how you expect those problems to be handled. If there is a non-emergency maintenance issue, tell the tenant that you want them to email or text you with a description of the problem, and you will get back to them within 24 hours. If there is a maintenance emergency, then the tenant should email and text you, and follow up with a phone call shortly thereafter if there is no response. Better yet, put this procedure in writing, so if the tenant forgets, he or she can refer to it again. (Also, having it in writing covers your butt if you need to enforce your policy and it ends up costing the tenant money.)
Costs can Escalate if You do not Act
If you don’t spell it out for the tenant, then you may be unpleasantly surprised. Maybe the angle stop under the sink was dripping, so the tenant called you a couple of times, but didn’t leave a voicemail. You didn’t return the call right away because you didn’t recognize the number, or you were in a meeting, or in a movie theater. The tenant then called a handyman and paid to have it repaired, and then the tenant expected you to deduct the cost of the handyman from the rent next month. Now you’re in an awkward position. You could have fixed it yourself for the cost of the part only, instead of paying a pro $100 or so to do it.
When problems like this arise, I use the “one time only” rule. If the tenant did something “wrong,” but it wasn’t too far out of line and won’t cost a huge amount of money, then I usually tell the tenant that I will flex for them this one time, but that next time, if they don’t notify me of the repair and give me adequate time to respond, I won’t pay for it.
This works with just about everything. Let’s say the tenant is going to be a couple of days late on rent because they just changed jobs. If the tenant has never, ever been late before, then I might tell the tenant that for this one time only, I will waive the late fee so long as they pay by [x date], but I absolutely won’t do it again, so don’t even ask. Or what if the tenant went ahead and replaced a screen door because of a small tear in it? Okay, this one time only, I will reimburse you for the screen, but if you replace something in the future without getting approval first, I will not reimburse you for it.
In my experience, this “one time only” rule tends to work, for two reasons. One is that the tenant is usually too embarrassed to ask for a second favor after being told “one time only.” The second is that if a tenant asks a second time for the same favor, I feel more comfortable saying no, because I know I told them, very clearly, that they would be granted that benefit only once.
In a sense, this strategy is really similar to the good cop/bad cop routine. At the time that the tenant makes a mistake, when you’re giving them the “one time only” treatment, you’re Good Cop. But while you’re being Good Cop, you’re warning the tenant that Future You is going to be Bad Cop.
For landlords: have you tried any different strategies to resolve disputes with your tenants? For landlords or tenants: which dispute resolution methods have worked for you and which didn’t?