Investigating Problem Tenants

by John Souerbry

Eventually all landlords have them ” problem tenants.

The problem could be merely late or unpaid rent, but equally as common are complaints from neighbors about noise, smells, trash, illegal parking, or just plain suspicious activity.

Here are some tips that owners and property managers should consider as they investigate problem tenants and work to resolve the problem:

1. Start a file immediately. From the first moment you become aware of a problem, start a file. Note every contact with the source of the complaint, the tenant, and any potential witnesses.

2. Seek out the facts before assigning blame. In my experience, wacky neighbors are just as common as problem tenants. You are likely to receive complaints that have no factual support, so dont make accusations until all the facts are in. If not careful, you could lose a good tenant unnecessarily or expose yourself to legal problems.

3. Investigate carefully. Rather than asking a neighbor if theyve seen activity that could be criminal or a lease violation, restrict your questions to asking just what they saw without coming to any conclusions. If you take pictures, use the date/time stamp feature on your camera and take pictures that frame the location (take pictures at an angle that may include a building number, street sign, or other location marker). Whenever possible, take a witness with you on inspections (NOT a neighbor or another tenant) if you suspect lease violations. Have the witness write and sign a statement of what they saw if violations are actually found.

If you suspect abuse of the property, call in a professional property manager, plumber, electrician or general building inspector ” whichever you believe would be appropriate ” to witness your inspection and to provide a professional opinion as to the nature and repair cost of the damage.

4. Determine if the problem potentially involves criminal activity. For example, if the complaint is about strange smells, frequent foot traffic throughout the hours of darkness, or general suspicious activity ” you could find yourself in the middle of a criminal investigation best handled by the police. If youre not sure about the nature of the problem but want to enter a rental to inspect as part of your investigation, consider asking the police to sit outside while you go in. Some agencies will, others may say they are too busy unless you share a significant amount of evidence with them.

Keep in mind that as a landlord you only need to provide proper notice to enter your rental, in most situations police need probable cause or a warrant. If you strongly suspect that criminal activity is taking place, help the police gather enough information to get a warrant and let THEM enter the premises first.

5. Tie complaints to lease requirements. Every good lease document includes requirements for being a good neighbor. Most have a house rules section that restricts noise, requires parking only in marked spaces, etc. We also use an Illegal Activity Addendum that says the lease is terminated immediately if illegal activity takes place on the premises. Whatever the complaint, be prepared to tell the tenant how their activity violates a specific requirement of their lease.

Problem tenants are a drag on your time as an owner or manager and will often drive off good tenants in a multi-family facility. Landlords can greatly reduce tenant problems and lease violations by screening rental applications thoroughly, conducting frequent on-site inspections, and taking immediate action to investigate problem situations.

Finally ” obtain the services of a professional property manager. Even if you perform day-to-day management yourself, its a good idea to have a pro on-call to work with problem tenants, evictions, and situations that you prefer not to handle. A good property manager can give you reliable advice and relieve some of the emotional burden of dealing with problem tenants ” even tell you when its time to call an attorney.

If you have questions regarding rental property management and tenant relations, please send me an email: [email protected] We provide support to owners and managers, including problem tenant investigations, past-due rent collections, and eviction assistance.

John Souerbry is Broker/Owner with, a real estate brokerage specializing in Northern California luxury homes, including land and investment properties, vineyards, and multi-family residential, mixed use and commercial properties.

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