Getting your tenants to comply with the terms of their rental agreement
By Tia Politi, Lead Property Manager for Acorn Property Management, Rental Owner, ROA Board President, Eviction Specialist
I often say that my experience as a mom has helped me in my career as a property manager. I sometimes feel as though I am responsible for parenting more than 800 unruly teenagers, and in my experience, educating residents about being good tenants and neighbors regularly becomes part of my job as a landlord, and likely yours as well.
Many of the calls received on the ROA Helpline have to do with tenants violating the terms of their rental agreement. Offenses range from loud parties, to unpaid rent or late fees, to hoarding, unauthorized animals or occupants, or lack of care of the property in some fashion. Unfortunately, some rental owners turn a blind eye to their tenants’ behavior in order to avoid confrontation, or over concerns related to an unplanned vacancy. If you cannot deal calmly, directly, and firmly with your tenants and set clear boundaries for accepted behavior, they will often run roughshod over you and your rental unit. Not only will your property suffer, but so will your self-esteem as you realize they have the upper hand and you are too soft-hearted to deal with the problem. This in turn can lead to issues of waiver if you have been aware of a violation but have chosen to turn a blind eye for three consecutive rental periods or longer. Now that the city of Eugene has the Social Host Ordinance to work with, you could also suffer financial penalties by ignoring your tenants’ bad behavior.
When we discover a tenant non-compliance issue at Acorn, we have a four-step process for bringing our errant tenants back into compliance or getting them to move on. First, is the friendly phone call, “Hi, this is Tia from Acorn calling to let you know that I received a report from the Eugene Police that they had responded to a neighbor complaint regarding a loud, obnoxious party at your residence last night. I would like to remind you that while you are entitled to have friends over and celebrate, you are not allowed to disturb the peaceful enjoyment of your neighbors. Should this behavior continue, I will take progressive action up to and including termination of your tenancy. I’m hoping that won’t be necessary, but I want you to know the risks involved should you choose to continue this behavior.” In most cases, and with reasonable, considerate tenants, that is the only action I ever have to take. I do make a note in the tenants’ file that I made the call.
Upon a second confirmed incident – that is the same or substantially the same – my next step is to send an official Warning Notice. This becomes part of the tenants’ rental record. This is also the step required before you are legally permitted to charge a tenant a non-compliance fee for certain lease violations including failure to clean up pet waste or trash; parking violations or improper use of a vehicle; late payments of utility bills or other service charges; smoking in a non-smoking area; and unauthorized pets.
If there is a third similar violation, I assess the appropriate fee (if allowed by law) and send a 30/14, or Notice of Termination with Cause. This is still a curable notice, but if not cured will result in termination of the tenancy. If cured within the time frame specified, or the notice expires with no further violations of that same nature, then the notice hangs out in limbo for six months. If the tenants repeat the same or substantially the same behavior within six months of the origination date of the 30/14, I can then issue a 10-day Repeat Violation Notice, for which there is no cure allowed.
When I send a 30/14, I include a letter that informs the tenants of the permanent consequences of a repeat performance and include the following statement, “It is my sincere hope that you will not make me take this final step resulting in termination of your tenancy.” It is a reminder that this situation is completely within their control, not mine, and also clearly communicates that this is truly their final chance to stop. When I have tenants in a fixed-term lease, I also remind them that termination under this notice does not relieve them (or their co-signers) from liability for either a lease-break fee or actual damages under the terms of their lease. With college students in particular, this really seems to get their attention as they suddenly realize that they could be without housing AND still have their parents be on the hook for their current lease.
One other thing to remember when evicting or assessing fines against problem residents, is that we all live in the United States of America. When you are taking legal action against another party, (and notices are legal documents that could eventually be presented as evidence in a court proceeding) you had better have evidence of your claim in case you end up in a courtroom with a tenant who is denying the violation. So, where’s your proof? I have had issues with some people on campus who like to complain about any noise at all and seem to have a vendetta against college students. Just because the police are called, does not mean there was a violation. If in doubt, call the police and ask for the details or a copy of the police report. Many times, police arrive to respond to a complaint and find no violation.
I had a hostile neighbor once come storming across the street when I was inspecting a campus-area home that we were listing. She loudly told me that she didn’t want any college students living in her neighborhood and that she would be watching. I thanked her and told her that we were a Fair Housing company and could not legally discriminate against college students, but that we took our responsibility seriously to ensure that whoever rented the home would be good neighbors. We did rent to a very nice group of UO track team members who were then relentlessly harassed by this woman who filed numerous unsubstantiated noise complaints to the point where even the Eugene police got tired of hearing from her. In all of her more than 12 reports, there was only one substantiated incident. So keep in mind the source of the complaint and remember that unsubstantiated claims are not evidence of a violation. Compilation of evidence can include police reports, citations or arrests, witness testimony, photographs, etc. If you have a neighbor who has been complaining about truly problematic behaviors ask them to document their concerns and ask if they are willing to testify to what they saw in court. If the answer is no, then you may have a problem of evidence. In my experience many folks like to complain, but don’t want to get personally involved.
While you can’t always fix what’s wrong with your tenants, most of the time you can have the desired impact. You get to set the tone of the relationship, so maintain a friendly yet business-like demeanor and keep the ball in their court. And remember, once you start down the slippery slope of non-compliance, it’s almost impossible to get back up that hill, so don’t let it happen. You don’t have to be nasty or rude, but don’t allow even minor violations to slide.
This column offers general suggestions only and is no substitute for professional legal assistance. Please consult an attorney for advice related to your specific situation.