Seth Godin posted an interesting thought piece on professionalism called “Retribution” that talks about the difference between reacting and responding.
Retribution is when you react by punishing someone for a wrong or criminal act. An example of a wrongful act might be a tenant not paying their rent or breaking something at your property. Your punishment might be to NOT fix a cracked window or help them get rid of an ant problem. After all, they didn’t pay their rent. They deserve it!
“That’s a very different posture than the one the productive professional takes. She says, “I choose to take actions that are effective.” She chooses a response designed to produce the outcome she seeks, actions that work.”
This can be exemplified by holding up our end of the contract: to provide a habitable space, even if they don’t pay rent. This has a couple benefits. First, if court action is taken you can stand in front of the judge and be confident that you did everything legally correct on your end. Second, you demonstrated to your tenant the proper behavior of holding to the terms of the rental agreement, even if it’s difficult. As Godin says,
“Or we can respond. With something that works. With an approach we’re proud of, proud of even after the moment has passed. It’s not easy, it’s often not fun, but it’s the professional’s choice.”
Let’s get specific with some concrete examples.
- Not keeping up with repairs and maintenance.
- Calling your tenant on the phone and yelling at them because they didn’t pay their rent.
- Showing up at the rental and demanding they pay… or else.
- Giving your tenant an eviction letter right away instead of waiting the proper numbers of days.
- Telling your friends about how horrible your tenant is.
- Telling other tenants about how horrible your tenant is (seriously, do NOT do this).
- Harming any of their personal property.
- Exaggerating how bad the tenant was when called by a new landlord for a reference.
Not only are these bad, but many of them will get you into legal trouble as well. If you find that tenants are don’t want to talk to you, you may have some bad reaction habits.
- Calmly informing them of their infraction with a written letter.
- A corollary: documenting everything at the first sign of trouble.
- Working through the proper due process in terms of timing and wording.
- Living up to your end of the contract which includes regular maintenance and repairs.
Create a Plan Ahead of Time
A key to being able to respond instead of react is preparation. You do this by planning out your response to common situations ahead of time. What will you do when:
- Your tenant only has part of their rent when it’s due?
- They break something at the rental and try to hide it from you?
- They call you at 2am, or during a holiday, with a plugged up sink?
- They have a pest problem that is clearly due to their lack of hygiene?
- They decide that their security deposit should be what covers their last month’s rent?
- They do or say something you haven’t even thought of yet?!
Come up with as many of these situations as you can. That last bullet is also really important: How will you respond to an unexpected situation? Here’s my answer if it’s not an emergency: “That’s interesting. I don’t have good answer for you right now (or, I don’t know how to respond right now). Let me take a day to think about it, do some research, and get back to you by this time tomorrow. Is that OK?” This response stops me from making a promise I can’t keep or agreeing to something I shouldn’t. Then I do what I said would. I talk to my wife about the issue and research the best solution. Then I get back to them. Sometimes I call and let them know I need more time because I’m waiting on someone else to get back to me and I let them know when that should be.
The key is that I don’t leave them hanging. I don’t ignore them and hope the issue goes away. My response is to openly communicate with them and provide timelines. Since I screen for responsible tenants, they tend to respond well to this.
In Case of Emergency…
In an emergency you don’t have time to take 24 hours to respond (this is pretty much anything dealing with water because it causes so much damage so quickly). In this case, you should still decide what your response will be to an unknown emergency. My response is to get it fixed right away. If I can do it, I do it right then. If I’m busy, I will call someone right away who can. I even take it step further by preparing my tenants ahead of time. I let each of them know that if there’s an emergency and they cannot contact me, they have my full permission to get whoever is needed out to the property to fix the issue and to send me the bill. Is it a generous response? Perhaps, but I want them to know I care very much about the rental and its upkeep. I also want them to know that I expect things to get fixed right away and that they don’t need to hide anything from me.
Take the time now to create your professional response. By doing this, and reacting well, you’ll teach your tenants that they can indeed talk to you without fear of retribution.