What to Do, When They Don’t Do What They Are Supposed to Do?

Tenants have the troubling quality of being human.  You may have a fantastic five year real estate investment strategy lined out for yourself in which you spend only 7.5 hours a month managing your rental property and in 15 years it will all be paid for and you can sit back and sip cocktails on the deck.  That very well may happen, but you might be surprised how you spend that 7.5. hours a month.

Recently, I had some tenants move in and lo’ and behold, about a week after depositing their move in check, I got a notice from my bank indicating that the check had bounced. In seven years, this unfortunate reality has only happened to me one other time and it was a simple clerical error on the part of the tenant.  This time, however, there is nothing simple.  The tenants clearly don’t have the money anymore (and maybe never did) and they are not handling the situation well.  Not to mention, they just had a baby.  It was an oversight on my part to let them pay with a check, but I am human, too.  They had an excellent rental history and slightly below average credit.

So, how have I been handling this situation? Here is a rough outline of my process:

1.  I got the notice from my bank and had an internal temper tantrum.

2. I tried to step back and assess the big picture (if this were a movie, you would see me scratching my head with a voice over as follows . . .)

  • Was this a simple mistake on the part of the tenant, like just forgetting to transfer money? (seems unlikely)
  • Have I had any other issues with the tenant? (yes, they have already left a lot of trash around and they have a young child who is often outside unattended)
  • Do I think I made a mistake renting to them? (good chance I did)
  • What time of year is it? (it is getting to be the end of the summer, which is a better time to re-rent a unit then 3 months from now)
  • Am I willing to struggle with these tenants for the next few months? (not really)
  • How are they responding to my communication with them about this situation? (not particularly pro-actively, but she just gave birth)

After thinking about all this, it was clear to me that I needed to respond immediately and firmly.  I sent both people (husband and wife) a text (their preferred method of communication) and let them know that the check bounced and that I would be posting a 3 Day Pay or Vacate Notice on their door. Within 3 hours, I posted the notice on their door with a copy of the NSF notice from the bank and mail them a copy (as required by WA state law when you are unable to serve the notice in person).  I also attempted to contact their bank to see if there were now sufficient funds in their account.  This process took 2 days because I did not have the right documentation.  Once I did, I could tell by the teller’s response that there was nowhere near enough money to cover the check. Another red flag.

During this time, they were contacting me intermittently.  I told them this situation was extremely serious and indicated that they either are not doing a good job managing their money or they deliberately wrote me a bad check.  Either explanation was very concerning.  They, of course, assured me that they would never write a bad check and they have no idea what happened.  After I let they know what I found out at the bank, their responses shifted to “we are trying to get the money together.” Another red flag.  Because the third day of the notice fell on a weekend and I had to mail it, I needed to give them an extra day to respond (which they did not know).  They were grateful when they found out they had until the end of the day Monday.

On Sunday afternoon, I got a text from the wife and she said that the pastor of her church would be contacting me and had agreed to help them out.  I have worked with churches in the past, but this was another red flag since it indicated they did not have the funds available (despite telling me that the money should have been there.  Well, why isn’t it still there, then?) Before calling the pastor back, I clarified with myself what my goals were:

1. To get complete payment of move in funds as soon as possible

2. To serve the tenants with a 20 Day Move Out Notice soon after (I was thinking it was time to cut my loses and move on).

With these two goals in mind, I decided to listen to the pastor, keep my emotions in check and respond only to the questions he asked me.  The two things I learned in the conversation that were further red flags (yes, I have an entire color guard squad, at this point) 1.  She obviously had just met this pastor this morning at church 2.  She told him that she thought her husband must have spent more then she thought. The husband was conveniently “sick” and not at church (inconvenient for her is the fact that I know that she is the only person on the bank account).

I should be getting the check from the church in the next two days and then I have a few days to make my final decision about requiring them to move out. Clearly, I have already made my decision.  It is just a matter of being 100% firm with them in the face of all of their rationalization (and being willing to start the expensive eviction process, if necessary).

In summary, here’s my tenant survival guide for today:

1. Keep your emotions and personal affront in check

2. Look at the facts and listen for what is unsaid

3. Work the process (following the landlord tenant laws in your state)

4. Focus on your business’ best interests

5. Be patient with yourself about having to make hard choices, but be willing to take swift and decisive action (sometimes it is better just to rip the band aid off).

Good luck out there in the rental jungle!

 

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About Learn to Be a Landlord
I currently am a real estate investor in Spokane, WA. I own and manage 79 rental units. My background is not in business, but in social services and community organizing. I also had way too much liberal arts education. Somehow that all fits together to make me a landlord!

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