It Makes Me Nervous When You Say That

Today, I showed a one bedroom apartment to some potential tenants.  On the phone I had gotten the idea that there were some bumps in their past, but I always give people the benefit of the doubt and meet with them in person (unless they are a registered sex offender or some have some other major issue that does not meet my background screening criteria).  They called the day before to confirm the appointment, which was good, but then called in the morning to reschedule for two hours later.  It wasn’t a big deal to make the change, so I just went with it.

I asked them to bring their dog, a pit bull, so I could meet it.  The dog seemed friendly enough, but was constantly straining on the leash and seemed barely under the man’s control. Although they assured me that their little nieces can stick their hands in his mouth. Moving on, the dog goes back in the car and we go up to look at the apartment.

I always let people look around first to make sure the unit meets their needs and then I start to ask questions and go over the process.  The female in the couple starts to tell me that she “got in trouble” in the past.  A long time ago, when she was 18 and she is 23 now. (I think of a long time as 20 years, but that’s just me.)  She was in some kind of high speed car chase with a police officer, so my follow-up question was “Any drug charges?” Well, yes, and yes it was meth.  But lots of people will tell me that she is doing really well now, trying to turn her life around.

Rental History: They had lived in their current place for about a year and it was too expensive.  Also, her boyfriend has to do UA’s (urinalysis for drug testing) right down the street, so it would be really convenient for them to live here. His drug of choice-meth.

We moved on to source of income and she says she has worked for a few months at a bar owned by her friends.  And he keeps telling me he is on academic probation at the community college (but he says it like it is a good thing).  We talk about their credit and from their vagueness, I have a sense that there were probably a lot more issues there then they realize.

So all of this should make me nervous, and it does, but the thing that scares me the most is that he keeps saying “We will be really good tenants.”  Like about five or six times.  As his girlfriend is saying how he just got out of treatment, he is saying “We will be really great tenants for you.”  When I ask him about his criminal history, he says “We’ll be good tenants.”  He says it so many times that I finally say to him “It makes me nervous when you say that.”

I have rented to people with felonies and with other significant barriers and the ones who seem to do best are the ones who don’t beg for a chance.  The say what they did and what is different now and leave it at that.  I felt like this guy was trying to do some not-so-subliminal mind control hoping that the only thing that would stick in my brain would be “But they will be great tenants!” Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Advertisements

Halloween in May

The weather today in Spokane felt so much like fall, that I thought I would post some fun Halloween Pictures.  This unit was one that needed a complete repaint anyway and it came empty right around Halloween a few years ago.  It is my favorite holiday, so I decided to go all out and create a “Haunted Apartment” that was open to the whole town.  The tagline was “Who Says Only Houses Can Be Haunted?”

And yes, it was a nightmare to clean up, but well worth the fun! Thanks to my friends who helped out by being mad butchers,  zombie brides, mummies, and crazy bingo masters.

PS. The fake blood was made from corn syrup, chocolate syrup and cherry powdered drink mix.

 

Accountability Theory

Over the years, I have seen that people actually appreciate being held accountable.  It shows you respect them enough to give them a chance.  Holding someone accountable is very different from establishing rules.  I believe that setting expectations is a sign of respect, whereas making rules starts from the belief that people are going to fail.

Of course, there will be plenty of rules at your properties, both your own and those required by the landlord/tenant laws in your state. What I am talking about are situations involving a specific tenant, usually around rent payments or disruptive behavior. When an issue arises, the first step is to communicate directly with the tenant. It is important that you are in a calm and controlled place emotionally before you start this interaction. So give yourself time to blow off steam and release any frustrations you may have about the situation.

There is a saying, I think written by T. Harv Eker in Secrets of a Millionaire Mind and it is this: “You can be right or you can be rich, but not both.”  I remind myself of this when I am in a heated situation with a tenant.  I always try to stay focused on my desired result (i.e. rent payment, prompt move out, the end of disruptive behavior) and adjust my behavior in such a way to maximize the chances of achieving that outcome.

Once you are having a conversation with the tenant, it is important to clearly establish what you want them to do and when you want them to do it.  Most tenant issues follow this pattern.  You want them to pay their rent by a certain date or move out by a certain time or turn down their music after a certain hour. If there is any confusion about your expectations, put them in writing and give a copy to the tenant.  If it is a chronic issue, that written statement should be an official notice (i.e. a 3 Day Pay or Vacate or 10 Day Comply or Vacate).  For a tenant who is behind on their rent, you might just write up a simple letter that they sign, with the understanding that if they do not comply, they will be served with an official notice.

Once your expectation is clear with the tenant, it is your job to follow up if they are not being accountable to their agreement.  It is so easy to let this critical piece slip through the cracks, especially if you are frustrated with the tenant.  Don’t let that happen! Write a note in your calendar to remind yourself to follow up. I am often writing myself notes like “Joe, pay $300” or “Check with neighbors at lofts about noise” on specific days in my planner.  It is important for the tenant to know that you take your agreement seriously.  If you don’t follow up with them, they will know that they can continue to get away with whatever they were doing.  A simple phone call or text message is often all it takes to keep them on track.

It Doesn’t Matter if They Like You

Ideally your tenants will like and respect you, but when in doubt, go for respect.

One of the things I tell potential tenants is that I am really clear about my role as a landlord.  I am not there to be their mother or their friend.  My job is to be their landlord, which means I make sure everything is working in their home and I help resolve any issues that come up.  Any tenant who has had a landlord with poor boundaries really appreciates hearing this from me. One of my biggest landlord peeves is when people tell me that they had a landlord that would just show up in their living room.  Not only is that illegal, it is also a complete invasion of people’s privacy.

As a landlord, you are sort of like a police officer.  No one really wants to run into you, but when there is a problem, you are the first person they think to call.  It can take a little while to get used to this role, but it is best for everyone if you maintain it once you have it.  I am not saying don’t be friendly with your tenants and even get to know them personally, but draw the line at becoming friends with them.  I have a lot of cool tenants, some of whom have even invited me over for a glass of wine or to hang out at their bonfire.  I know I can’t because when they pay their rent late, it will be that much harder to give them a 3 Day Pay or Vacate Notice.

By being available for my tenants by phone and professional in my behavior, I can help establish a calm sense of community at my properties.   I do not participate in gossip or share my own personal or political beliefs.  I try to be neutral and focus on the interests of the tenant or potential tenant.  Unless someone says something that is outright offensive or blatantly discriminating, I just let people speak their mind.

There will be occasions when people don’t like what you have to tell them (i.e. “Yes, you do need to pay your rent.” “No, you can give.me a week’s notice and move out and expect your security deposit back.”), But if you strive to communicate in a calm and professional manner, chances are good that they will hear you and in the end you will get the results you want.  Sometimes the best thing to do is to say nothing at all and let the agitated tenant talk themselves down.

If you have done your job when people move in, the tenant should have a clear understanding of your policies and landlord tenant law. And if you have good systems and forms, you should have written instructions for many common situations. Even though they know the rules, people often try to push the boundary to see what they can get away with.  Hold firm and stay on message and they will bring themselves around.  You are running a business, not a social club.  Your bank doesn’t care if your tenants love you; they want you to pay your mortgage on time.

Landlord as Leader

As a landlord/owner of multifamily rentals, you are probably thinking about many things—tenant screening, building maintenance, finances, vacancies and more.  What you may not realize, is that you also need to think about becoming a leader.  People like to know that someone is in charge, especially when there are more than two household living on the property.  When you bought the property you became the person in charge and things will go a lot better if you embrace your leadership role.

It is a little hard to describe what it means to be a leader of an apartment building, which is probably why no one talks about it.  I get phone calls from my tenants about things that really have nothing to do with me, but it seems to make them feel better to tell me.  The other day a tenant called me to describe a situation involving her dog and a neighbor’s dog.  Interestingly, it was the tenant who called me whose dog was not on a leash.  Really, all I could do was listen.  There was not a problem for me to solve or any follow-up needed.  She was just rattled and needed to process with someone.

Sometimes there is a more critical issue that needs to be addressed.  Yes, it’s true, you might have someone get arrested at your apartment complex.  In these unfortunate cases, the best thing you can do is to communicate with the other tenants in a proactive and professional manner.  A leader does not perpetuate the rumor mill, but instead shares relevant and useful information.  Or maybe it is something more benign, like a maintenance project that you can inform your tenants about in advance. Sharing the details about timing and duration of the project and thanking your tenants for their patience and understanding can go a long way.

As the owner and/or manager, you are the only one with a bird’s eye view of the property. Your awareness of how specific events impact your tenants’ homes and your willingness to show up as a leader can have a profoundly positive impact on your apartment community.

Parking Lot Karma

Spend time in the parking lot of your rental properties (or in the front yard).  You will learn more, accomplish more, and build more relationships in twenty minutes than you ever thought possible.

Take an extra few minutes at your property every month, just standing around and talking with whoever shows up.  It could be a tenant, a neighbor, a dumpster diver, or even a police officer. It does not matter. Just be there and listen.   There won’t be any immediate rewards, but down the line when you need a ladder in a pinch or you have concerns about the tenants in apartment nine, the relationships you have built will serve you well.

In addition, even if certain tenants don’t talk to you, it makes a difference for them to see you on site, being willing to engage with people. Then when they have an issue, they will be more likely to communicate with you directly.

Rental Showing Packets

Create a simple packet for showing vacant units. It will make your life a lot easier because you won’t have to remember what to say every time.  And most potential tenants will be impressed by your organizational skills and appreciate having all the details about your property in writing.

The packet should have three parts:

  1. An attractive cover sheet that has all the vital details about the unit, security deposits, application fees, and your contact information,
  2. A one page sheet outlining your uniform background screening criteria,
  3. And the Rental Application and Release of Information Form. I use a separate release form so that I can fax that to employers/previous landlords without disclosing sensitive personal information about the potential tenant.

Here’s an example of the cover sheet I use at one of my apartment buildings:

Rental Packet Cover Sheet for Blog

Showing units can be a hassle, so I try to make it as easy for myself as possible. I just print out four or five packets, put them in a folder, and keep them in the bag that is always with me.  That way I am always ready for those unexpected appointments that seem to pop up.

Drama Detector

I have found that how a person behaves in the process of looking for an apartment usually mirrors how they will behave as a tenant. Sure, we all have bad days when we get stuck in traffic or get lost on the way to somewhere new.  I am not talking about those types of issues (besides, the good potential tenants will call you and let you know what is going on!).  I am referring to the person who calls to set up an appointment and then cancels and then calls again and then cancels.  Or when two members of the same couple call and don’t realize the other person has already talked to me.  Or my personal favorite is when some spends ten minutes on the phone with me asking me every conceivable question about the unit and then announces that their income is $700/month and the rent is $650.

Don’t ever work harder than a perspective tenant. Once I do a thorough job showing an apartment and explaining the application process, the ball is in the tenant’s court.  I never call a potential tenant back at that point.  It is their job to show up with a completed application and the screening fee.  If they don’t, I just move on to the next person. I have had people call and explain how they will need a letter from me or a form filled out so they can access a down payment assistance program and I say “I will be happy to do that for you once your application is accepted.”

I have had several occasions when someone shows up to look at an apartment and they spend a long time with me and seem very interested and then they even come back and look again with friends.  And they call me every twenty minutes asking a new question each time.  Then they text me and tell me they are going to bring their application in tomorrow.  And then I never hear from them again.

Filling a vacancy is all about non-attachment.  Do your job.  Be professional, courteous and friendly. Ask the potential tenant lots of relevant questions.  Explain how your business works.  And then let it go.  I know you need to fill that unit as soon as possible, but the harder you push; the more likely you are going to end up with a problem tenant on your hands.

Questions You Should Never Ask

Yesterday I got a message from a potential tenant.  She said she was looking for a one bedroom apartment and that she had a companion animal.  When I returned her call, I gave her a description of the apartment that I have coming available.  Once I answered her questions about the unit, we started to talk about her companion animal.  I asked her if she had the documentation, such as a prescription from a doctor or a letter from a therapist, to show that her dog is a service animal.  She said she thought she could get one from her doctor.  I said that was great and let her know if by some chance her dog was not eligible as a service animal, I did still accept pets with an additional refundable deposit.  I explained that if she had the service animal documentation, no deposit would be required.

We chatted for a little longer about the apartment and then she paused and blurted out “I have cancer, but I am in remission, that’s why I have a companion animal.” It was my turn to pause, and then I just said something like “I am sorry to hear that you have cancer and I am really glad to hear you are in remission.” To which she responded “The other two potential landlords I talked to asked me why I have a companion animal.” And then it became clear to me why she was disclosing extremely personal and confidential information to me, a complete stranger.  The other landlords had asked her a question they never should have, so she expected that I would want that information, as well.

I pointed out to her that I had not asked her why she had a companion animal and explained that the other landlords were wrong to ask her that question.  She said, “Hmm, that is true, you didn’t ask me.”  I explained to her that documented service animals should be treated as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Most people recognize that in a professional context it is wrong (and illegal) to ask someone why they are in a wheelchair.  This situation is no different.

So although it is always a good idea to establish a personal connection with potential tenants, be sure to never ask questions about the type of disability they have or why they are requesting a reasonable accommodation.  Not only could you be setting yourself up for a discrimination complaint, it really is none of your business.  As long as a person has the proper documentation for a service animal, you are required to accept that animal, regardless of your pet policy. Service animals are not pets and you should not ask why they have the animal with them (the law does provide landlords with some protection in the event that the service animal is disruptive or dangerous).

Communication Theory for Landlords

As landlords, one of our greatest tools is communication.  Our words, our expressions, our tone, our gestures, and even our posture convey a great deal of information to the residents of our properties.  We often inadvertently create misunderstandings, many of which go unrecognized.

Let’s use the following example of a simple misunderstanding as a starting point to explore some of the fundamentals of communication:

I was working at a property and we had been spending the last few days trimming excess brush from trees and bushes throughout the site.  On this particular day, we were using a truck to pick up the piles of brush and haul them to the dump.  I was working with a staff person who had not been closely involved in this project.  I pulled the truck up near the garage and asked her to go get the brush that was located nearby and put it in the truck.  I may have waved vaguely over in the direction I was referring to, I don’t remember exactly.  I went to do something else and then came back to see if she was done. When I got back to the truck she was holding a large push broom and the pile of brush was still where I had left it.  Confused, I asked her why she had not gotten the brush and she looked at me with an equally confused expression and said she had.  It was only then that I realized the broom she was holding did in fact look like a large brush and she had gotten it from the garage which was in the direction I had waved towards.  We both had a good laugh about our misunderstanding before we continued on our way.

Luckily the above miscommunication was harmless and it was fairly simple to explain.  Let’s take a moment, however, to explore why it took place.

There are three elements of communication that took place in this situation-the ambiguity of language, different assumptions, and different communication styles.  In this case, the word “brush” had two meanings.  It could have been referring to a pile of branches on the ground or a broom with a brush-like appearance.  The word itself is ambiguous.  Many words that we use everyday fall into this category—“soon”, “a few”, “clean”, and “quickly”—all mean different things to different people.  If you tell a tenant he can fix his car in the parking lot provided it only takes a few days, he may think this means three or four, when you were really meaning two.

Again, referring to the above example, I assumed that my co-worker would know what I meant when I said “the brush over there” because I had spent the last few days cutting and picking up branches.  Because this was a new task for her, she did not share my assumptions about the meaning of brush.  We frequently make assumptions in our communication with tenants.  We assume that they can hear us, that they understand what we mean, and if they don’t that they will ask questions.  We think to ourselves: “If what I am saying makes sense to me, it must make sense to them as well.”  What we fail to realize, however, is that our communication comes out of our own particular constructs that exist only in our heads.  In this example, there was a misunderstanding between co-workers who shared the same work environment, were the same gender, and were similar ages.  Think of all the increased potentials for misunderstandings between landlords and tenants of different genders, ages, occupations, and educational backgrounds.

Another important element in communication is communication style.  In the above example, the communication style I used was quite vague.  I did not specifically point to the pile or clarify with her that she knew what I meant.  I used a rather indirect approach, when it might have been more appropriate to be specific in my communication.  Many of us use a wide range of communication styles depending on the situation, our mood, our personalities, and the other people involved.  When it comes to understanding, the style in which information is presented can be as important as the content of the message.  Anyone who has tried to read an insurance policy knows that even the simplest idea can be made complicated just by altering the style of presentation.

The ambiguity of language, assumptions, and communication styles are a few of the key elements of communication that will be important for you to understand as a landlord.  Because we all too often assume that other people understand what we mean when we communicate with them, we frequently attribute conflicts to other causes rather than to failed communication.  Instead of thinking “He or she may not have understood what I said,” we think “He is being difficult,” or “She must be mad at me,” or “He is always trying to get out of paying rent on time.”

Taking the time to carefully choose your words and presentation will go a long way in easing your communication with your tenants.  Also, don’t hesitate to ask them to paraphrase back to you what they heard.  That way you can check immediately to see if they understood your point.  Remember, it is in your best interest to learn to communicate in a way that your tenants can understand.

%d bloggers like this: