The primary reasons why landlords end up overwhelmed with grief over the landlord-tenant relationship involve common mistakes made by the landlord. The following are the top ten mistakes made by landlords, which, if avoided, could make the landlord-tenant relationship a lot more manageable. If you are a landlord, especially in Nassau or Suffolk County, these tips can prove to be invaluable.
1. Failure to Properly Screen Your Prospective Tenants
The first common mistake Long Island landlords make occurs before the landlord-tenant relationship even begins. Never be afraid to ask the important questions and to request proof that a prospective tenant is qualified. Think of your initial meeting with a prospective tenant as a job interview, in which you are evaluating the qualifications of an applicant. Ask to see their driver’s license and make a copy of it. Find out where the tenant lives presently, and where they lived before that. Get the names and phone numbers of their current and previous landlords and actually call them for references. Also, ask the prospective tenant the questions that are important to you, like how many people are there in the tenant’s immediate family who will be living in the rental unit; whether anyone smokes; whether there are pets; and whether the prospective tenant has any hobbies or habits that might be problematic, like playing the drums at midnight. Finally, the big issue is the financial stability of the prospective tenant. Ask to see several months of pay stubs, so that you can determine if he or she has a steady job and earns enough to pay the rent. “I don’t have several months’ worth of paystubs because I just started a new job,” or “I get paid off the books,” are the last things you want to hear. Just having started a new job could mean they were previously unemployed or that they were fired from their last job; working off the books is inherently unstable and suggests a host of other possible issues. Choose your tenant wisely to avoid unnecessary headaches and stress.
2. Having Your Tenant Sign a Written Lease
If you are renting an apartment in your house, or even a whole house in Nassau or Suffolk County, a written lease is probably a bad idea. This concept is shocking to many landlords who feel the need to memorialize every idea they have in writing; it is even surprising to some lawyers, who love to charge their clients for drafting long-winded lease agreements full of requirements, rules, regulations and penalties. But the reality is that for the Long Island homeowner/landlord, a written lease only protects the tenant and does little or nothing for the landlord. In sharp contrast, an oral month-to-month tenancy agreement tends to serve the interest of the landlord, leaving the tenant with only those rights provided by law. For example, without a written lease, the landlord can change the amount of rent at any time. The landlord can also change the rules of the tenancy. But most importantly, without a written lease agreement a landlord can terminate the tenancy at any time for virtually any reason. All of those important rights are lost to the landlord the moment that written lease agreement is signed. Additionally, many of the terms in most written lease agreements are not enforceable in court in Nassau County and Suffolk County. Terms providing for late fees and attorneys’ fees are often rendered void, because the language used in the lease agreement is unenforceable. Form lease agreements, like those you can download online, also usually contain terms that require the landlord to jump through proverbial hoops before evicting a tenant. For example, many of them require the landlord to serve a five-day notice on the tenant if the tenant defaults in paying rent; then if the tenant still fails to pay, the landlord has to serve a three-day notice. All of this serves to tie a landlord’s hands and leaves the tenant in far too secure a position. So, do you really need a written lease agreement? The answer is probably no.
3. Failing to Take Action When Your Tenant Stops Paying Rent
Compassion is a wonderful trait and those who display it should be commended. But as a landlord, you must remember that you are in a business relationship, and you must avoid being guided by personal feelings. In many instances, a landlord’s financial security is dependent on collecting rent, so failing to act immediately to nip a non-payment issue in the bud could be more problematic for a landlord than anticipated. Allowing a tenant to fall behind in paying rent is like feeding a stray dog, in that a sets up a repeating pattern of behavior. Just remember that a steadfast rule in landlord-tenant relations is that once the relationship begins to deteriorate, it almost never rehabilitates, and will generally continue to get worse until the landlord finally decides to take action. Hence, once a tenant falls behind in paying the rent, he or she will usually continue to fall further and further behind. So rather than allow a tenant to fall behind in the first place, the smart landlord will take action immediately to evict a tenant who fails to pay the rent. And the first step to take is to retain an experienced landlord-tenant attorney to evict your non-paying tenant.
4. Micromanaging Your Tenant’s Behavior
Many landlords drive themselves crazy by fixating on the management of certain details of the tenant’s conduct that are minute and trivial and none of the landlord’s business in the first place. This can place unnecessary stress on the landlord-tenant relationship. You may be surprised to know how often landlords find the number of times a tenant flushes the toilet or what times of day the tenant bathes to be a source of personal concern. Who cares what time the tenant comes home, or how often the tenant washes dishes or makes phone calls? The micromanaging landlord cares – to the point of ruining the landlord-tenant relationship in many instances. It is crucial to remember that when you rent an apartment to a tenant, that unit is no longer yours to possess; it becomes the tenant’s to possess, and the unit they rent is their home. Just as you would not tolerate a neighbor meddling in the way you choose to live, a tenant need not tolerate a meddlesome landlord. So just keep in mind that the apartment being rented is a separate unit from yours and that you have no right to concern yourself with the private behavior of others. Your tenant is not your child, your family member or your friend; he or she is a business relation. Learning to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the way a tenant lives can go a long way toward making the landlord-tenant experience more manageable.
5. Failing to Place Your Tenant’s Security Deposit in a Separate Bank Account
Mishandling the security deposit paid by your tenant is more serious than it may sound, and occurs a lot more frequently than you might imagine. In fact, if you are a landlord, the odds are that you may have mishandled your tenant’s security deposit. When a landlord accepts a security deposit, he or she becomes a trustee and has certain legal duties. Section 7-103 of the General Obligations Law requires a landlord who accepts a security deposit to hold it in trust for the tenant and not comingle it with other moneys. A landlord also has a duty, when he or she deposits the tenant’s security money into a bank account, to be certain that the account is used for the sole purpose of banking the security, and to immediately notify the tenant in writing of the name and address of the bank and the amount of the deposit. If the landlord comingles the security deposit with other moneys, such as by depositing it in his or her personal bank account, the landlord loses the right to claim the security, or any portion of it, for damages to the rental unit; and the tenant becomes entitled to the full return of the security deposit. If the landlord deposits the security into a bank account and fails to inform the tenant in writing of the name and address of the bank and the amount deposited, that failure is considered by the courts to be rebuttable proof that the landlord comingled funds. So, as you can see, properly handling the security deposit is extremely important.
6. Trying to Serve Eviction Notices on Your Own
This typically occurs at the point when the landlord-tenant relationship has deteriorated and the landlord wants to remove the tenant. Rather than hire a professional to handle the matter, the landlord tries to do it himself or herself. This seldom ends well. A predicate notice is a special document that the law requires to be served on the tenant under certain circumstances, depending on the type of eviction action. Whether it is a thirty-day notice of termination, a ten-day notice to quit, or a three-day notice to tenants for rent, it must be in a very particular form, contain very specific language, and be served in a very precise manner. Attempting to do it yourself could create a host of problems and could prolong and complicate the evictions process. It is recommended that no part of the evictions process be handled by the landlord. Only an experienced landlord-tenant attorney should handle an eviction. Landlord-tenant proceedings are complex and are based on strict statutory requirements. Any defect in the predicate notice could render it legally void, which may have the effect of depriving the court of jurisdiction. This means that your case may be dismissed and that you will have to start all over again. To avoid this, never try to serve anything on your tenant yourself, and consult with an experienced landlord-tenant attorney before taking any action on your own.
7. Becoming Confrontational With Your Tenant
This relates back to the premise that your landlord-tenant relationship is business in nature, and not personal. It is not uncommon for tenants to be late with rent, or to not pay rent at all. Nor is it uncommon for tenants to do the many other things they do to violate the rules of their tenancy. But the remedy for these things is to bring an action to evict the tenant; not to confront the tenant and engage in an argument or a yelling match. When a landlord misapprehends the nature of the relationship – taking everything the tenants does personally – it follows that the landlord and tenant will at some point have a confrontation. A smart landlord will avoid this. Confrontation serves no legitimate purpose and weakens the landlord’s position while emboldening the tenant to continue his or her bad behavior. It may also present additional legal problems for the landlord. At the very least, it will heighten tensions between the parties and make an orderly resolution to the matter more difficult. Remember, when the confrontation is over, the tenant will return to his apartment in your house. So, no matter how delinquent your tenant is in paying rent, or no matter how many times your tenant does something of which you do not approve, do not be confrontational. Instead retain a landlord-tenant attorney to commence an eviction proceeding.
8. Shutting Off the Tenant’s Utilities, Such as Heat, Water, or Electricity
Many landlords mistakenly believe that by doing this they will force the tenant to move out, or, at the very least, force him or her to pay the rent or correct whatever other issue may exist. Nothing could be further from the truth. First and foremost, depriving your tenant of basic utilities is illegal and could land you in deep trouble. You could be arrested and criminally prosecuted for doing this, and it also provides the tenant with a defense to non-payment of rent, i.e., a tenant may be excused from paying rent during any period in which the premises are uninhabitable (where there is no heat, water or electricity, the premises are deemed to be uninhabitable). To say that a smart landlord will never consider shutting off a tenant’s utilities is an understatement. Plainly and simply, do not do it. Retain an attorney specializing in landlord-tenant law to evict your problem tenant instead.
9. Evicting the Tenant On Your Own Or Changing the Locks
Engaging in self-help by evicting the tenant on your own is a criminal act in the state of New York, and all landlords should be cautioned never to do this. The only one with the authority to evict a tenant in Nassau or Suffolk County is the County Sheriff acting pursuant to a warrant of eviction issued by a judge. Some landlords make the very serious mistake of changing the locks to keep a tenant out. This is known as an illegal lockout. Sometimes landlords even go so far as to remove a tenant’s belongings from the apartment. An act of this magnitude may constitute the criminal act of burglary and can land a landlord in jail. Simply stated, as a landlord, you absolutely must never attempt to take the law into your own hands. Although you may own the apartment and it is your right to sell it, you have no possessory rights in it while you have a tenant. That means it is the tenant’s home and, if you enter it unlawfully or do anything to prevent the tenant from accessing it, you will treated by the law in the same manner that the tenant would be treated if he or she did those same things to you. So, at the risk of seeming repetitive, do not attempt to do this, but rather retain a landlord-tenant attorney to evict your tenant the legal way.
10. Trying to Represent Yourself in an Eviction Proceeding
There are some types of actions in which it is not terribly ill advised to represent yourself, such as small claims actions, which are designed for people to represent themselves (properly known as appearing pro se), and in which there is not a lot at stake. In most other types of court actions, however, it is best to be represented by an experienced attorney. Eviction proceedings are no exception to that rule. Landlord-tenant law is complex and highly technical. The slightest procedural mistake could result in the dismissal of your action, leaving you with egg on your face and a tenant you cannot tolerate. To see the results of self-representation in evictions, just visit any landlord-tenant court. On virtually any day, you will see a case dismissed because a landlord tried to handle the matter on his or her own and made some error fatal to the case. If there is one thing to take away from all of this it should be the following: if you are a landlord and have an issue with a tenant whom you need to evict, retain the services of an experienced landlord-tenant attorney to handle the matter for you.