Landlord Hacks: Care & Handling of the Passive-Aggressive Tenant

Ever get the feeling that you're not really welcome?

Landlords, have you ever encountered a situation where an outbound tenant seems to be deliberately complicating your efforts to re-rent their apartment? It's hard to tell sometimes if they really mean to harm your business or if you're just being paranoid. Today we're going to talk a little about the ways to tell the difference and what your options are if the tenant really is trying to keep you out.

In my experience, one out of every five or six tenants is simply hostile towards any landlord or any person who attempts to enter their space. I can understand where they're coming from. Apartment showings emphasize the have/have not separation of landlord vs tenant more than any other aspect of the rental process. When a landlord gives notice of a showing, most of the time it isn't a request for permission. It's a warning to get out of the way. When I was a tenant I insisted on the full two-day notice, mostly because I was working nights at the time and had to make sure I was awake in my version of the middle of the night every time my apartment was shown. Now after 7 years of showing real estate I take a very different view on the matter.

Speak Softly and Carry Not Much at All.

I think both landlords and tenants are predisposed to thinking that every conversation has to be an argument. Whether it's caused by the status difference, the cost of the rent, or conflicting priorities over fixing the screen door, there is nearly always an undercurrent of defensiveness when the two sides meet. When it comes time to handle showings, both sides are even more stressed than normal.

In many cases you may need to yield the high ground in order to get your tenant to let you in. Yes, you own the space and yes, you have full right according to the Chicago law to show it within 60 days of the lease expiration. Even so, it's best to lay out some ground rules at the start of the process. You never know which tenants are going to go ballistic on you once showings begin, so it's best to take this approach consistently.

If at all possible, have a very clear conversation with them before showings begin. During that conversation find out how they want to receive notice, how much notice they want, and what days and times will not work for them. Find a happy medium that maximizes the apartment's availability to new prospective tenants, preferably in the evenings and weekends when the 9-to-5 workers can stop by. Make sure that they understand that you will work with them to the best extent that you can, but that renting the apartment is a critical need for your business.

You'll want to make sure you're both clear on expectations. Picky tenants tend to take a long time viewing apartments, poring over every detail. They may expect everyone else's showings to take the same amount of time. A normal apartment showing only lasts for 15 minutes at the most. Make sure they know this. They may also expect that hundreds of groups will need to come through before the place rents. In today's fast market, it's realistically going to be more like ten groups at most, unless your agent is really bad at their job. Make sure they understand that the more accessible & tidy the apartment looks, the faster the whole ordeal will be over.

Or maybe give them a few tactful decorating suggestions.

Bolster this with some recommendations to help them keep their stuff safe while their apartment is on the market. Just a few little pointers - don't go overboard and scare them. Remind them to hide small valuables, cash and credit cards out of sight, and ask that any questionable material like disturbing posters and adult DVDs be removed from view. This will show that you really do have their best interests at heart and that you will make sure their belongings are not damaged or disturbed during the showing process.

Spotting Tenant Ninjutsu

Sometimes all the quiet conversation in the world won't work. Maybe you take too many showings to rent the unit and your tenant gets sick of the process. Maybe they're just generally unable to put their resentment of the 1% to rest. Either way, they may start practicing ninja tactics to silently dissuade you from showing their apartment. It's unfortunately important to be able to recognize the signs and communicate with those particular tenants to let them know that their psych-out tactics won't work. Here's a few that I've seen:

  • Leaving shoes right behind the door so that they can tell if someone has entered.
  • Deliberately leaving the litterbox unchanged.
  • Making the place extremely cluttered or dirty.
  • Removing all of the light bulbs.
  • Placing conspicuous ant traps, mousetraps or roach motels.
  • Leaving the chain secured if they know you only have a front door key.
  • Following you through the apartment at every showing, ostensibly to turn off lights as you go.
  • Smoking a bowl right before they know you're scheduled to show.

If your tenant is practicing ninjutsu despite your best efforts to communicate, you have two options. One is to just wait until they leave, and figure that showings with such a hostile tenant in the unit will not be productive anyhow. The other route is to sue.

For Once, the Law is on Your Side. Sort Of.

Remember when I did the survey of the CRLTO a few months back? I discovered a lot of situations where the tenant could sue the landlord for damages but very few where the reverse was true. This, little piggies, is one of those rare occasions. If a tenant is denying access to their landlord for a showing after proper notice has been given, even our tenant-friendly city council understands that it's bad for business. If a landlord has given proper notice, there's no evidence that the landlord is harassing the tenant, and the tenant still prohibits entry, that landlord can sue. Not only for entry, but for monetary damages.

Of course, that's the law though, and like many aspects of landlord-tenant law in Chicago it can be difficult to enforce. By the time you get the court date the lease would be over anyhow. I haven't done an in-depth survey of how many landlords have actually sued for the right to show their apartments. You'd definitely want to talk with an attorney experienced in landlord-tenant law and not go up against your tenant pro se in this kind of a case. There's simply too many "ifs" in that law to make it a comfortable shoo-in victory. All I know is, it can be done and it's one of the few cases where the tenant might have to pay you something for your trouble.

The most critical thing in any case like this is to document all of your dealings with your tenant so that you've got a clear log in the event that you need it. Don't keep it with the intent of suing - that's a self-defeating goal if I ever saw one. Just keep it for the sake of covering your butt.

Overall the most important skill in dealing with passive-aggressive tenants is preventing the situation from escalating into a fight-or-flight conflict. However, if you wind up in a case where there's no other alternative make sure you know what your options are ahead of time so that you can make the best decisions for your investment.