Tips for Landlords: How to Deal with Troublesome Residents

By Robert S. Griswold, Laurence Harmon

Despite impeccable resident screening, sometime in your career as a landlord, you’re likely to rent to people who cause trouble and disturb and possibly even harm their neighbors. As landlord, one of your responsibilities is to curb criminal behavior. If you fail to take action to stop criminal activity, other residents may try to hold you accountable for any damages.

Respond to general criminal behavior

Whenever you become aware of any criminal behavior occurring on or near your property, you need to take action. Of course, your response depends on the seriousness of the crime, the degree of danger it poses to you and others, and other factors, but your options generally boil down to the following (listed in escalating severity):

  • Discuss the situation with the resident. If you’re dealing with a petty crime, such as disturbing the peace or public intoxication, you may want to discuss the situation with the resident first and perhaps even issue a verbal warning along with possible consequences if the behavior continues. (Log the date and time of your encounter and write down what happened in the resident’s file.)

  • Issue a written warning. If a verbal warning doesn’t achieve the desired results, issue a written warning or a notice to perform covenant or quit and keep a copy of it in the resident’s file. A written warning or covenant notice serves as documented proof that the resident had ample opportunity to correct a problem if you have to eventually evict the resident.

  • Call law enforcement. When danger to persons or property appears imminent or you see a serious crime, call 911 immediately. You may also want to contact law enforcement if you tried to curb the behavior yourself but were unsuccessful. Getting local law enforcement involved sends a signal that the resident’s behavior is unacceptable and that you won’t tolerate it.

  • Encourage the resident to leave. If residents pose a risk to your property or their neighbors, you may need to ask them to leave.

    Consider offering incentives to encourage the residents to leave voluntarily and avoid potentially costly legal action. Incentives may include letting the resident out of the lease with no repercussions, refunding the security deposit and covering the costs of cleaning and repairs yourself, and even offering to cover a portion of the costs to relocate.

    Be sure any such agreement is in writing and money is only paid after the resident has completely vacated the premises. You shouldn’t have to reward a resident for bad behavior, but if you want them gone badly enough and have reason to believe that evicting them would cost even more in time, money, and aggravation, these incentives may be a small cost to pay.

  • Evict the resident. Violation of the terms of the rental contract justifies eviction.

Whatever action you take in response to a person’s bad behavior, if that behavior puts other residents or their property at risk, notify them in writing of the risk and what you’re doing to address it. If you fail to warn residents, and something bad happens to them, the law may hold you responsible.

How to handle domestic issues

Couples who rent units together and have domestic disputes provide a tough challenge for rental property owners. As with disputes between neighbors or roommates, you need to avoid getting involved. You lack the authority to side with one party or the other, so stay neutral, encourage the couple to resolve their problems themselves, and continue treating all parties fairly and equally.

Unfortunately, some disagreements between residents involve domestic violence, and you may receive a request from one occupant to change the locks or remove one of the other residents from the lease. Don’t agree to any such changes, regardless of the strength of the resident’s argument, without first seeking legal advice and obtaining a copy of a restraining order or other appropriate documentation from the requesting resident.

In some circumstances you may be able to avoid an argument about changing the locks because the other party may be willing to voluntarily leave or allow the changing of the locks. But to cover yourself, insist on a verifiable letter or agreement documenting the other party’s consent.

Be careful not to discriminate against the victim of domestic violence by evicting her, especially if the perpetrator is no longer in the rental unit and doesn’t return to the property.

Some state laws allow victims of domestic violence to give notice and breach their lease without penalty upon presentation of either a court order or a police report.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 2005 prohibits public housing agencies and rental properties that accept Housing Choice Vouchers from denying an applicant because she’s been a victim of domestic violence or stalking. Nearly 30 states have passed legislation protecting women in similar situations, so check with local legal counsel if you run into one.

How to deal with druggies and dealers

The possession, use, and sale of illegal drugs is a common problem for landlords, especially in large apartment complexes. No matter the size of your rental unit, you must take action to discourage any activities involving illegal drugs, particularly drug dealing, or you risk the forfeiture of your rental property.

Larger properties often have a diverse resident demographic, including some groups who are statistically more likely to use drugs. The common areas of the buildings usually offer unoccupied or unused spaces, where transactions can occur unobserved. And when the availability of illegal drugs at an apartment complex becomes generally known, the problem can easily become widespread.

The best way to deal with drug users and dealers is to make your rental property a place where drug-related activities are prohibited and where such activities can be more easily detected. You can prohibit drug-related activities by enforcing the terms spelled out in your rental contract and any crime- and drug-free amendments to that agreement.