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The Psychology of Landlord-Tenant Relationships

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In several past articles on fair housing and Section 8 tenancies, we said that no group should be painted with a broad brush and that discrimination lawsuits are the product of preconceived notions about classes of people.

We might be seen as hypocritical, then, when we outline five profiles of tenants. Not so fast -these personalities span every class, religion, color, source of income, and other characteristics. Indeed, tenants are individuals, and after managing thousands of landlord-tenant relationships, we can provide a contextual framework on where individuals fall into this spectrum.

The political tenant

This tenant inherently sees the landlord-tenant relationship fraught with tension because it begins with the presumption that the landlord is powerful, and the tenant is weak. When the landlord communicates with the political tenant, the tenant is always wary that the landlord is attempting to exploit him or her.

The silent tenant

The silent tenant is just too busy to engage with the landlord and as a result, the landlord may be obstructed in the relationship. For example, the landlord may send letters that go unanswered. When the time comes to make repairs and proper notice is served on the silent tenant, perhaps the landlord still cannot gain access to the unit – the tenant just doesn’t want to be bothered.

Passive aggressive tenant

The passive aggressive tenant can be disappointing because these type of tenants are nice as pie and you think you have a great relationship with such pleasant people but in the end, the tenant takes a surprising turn for the worse.

Passive aggressive tenants are very polite and engaging when you interact with them and they seem to be ideal residents until asked for some sort of responsibility in return as part of a give-and-take relationship. Once they are reminded of their responsibilities, the passive-aggressive tenant takes a hostile stance.

Although they appear to be very nice when there are no underlying issues, these type of tenants will suggest that the landlord has done something wrong to them when concerns are raised or instructions made by the landlord.

The dysfunctional tenant

The dysfunctional tenant’s personal life is constantly embroiled in crisis, making it difficult for them to properly engage in a landlord-tenant relationship. Oftentimes, the dysfunctional tenant will articulate the source of dysfunction to the landlord, in an attempt to gain empathy or sympathy. When the personal crisis leads to nonpayment of rent or other problems in the rental unit, the dysfunctional tenant has no shortage of excuses.

The fifth profile is the perfect tenant who religiously pays rent on time, responds to requests, they are personable and honorable, and that’s the type of relationship landlords would most likely expect.

Let’s move on to how rental property owners can respond to each persona.

As for the political tenant, communication should not be about the relationship itself, but about best practices in the relationship. If, for example, the tenant who has politicized the relationship has not paid the rent on time, you can address the failure to pay rent by saying, “you promised to pay the rent on time, we have a contract – why have you failed to do so?” Both the landlord and tenant have mutual responsibilities, and it is important to set expectations based on this contractual obligation without getting bogged down in the acrimony the political tenant tends to lean towards.

Documentation is always prudent, but even more so with the silent tenant. When tenants do not have the inclination to interact with the owner, the landlord should document their attempts to reach the tenant and amplify their written correspondence with these muted residents. What we’d like to see at Bornstein Law is a paper trail that shows a good-faith effort on behalf of the landlord to have fluid dialog with a tenant who does not reciprocate, so that when there is a conflict later on – for example, when the silent tenant does not grant access to make repairs because he or she has been uncommunicative – you have documentation that shows you as a landlord did your part to have open transmission of information.

When the passive aggressive tenant becomes animated and the landlord believes the tenant is incorrect, landlords should not get involved with drama but instead, pacify the situation. These tenants have a propensity for long-winded dialogue and emails, which can consume a lot of time and energy. The best practice is to not enlarge the discussion but to pacify the tenant by agreeing to disagree, use limited language, and deflate the aggression by moving on.

What landlords should know about dysfunctional tenants is that it is important to compartmentalize their empathy towards a tenant, which can diminish the control of the situation, and the fundamental objective of effectively running a rental business. The key to dealing with dysfunctional tenants is to see beyond the underlying crisis in their life and be firm with expectations.

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More than a practitioner in landlord-tenant law, Daniel Bornstein is the Broker of Record for Bay Property Group, a property management company that protects and optimizes the investments of landlords. He is also renowned for his educational seminars and is called upon as an expert witness in complex real estate litigation matters. To avoid or resolve friction within rental units and cauterize risk, Daniel is happy to dispense informed advice to owners, property managers, and other real estate professionals looking to survive and thrive in today’s challenging and litigious rental housing market. Call 415-409-7611 or email daniel@bornstein.law

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Travis Watson