It is almost inevitable that at some point in every tenancy, you will have an issue with your tenant. Whether it is a relatively mild disagreement regarding how long a repair is taking, or a significant dispute over nonpayment of rent, sooner or later you will need to make a decision regarding what type of resolution will make the most sense for a tenant problem. The range of options available to you in these situations includes communicating directly with the tenant on your own, seeking outside dispute resolution help through mediation or arbitration, or as a last resort, going to court. Whatever route you choose, your goal should be to conclude the dispute with the lowest cost and greatest efficiency possible, keeping in mind how your conduct and decisions will affect your rapport with other tenants as well as your local small claims court or housing authority.
In any dispute with a tenant, no matter how big or small, you will always set yourself up for a better outcome if you have kept careful records and have established procedures that you follow at each stage of the tenancy. Starting with keeping a tenant’s rental application on file, and later keeping detailed records that include move-in checklists and photos, repair and cleaning receipts, and documentation of your communication with each tenant regarding matters pertinent to their lease or rental agreement, you should have a complete file available to you in the event that you need to have evidence of the state of the rental unit or the content of your communications with your tenant. It is also helpful if you have standing procedures for things like annual inspections to assess the need for repairs to the rental unit, and to follow these procedures consistently with all tenants. All of these processes can help you defend against claims of retaliation by tenants who may allege that you are treating them unfairly by, for example, raising the rent after they complained to the local housing authority about the condition of their rental unit.
Often the best first step you can take in resolving problems with tenants is simply to talk to them. While you don’t want to drop by unannounced, calling the tenant to set up a time to meet and discuss their concerns can be a good first step toward addressing their complaints. When you meet with the tenant, it is advisable to let them explain their issues in detail so that you understand them and so that the tenant has the opportunity to feel heard. Always be respectful in your communications, and be open to compromise where possible. If you have a good case and strong evidence, you can always remind the tenant that you have the means to legally contest their claims. If you are able to reach a settlement, put it in writing for all parties to sign, and if you are paying the tenant money as part of the settlement, make sure that they give you a written acknowledgement that your payment settles their claims.
Mediation and Arbitration
If you and your tenant need the help of a neutral third party in resolving your issues, there are free and low-cost mediation and arbitration options available to you in many areas. Mediation is a non-binding process involving a neutral mediator who listens to both sides and helps them arrive at a resolution. This option can be appealing to landlords and tenants alike because mediation does not lead to an outcome that is imposed on either party, so there isn’t much to lose by participating. Particularly if your dispute is with a somewhat reasonable tenant who is not behind on rent, attempting mediation can be very worthwhile.
Arbitration is similar in that it involves a neutral third party who is trying to help you resolve your dispute, but the outcome of arbitration is binding unlike in mediation. You and the tenant both have to agree to arbitrate your dispute, either through a provision of your lease or rental agreement or after the fact. If the losing side does not pay any monetary amount owed, you can turn an arbitration award into a court judgment relatively easily, but most of the time you cannot appeal an arbitration decision.
Small Claims Court
If it proves impossible to come to an agreement informally or through the dispute resolution options discussed above, you can take your dispute to court. Small claims court is usually the best place to have your issues heard, as it is designed to be affordable, efficient, and to allow people to represent themselves. Landlords can utiliz small claims court for a wide variety of disputes, including collecting unpaid rent and recouping repair costs; some states allow eviction proceedings to take place in small claims court as well.
In general, your case will proceed much more quickly and cheaply in small claims court than in civil court, so it is often worth your while to consider reducing your damages amount if possible to meet your jurisdiction’s small claims court threshold. Again, having documentation such as photos of the condition of the rental unit or copies of receipts for cleaning or repairs can be crucial in this setting, so be sure to have all of your evidence in order if you proceed to this stage. If you have questions about deadlines or procedures, your local small claims court will usually have all of the necessary information posted on the internet, and court clerks can be helpful in this regard as well.