Tenant Problems: Not taking it Personal

Written by Apartment Management Magazine on . Posted in Blog

Tenant Problems:

Not taking it personal

When I started my property management business, the only owners that would take the time to work with me were owners with real headaches from tenants with whom they no longer had the patience to deal  themselves. For example, one of my first clients had a property in Beverly Hills on which he never raised rents. He brought me on to raise the rent by 10% back when rents could be increased by 10% with a 60 day notice. Let’s just say this young bright eyed property manager suddenly learned why the owner had never raised the rents. The tenants fought tooth and nail to challenge the rent increase. The owner’s headache was now outsourced to me, which was my job. In the end, the rent increase went into effect, the tenants paid and I had resolved an owner’s headache. Still, I learned just how aggressive a tenant could be when they felt aggrieved.  

After several years of being in the business, not much has changed. Tenants can still be incredibly aggressive when they feel their home, finances or way of life is being challenged. As for me, I have learned some very powerful lessons that may come in handy for owners who find themselves faced with defensive and combative tenants.

How to deal with an angry tenant? Slow down, stop and listen. If a tenant is yelling, they probably feel that they have  a good reason for doing so, even if their way of handling a problem may not be the most constructive path to a solution. Ninety-nine percent of the time, solving the problem will make the tenant happy. But there is that one percent that working on and solving a problem won’t resolve their frustration. It is this one percent that begins to personalize the problem.

I had a tenant that was so upset, that they decided to yell at me in front of our vendors who were there to fix the problems. As I listened, I realized that the issue for the tenant stopped being about the maintenance issues and became about me. Even though the maintenance issues were being addressed, that was not good enough for the tenant. It had become personal. But the challenge for me, as a property manager, was to remain professional and as that particular tenant showed, it isn’t always easy. It wasn’t going to help defuse the situation by challenging his facts or point of view. It wasn’t the time to say yes but x, y and z. No, what I needed to do at that moment was just let him get it off his chest, and if he needed it to be at my expense, that’s what it had to be.

Following his verbal tirade, I thanked him for his constructive criticism and let him know that I did not take anything he said personal. I wished him and his family well and went back about my business. The lesson to be learned is sometimes being patient and giving someone the space to vent is the best response. Actions speak loader than words and over time, showing that level of professionalism will pay dividends.

Many owners have found themselves in similar situations but may not have been so quick to keep their composure. They have worked hard for their investment.  Now comes an irate tenant putting down all their hard work and even worst putting them down personally. It is completely understandable why an owner may find themselves blowing up in response to a tenant who is reacted very strongly. It is that moment of blowing up and taking the criticisms personally that can cause some real problems for an owner.

First for the owner, taking a tenants criticism personally greatly impairs their ability to stay objective about the issue. A tenant may make a request that takes a minute to do but to a belittled owner, the request can become a matter of principle and treated like it is World War III, which only makes matters worse over the long-term.  The truth is that an owner wants to be respected and if that respect is denied, almost every request from the tenant going forward will be denied. The owner may even go so far as to believe, whether justified or not, that the tenant has broken the lease and seek legal counsel on the options to address the tenant’s breaches. An owner that  finds themselves in this type situation would be well advised to take a step back. Unless the eviction attorney says the case is right across home plate and has a high probability of winning, going down the route of trying force the tenant out just isn’t worth it. And if the owner loses, relations with the tenant will only sink even lower.  

A better course of action for an owner that finds themselves in this situation is to take a step back and look for ways to find a middle ground and focus on resolving the issue, rather than fighting back personal attack for personal attack.  Find ways to approach the tenant like a client on the job and then look for ways to rebuild goodwill with the tenant, even if the owner believes that the tenant is not in the right. These simple steps can greatly reduce the stress in an owner’s life. It will also keep an owner out of unwanted legal and possible financial hardships.

Second, an owner should remember that a tenant is not required by law to be professional, respectful, kind, helpful or understanding. Luckily, a majority of tenants are great people, even in disagreements with owners. But for the few that make it personal when there are challenges with owners, unfortunately it just comes with the territory from time to time.  Those more aggressive tenants still have all the same legal rights and protections as any other tenants. Their maintenance issues still need to be fixed, despite their behavior, and reasonable requests must be treated objectively even if the requests are not expressed in the nicest of terms.

Third, owners should be aware that over time [L1] some frustrated tenants will not keep their frustrations to themselves and may bad mouth the owner. A malicious tenant may even reach out to any of the many government agencies with jurisdiction over an owner’s property or an attorney. The sad truth is that when the tenant escalates a problem like this, it doesn’t always work out the way they think.

Local ordinances give owners a right to enter the unit to fix problems as needed. For the tenant, that does not necessarily mean fixing the issue the way the tenant may have wanted. Should they call a city inspector about their issue,  that means an added headache for the owner as they have a third party looking over their shoulder, possibly dictating how the work should be done. Plus, the owner will incur the added cost of city fees for inspections. For example, there have been times when tenants have called the city to complain and the result was that laundry facilities had to be removed. Or, following a formal tenant complaint, unpermitted work at the property was cited and the owner had to remove the work. It is almost always a no-win situation for both the owner and tenant. That may only make strained relations between the owner and tenant even worse.

Should the tenant find legal counsel, something that is easy to do, the matter could be blown all out of proportion. As a property manager, I have spent hours reviewing emails, call logs and bills, and speaking with vendors, just to have the facts needed to adequately counter frivolous claims and respond to a blizzard of attorneys’ letters. Even with the facts on an owner’s side, it can still take several emails/letters back and forth until the tenant’s attorney hopefully realizes that the owner is actually in a solid position to challenge overstated claims.  Thus, the owner has now wasted his time and possibly incurred unnecessary legal fees of their own, while  the tenant has spent hard-earned money on an attorney and put themselves through incredible amounts of stress without possibly anything to show for it.

Clearly, the best course of action from the beginning is for the owner to keep things in perspective, put a tenant’s animosity aside and just do the work that is necessary to head off unwelcome visits from inspectors and avoid  frivolous legal claims.

Reflecting on my time as a property manager, I can honestly say that these lessons were learned through experience. The tenant that tried to humiliate me in front of my vendors still does not like me very much but through grace and truth, goodwill has been rebuilt. The tenant that felt slighted by the rent increase back when I first started, today I consider to be a friend. Owning apartment buildings is a business of competing interest which inevitably will lead to disagreements from time to time, but it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. There will be times owners will have to do things they don’t feel they should or want to do because of the way they have been treated personally, and others where a tenant will have to live with a hard NO. The secret to success is keeping objectivity, acknowledging the reasonable aspects of the tenant’s requests, even if it takes extra effort to find that reasonableness, and finding a way always to be professional and patient as the underlying problems are constructively addressed, while letting go of hurt feelings that may lead to bad results.

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