You pull up to a house you rented out six months ago and see dirty windows, spilled recycling bins, and a driveway cluttered with tools. You set up an appointment a week ago to come by and perform seasonal maintenance on the property, and you know the tenants aren't going to be home.
Good, you think. I have a feeling we'd have an awkward conversation.
The front door has a darkened area around the handle and deadbolt, and another down on the kickplate. When you open the door, you're hit with a strong, sour odor. There's a note on the dusty, cluttered entry table letting you know the tenants—one an assistant professor at the local university, the other an IT manager at a large law firm—are away for the weekend.
Clearly, they aren't the type to worry about coming home to a clean, orderly house, and from the smell of the kitchen garbage can, their olfactory senses are conditioned to cope with results of their poor housekeeping habits. The carpet is filthy, smelling like a combination of gym socks and cheap carpet freshening powder. Spiderwebs on the walls and ceiling let you know that at least someone's benefiting from the thriving fly population.
When you open the furnace, you realize that they haven't changed the filters in... well, forever, and it's a miracle that the accumulated lint—which you pull from halfway down the exterior vent—hasn't burned down the neighborhood.
But they seemed like such stable, respectable people. How did this happen?
We all know what they say about the "A" word, but it's likely you made assumptions based on appearance, income, and social status. In the property rental business, it's all too easy to judge a book by its cover. That's why solid contracts, thorough background checks, and Zero-Dark-Thirty-level interrogation of references are so important.
OK, maybe ease up on the interrogations. Just a bit.
An Ounce of Protection
Short of having the health department condemn the unit, there isn't much you can do to get dirty tenants to clean up their act unless you made them sign a beefed-up contract with specific cleaning clauses and clearly-defined terminology. You'll also want to follow our tips for screening your tenants to avoid a mess (in more ways than one!) in the first place.
Get The Dirt on Your Tenant's Background
We have a number of articles on tenant screening on the VerticalRent blog, and free online tools for performing comprehensive background checks and reviewing credit histories. A poor credit history indicates a lack of financial responsibility, and that might hold over to other habits and decisions which may affect your bottom line.
We advise landlords to be brief, honest, and to-the-point when they write reference letters for former tenants, but if you're on the receiving end, don't settle for a bare-bones letter of recommendation. Call the former landlord and follow-up, and add these "housekeeping" questions to your standard script:
- Would you rent to that tenant again? If not, why? (We love this question, and you'll read it often in our articles on tenant screening).
- Did you return the tenant's full deposit? Why did you withhold any deductions?
- Did anybody complain about your tenant due to odors or for leaving junk in common areas?
- Did the tenant break any rules regarding smoking or pets?
Past landlords aren't your only resource. You can ask former employers if the potential tenant's habits (avoid the word "hygiene") caused any problems with fellow employees, and how the employer would rate their organizational skills. They might hesitate to provide honest, negative answers in writing, due to liability, so conduct the reference check by phone and keep an ear out for less-than-genuine responses.
Build a (Stink)Bomb-Proof Cleaning Clause
We offer some fantastic boilerplate rental agreements, but there's no such thing as a "one size fits all" lease contract. Use VerticalRent to learn about your state laws, and draw up a well-defined list that spells out your expectations for cleanliness and a clear definition of ["normal wear and tear"]. We wrote a post on this dreaded, ambiguous phrase for tenants, and there's some good advice in there for you, too.
You can build in a required cleaning schedule, within reason, compelling your tenants to choose from a provided list of professional carpet cleaners, HVAC service companies, landscapers, and housekeepers. You can also prohibit the use of rented carpet cleaning machines or powdered carpet fresheners.
It's never a bad idea to arrange for regular pest inspections and servicing. If you directly hire the pest control company, they will let you know if and when they spot potential problems caused by your tenants' cleanliness. If you allow the tenants to contract with the company, on the other hand, privacy laws might keep you out of the loop.
In most states, you must provide 24-hour notice for any service calls or inspections. Honor these laws, and put in your contract that you expect to make quarterly inspections for routine maintenance and to check on the property's overall condition, including general cleanliness and damage according to your definition of "normal wear and tear".
Do Your Potential Tenants Pass the "Sniff Test"?
Always interview your renter candidates in person. If you can't be there, have a trusted colleague or partner be your proxy. Preferably someone with a good sense of smell, and an eye for detail.
- Is the potential tenant dressed in clean clothes appropriate for the setting?
- Does the potential tenant smell or look like they haven't bathed in days?
- Without making them open up and say "Aaaah," does it appear that they take reasonable daily care of their teeth?
- Is the potential tenant well-groomed? ( brushed hair, trimmed facial hair, clean fingernails.)
How well they present themselves is far more important than name brand clothing, expensive jewelry, and just-left-the-salon hair and nails. But one thing rings true: You can tell a lot about a person from the car they drive. If you can do so without seeming too obvious, walk the interviewee to their car and have a subtle peek. How they treat their vehicle is a clue to how they'll treat your property. A tidy Pinto is preferable to a Porche pigsty.
A Pound of Cure
Are you stuck with a dirty tenant? If you rented to them before you upgraded your lease contract, you might be able to fix the problem on your next routine maintenance visit... or if you're investigating complaints from neighbors that rats and roaches are running amok... or if there's a rumor someone died in the unit (more on that in a minute). If there is garbage littering the unit's exterior, you have a right to request access (with proper notice) for a maintenance check.
It's your property, and you have the right to verify that it doesn't pose a fire or health hazard and that your tenants aren't causing permanent damage due to neglect. Be sure to adhere to legal notification requirements, and document everything.
If it's obvious the tenants have caused filth to accumulate, you could bring in a deep-cleaning crew to remediate the situation as part of your "maintenance and repair" rights. Have you heard of "crime scene cleaners"? They also address dirty rental units that would send housekeeping services screaming for the shower. Even if it only smelled like someone died in the unit, biohazard and crime scene cleaners remove (rather than cover up) the sources of foul odors, and remediate the following:
- Smoke damage
- Mold damage
- Meth lab cleanup
- Surface contamination
- Pest residue
- Pet urine and feces
They'll handle dumpster delivery and removal, too. Then, you can bill the tenant if it's clear they caused the damages but failing that, your property insurance and/or their renter's insurance policy will likely cover your costs.
Now, if things get so bad that you need to bring in a hazmat team, you're probably not going to want to renew that lease. And if your tenants have any self-respect at all, they're either going to make some changes or break the lease and move on. It's better to lose a tenant than lose thousands repairing damage caused by pests, mold, and neglect.
A Touch of Compassion
Now's a good time to note that some tenants are dirty simply because they're literally incapable of cleaning up according to their own usual standards. ("Lack of time", by the way, is not an acceptable excuse; neither is not knowing how to clean.) Illness, including untreated serious mood disorders, may call for some compassion; severe depression, for example, can cause the most exemplary tenant to exhibit shockingly uncharacteristic hygiene standards. Tread carefully here, but consider contacting National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) for advice on how to encourage your tenant to seek help. You'll also want to be sure your tenant provides an emergency contact who isn't part of the lease agreement so you can alert them to your suspicion that they're in crisis.
Ditch Your Dusty Landlord Handbooks
Stay on top of current laws, resources, and rental industry trends with VerticalRent. Our secure, online rental management tools make your job easier so you have the time and energy to put in the extra effort to optimize your rental income, investigate your potential tenants, and enjoy the proceeds of your hard work.
About the author
Matt Angerer is the Founder and President of VerticalRent. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics that help Landlords, Property Managers, and Renters across America. He is particularly interested in helping renters understand their local marketplace, pick the best places to live, and find an awesome roommate. Since 2011, VerticalRent has grown to service over 100,000 landlords and renters across America.