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April 11, 2024

What To Do If a Tenant Damages Your Property

Daniel Berlind
CEO

Welcome to the tumultuous world of property management, where the phrase “home sweet home” occasionally transforms into “home, slightly less sweet due to unexpected redecoration.” Ah, yes, the joys of being a property manager – collecting rent, maintaining properties, and occasionally discovering that your tenant has reimagined the living room wall as a canvas for avant-garde abstract art.

Before you pick up the phone and scream at them, let’s take a minute to review what property damage looks like, what your rights are, and the steps you can take to mitigate the issue.

What constitutes property damage?

Let’s establish what property damage is.

Property damage happens when the tenant destroys or damages the unit or community areas. This type of damage can decrease the property’s value and negatively impact its functionality. Examples include large holes in the wall, ripped-up carpet, or broken windows. Normal wear and tear (e.g., paint chipping over time, worn carpets, and tiny scratches on surfaces) is not property damage.

Steps to take if a tenant destroys your property

Oh no! You just entered a unit to find a gaping hole in the wall and a broken window. Now what?

Assess the damage

First, you need to examine the damage. We know your emotions are likely at an all-time high, and your first instinct is probably to scream (or even take a baseball bat to the unit out of frustration). Take a breath and look around you. How extensive is the damage? Is it just in one room, or are there multiple instances of damage?

Taking plenty of pictures will set you up for success when filing a claim or charging the tenant. Consider recording a video, too. Hopefully, you took enough photos before their move-in to compare the before and after shots.

Get an estimate

Now that you’ve got your evidence, it’s time to see what the repair cost will be. Reach out to your preferred contractor, send the photos, and let them know what happened. You may want to get an additional estimate from another contractor to compare pricing.

Coordinate and complete the repairs

In most cases, you likely won’t discover the property damage until the tenant moves out. Most tenants aren’t the most forthcoming when they’ve turned your unit into a rage room, so it’s up to you to try and get the facts.

If this occurs at the end of their tenancy, coordinating the repairs will be easy. No one lives in the unit anymore, so you can accomplish everything in a reasonable amount of time. When it comes to collecting payment from the tenant, you can simply deduct the charges from their security deposit and send them the invoice. Be warned – they may have questions about the charges or why something costs a specific amount, so have your response ready.

If you discover the damage during their tenancy (perhaps during an inspection or the tenant informed you right away), you can reach out via email and ask what happened. Coordinate with them to find a time when the contractor can come by and complete the work. Once work is complete, explain how they will be charged.

In this scenario, do your best to maintain professionalism and politeness. The tenant will still be living in your property, and you don’t want to damage the relationship.

Landlord rights when a tenant destroys property

The landlord or property manager’s rights will vary from state to state, but typically, the tenant is responsible for costs incurred by property damage outside of normal wear and tear. Damage caused by tenant neglect is their responsibility as well.

The tenant may try to blame it on someone or something else (“My cousin came into town and wrecked the place!”), but at the end of the day, their name is on the lease, and they are responsible.

Can you take legal action?

Sometimes, the damage may be so extensive, or the tenant may be so uncooperative that you need to get the law involved. Before this step, ensure you’ve documented everything, reviewed your local laws, and read through the lease agreement.

You have a few options when it comes to getting the law involved:

  • Contact the police. You won’t necessarily need to do this for simple cases, but this may be necessary if the damage is verging on vandalism.
  • File an insurance claim. Do a cost-benefit analysis to see if filing an insurance claim is right for your case. Speak with your insurance agent to understand the impact of filing an insurance claim for damages caused by the tenant. Your policy might reimburse you for damages, but it could also increase your annual premium.
  • Sue the tenant in small claims court. This is an option if the tenant refuses to pay and you need them to compensate you for the repairs.

As with anything, review your specific scenario and decide what’s best for your business. If the damage is minimal, it will likely cost more than it’s worth to take the tenant to court. Consider consulting an attorney to answer any questions you may have, especially if you plan to take legal action.

Keep your emotions in check

We get it – property damage is frustrating. It’s the icing on the cake of an already demanding job. Even so, it’s crucial to remain level-headed in these situations. Screaming at the tenant or taking it out on your vendors won’t solve the problem, and it’ll make you look extremely unprofessional.

If your property gets damaged, the best thing you can do is stop, take a breath, and begin work on resolving the issue. A set process for handling tenant-caused damage will save you time and prevent any additional headaches.

How to avoid bad tenants

So, how can you stop the damage before it happens? A surefire way to safeguard your property is to have a rigorous tenant screening process. Tenant screening is your first line of defense for preventing problems at your property and avoiding bad tenants.

Elements of a good screening process include:

  • Credit check
  • Background check (in states where it’s legal)
  • Rental history and references
  • Income and employment verification

You can also incorporate fraud detection into your screening process. These programs are designed to catch scammers before they sign a lease for your property.

Applicants have started to alter their income documents to make it look like they make more than they actually do to secure a property. Companies like Snappt use AI-enabled technology to scan bank statements and pay stubs for anomalies. By implementing fraud detection, you can catch these altered documents and use your findings when deciding on an applicant. Even better, Snappt’s tech can reduce evictions and bad debt by 51%. It’s a win-win!

Lastly, make sure you have a clear, easy-to-understand lease agreement. The lease should outline who is responsible for damages to the property, whether it’s wear and tear or something more severe. Having this in writing can significantly reduce your chances of pushback from the tenant and serve you well if it goes to court.

To Sum Up…

Dealing with property damage isn’t a fun task. It’s an extra task in your already full day of managerial duties. But by following these steps, knowing your rights, and tackling the situation, you can handle it like a pro.