Being a landlord can be a scary thing.  You have this valuable property, with valuable appliances and flooring and fixtures that you want to keep in good, working order.  Yet you have to select a tenant based on a rental application, a handful of documents, and maybe a few minutes of meeting them.  Once your tenants start renting from you, they have the right to occupy your space without undue interference from you.  Your tenants seem okay on the outside, but you can’t really be sure, since you really don’t know them all that well.  So how do you know your tenants aren’t destroying your property?

How Do You Know Your Tenants Aren’t Destroying Your Property?  Step One: Find Good Tenants

The most important thing you can do for yourself as a landlord is to properly screen tenants.  That means that you’ve got to make them fill out an application, run their credit, consider running a background check, and review their pay stubs, latest bank statement, and other documentation to make sure they look like a good fit.

It’s not all about the paper, though.  You’ve got to meet the tenants in person, too.  Anybody who’s done any online dating can tell you that even if someone seems great on paper, and even if it seems like you’ve got a good vibe via email and text message, meeting someone in person is a whole different ballgame.  Would you rent to the perfect-on-paper tenant who shows up with an out of control kid who draws in pen on your walls during the showing and yanks all the lemons off your tree?  (Yeah, that really happened.)  Nope.  What about the tenant who nitpicks every minuscule detail and wants you to replace all the screens just because they’re not brand new, even though they have no holes and are entirely functional?  Nope.  Or the tenant who shows up to the walk-through absolutely reeking of cigarette smoke, and who swears they never smoke inside their house or their car?  No, no, no.  (If that were true, their clothes wouldn’t smell so much like smoke.)

Step Two: If Possible, Keep Eyes and Ears on the Property

Drive by the property at random, and at different times of day.  Check to see if the landscaping and paint look okay, or if there are fourteen cars parked in front of the property at night (a sign that your tenant may have moved in a bunch of their friends without telling you). If they’ve started storing sofas or appliances on the front porch, or if there’s a ton of trash thrown on the front lawn, you probably have bigger problems inside.

In addition, introduce yourself to a neighbor and give them your contact info so they can call you if there are problems.  Or if you have multiple units, pick your best tenant or two and make sure they have your cell phone number, and that they know they can call you if the other tenants are being troublesome.  Better to have a system for good tenants ratting out the bad ones, rather than the good ones quietly moving out because the bad ones keep causing trouble.

Step Three: Do Routine Check-ups

Remember that leasing property to a tenant means that the tenant has the right to “quiet enjoyment” of the leased premises.  That means you can’t show up once a week and knock on their door, demanding to be let inside to inspect the premises.  But you can enter the unit to show it to prospective tenants or to conduct maintenance, so long as you give adequate notice to the current tenant.  Adequate notice generally means at least 24 hours, but you’re wise to give 48 hours’ notice if possible.  (In the case of a true emergency, such as flooding or a fire, you wouldn’t need to give notice.)

If the tenant is planning on moving out, then you can inspect the rental in connection with the move-out, and in some states (like California), you are required to give the tenant the option of a pre-move-out inspection so you can let the tenant know what items they need to clean or repair to avoid having those items charged against their security deposit.  Doing a pre-move-out inspection is a good idea, whether or not the tenant requests it, because as a landlord, you’re going to want to have a heads-up about what things you’ll need to do to the unit to prepare it for your next tenant.

But let’s say your tenant isn’t planning on moving, and you saw a sofa and refrigerator stored on the front porch and fast food wrappers on the lawn, so you’re concerned that they might be damaging your property indoors.  The tenants haven’t reported any maintenance issues since they’ve moved in, which is a relief, but it also means you haven’t inspected the inside of the premises in about a year.  What do you do now?

Well, how long has it been since you’ve inspected the smoke detectors to make sure they’re working properly?  Smoke detector batteries are supposed to be changed twice a year.  Same with the filters on HVAC units.  If it’s your responsibility to change those items (check your rental agreement), then it’s reasonable to go into the unit, with proper advance notice, to check/change the batteries and filters.  Even if your lease says that it’s the tenant’s responsibility to replace those items, it’s a good idea to go into your rental at least once a year to ensure that the smoke detector batteries are fresh and the unit is functional.  Even if the smoke detectors are the sealed-battery type, it’s a good idea to go in and check that they are still there and that they work.  Defective batteries happen.  And some tenants will disable or remove their smoke detectors, particularly if they smoke (cigarettes or otherwise).  Of course, those are the tenants who are at the most risk of burning the place down.

While you’re in the unit, you can get a decent look at how your tenants are treating the place.  Remember that the idea is not to spy on your tenants, it’s to see if they are treating your property well.  Don’t go opening any drawers or checking inside closets, but you should be able to get a general sense for how they’re treating the property just by looking around while you’re checking smoke detectors.

Step Four: Read Between the Lines

If it seems like your tenant might be having extra people stay in the apartment, it’s probably true.  You should have a limit on the number of residents in your rental.  Having too many tenants in an apartment causes extraordinary wear and tear, from the carpet that gets twice as much foot traffic, to the bathroom that gets twice as much use (and doesn’t dry out well in between showers), to the street parking that gets crowded and annoying for your other tenants and neighbors.

If you set a maximum number of tenants in your property, make sure it's at least the minimum set by HUD (2 per bedroom + one per rental unit) and you're not discriminating against families.

How do you know for sure if too many people are staying in the apartment?  Counting shoes isn’t a great indicator, because some of us (*ahem*) might have too many shoes.  But beds are a good starting point.  If it’s a one-bedroom place and there are more than three beds, then you’ve got too many tenants.  Queen/king beds sometimes make the person count difficult, so an even more reliable indicator is to count toothbrushes.  You have to do this discreetly, of course.  You can’t go poking around in drawers to count.  But I’ve seen apartments (one in the new building I’m buying, for example) that have way too many people living in them, and sometimes there’s a big cup on the countertop that has about 8 or so toothbrushes in it (it’s a 2-bedroom unit).  Guess who’s going to be at the top of my list for move-outs once escrow closes?

Do you have a system for periodically inspecting the inside of your rental units?  Or do you just cross your fingers and hope for the best?