COVID-19 created a perfect storm for landlords, many of whom were thrown curveball after curveball, requiring them to adjust on the fly for their renters. The most challenging part for a landlord during the pandemic has not been the inability to collect rent, but the ongoing duty to maintain the property and to control emotions brought on by the pandemic.
Landlords’ obligations were not put on hold during the pandemic, but COVID made it more difficult to fulfill them. Even if tenants are unable to, or refuse to pay rent, landlords are still required to manage tenant disputes, assure tenants’ ordinary safety- and extraordinary safety when and if a tenant contracted the COVID - and maintain the property when many building maintenance services were closed or limited.
Landlords are not relieved of their duties until the landlord-tenant relationship ends, either by agreement with the tenant or by order of the court. For landlords who ignored their duties during COVID, their inaction could have serious legal implications, including the ability to recover costs and to profit.
We do not know when another disaster will appear, but landlords can learn important basic lessons from the COVID crisis.
1. THE IMPORTANCE OF CASH RESERVES
During this pandemic, property owners paying federally backed mortgages were allowed to forbear their required payments. That may not be the case next time. Even without the forbearance, landlords must understand that the mortgage is not their only expense. They are required to maintain the leasehold in a habitable condition, including but not limited to maintaining a clean building free from pests, with properly functioning plumbing, heating and electricity.
2. SCREEN YOUR TENANTS
Preventing litigation is better than litigating. So, although it seems easier to choose tenants who agree to pay a higher price, can pay immediately, will move in quickly, and claim to hold a steady job, it is vital to conduct a thorough background check to review their credit history. It can help you in understanding the tenant better. Some tenants are financially solvent, but have poor money management skills. A high credit score generally indicates a person who cares about their credit. They may have a habit of paying their debts on time and in full. They may be less likely to believe the misconception surrounding COVID-19 that they are excused from paying rent, with or without a reason to do so.
3. COMMUNICATING WITH TENANTS
Tenants are human, and they interact with one another. During a high-stress event, including the pandemic, conflict between tenants may be heightened. A landlord has a duty to keep the property safe and habitable. It is important to have a pulse on the situation, be diligent and thorough when faced with an issue, and to be fair with all tenants. The best way to manage and minimize problems is to keep open communication with all tenants. As a bonus, open communications help you maintain the property and resolve minor issues before they become major.
4. MAINTAINING PROPERTIES
A landlord has a duty to keep their rental habitable and, in some instances, to repair and replace damaged items. A well-maintained property keeps both the landlord and the tenant safe. During the pandemic, it was difficult for landlords enter their property, especially when people were told to isolate and remain at home. However, landlords still were required to obtain the necessary materials and find service providers to make the repairs. Planning and tending to the property needs on an ongoing basis will benefit the landlord and the tenant in the future.
5. THE PAIN OF AN EVICTION
“The cost of evictions varies a lot, but it could be for landlords an expensive process as well. Among the costs for landlords as well is the emotional cost of an eviction.”-Matthew Desmond
It is no secret that evictions are expensive. In normal times, evictions take months to complete. The pandemic only lengthened the time for evictions to conclude. Even when an eviction has concluded, and the court has granted possession of the property and holdover rent, a legal judgment may need to be enforced. Landlords can ask the local sheriff to remove former tenants and commence their collection efforts through a garnishment or levy. Landlords, however cannot physically remove the tenant from the premises.
When a landlord asks the sheriff to remove tenants from the property, the sheriff must provide written notice to the tenants, explaining when they will appear on the property to remove the tenant. The notice will state a date after a tenant is instructed to leave the property pursuant to the court judgment. Tenants may confuse the date the sheriff provides and believe it is a government sanctioned extension for them to stay in the property. When tenants vacate the property, they sometimes commit waste by leaving old furniture and trash on the property. The landlord may be required to store the furniture for 15 days before the tenant legally abandons the property.
Evictions are tiring and stressful. If a tenant files an answer to a lawsuit, they often check a litany of defenses on the court’s form. The landlord must respond to each defense, often requiring an in-depth review of past communications and repair records. Even if landlords receive a judgment from the court, they must analyze their resources and determine whether the extra effort is worth enforcing the judgment. Ultimately, the landlord must have sufficient cash reserves to withstand an eviction.
6. SEEK GOOD LEGAL ADVICE
Courts were closed during the pandemic, and when they reopened, many landlords were unable to evict tenants for non-payment of rent. While landlords were able to evict tenants during the pandemic, courts could not hear cases predicated on non-payment of rent. Some landlords sought eviction based on a breach of contract claim. Unfortunately, contract claims are not as straightforward and easy to prove as non-payment of rent.
The pandemic was and is a challenging time for landlords, and their tenants. Landlords should remember that they provide the necessity of a home to tenants, and a duty to maintain that property. They invested in real estate because it seemed like a less risky business than other investment opportunities, but no business is without risk. The tips outlined above will hopefully help landlords understand their duties, minimize their risks, and keep their investments profitable. Communicating with and keeping good tenants will help the community and the landlord survive difficult times.