Top Ten Tips for Landlords

Simple suggestions to help your landlord or property management business run smoothly.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Being a landlord has its ups and downs, but there's plenty a landlord can do to ensure that the good days outnumber the bad. The number one way to make sure your landlording business is prosperous and enjoyable is to find and retain good tenants. Here are 10 tips that will set you up for success.

Tip #1: Get prepared before tenants move in

If you're a new landlord, you're going to have to do some prep work to get the rental and your business processes dialed in before a prospective tenant ever sets foot in the door. If you're a seasoned landlord, you've still got homework to do. Make sure you:

  • Get insured. Purchase enough liability and other property insurance. A well-designed insurance program can protect you from lawsuits by tenants for injuries or discrimination and from losses to your rental property caused by everything from fire and storms to burglary and vandalism.
  • Switch over utility bills. Put the utilities, including water and trash, into your name. You can always switch them into a tenant's name when you've secured a renter.
  • Make repairs. You have a duty to provide a safe and habitable rental, and you can't advertise your property until it meets basic habitability standards. Check to make sure all appliances and systems such as plumbing and HVAC are in good working condition.
  • Set up good recordkeeping systems. You'll want a reliable system for tracking potential tax deductions, tenant complaints, rents paid, and all other information relevant to managing your property.
  • Learn your state's landlord-tenant laws. State laws cover every aspect of renting out property: choosing tenants, providing a habitable rental, collecting and using security deposits, dealing with tenants who pay rent late or cause other problems, and much more. Even if you hand over day-to-day management to someone else, you still retain legal responsibility should things go wrong.

Tip #2: Screen all potential tenants

Require all adults who want to live in your rental to submit a complete rental application. Don't rent to anyone before checking their credit history, references, and background. (Note that some states and cities prohibit you from inquiring about an applicant's criminal history.) Ensure that your screening procedure doesn't violate any fair housing laws, and don't collect any application fees that aren't allowed under state law. Haphazard screening and tenant selection too often result in problems, such as a tenant who pays the rent late (or not at all), trashes your place, or lets undesirable friends move in.

Tip #3: Get it in writing

Be sure to use a written lease or month-to-month rental agreement to document the important facts of your relationship with your tenants—including the basics about rent payment and tenant responsibilities, the security deposit, and dispute resolution.

Also consider writing up your rental policies in a move-in letter. The letter can include information such as how tenants can report needed repairs, quiet hours, and garbage and recycling policies. You can make these policies an attachment to your lease or rental agreement or post them in a conspicuous place at the rental.

Tip #4: Handle security deposits carefully

Establish a fair system of setting, collecting, holding, and returning the amounts tenants pay up front as a security deposit. Inspect and document the condition of the rental unit before the tenant moves in, to avoid disputes over security deposits when the tenant moves out. Check out your state's law to ensure you are handling and returning security deposits correctly.

Tip #5: Continue to provide a safe and habitable rental

Stay on top of maintenance and repair needs, and make repairs when requested. If the property isn't kept in good repair, you'll alienate good tenants, and they might be legally entitled to withhold rent, repair the problem and deduct the cost from the rent, sue for injuries caused by defective conditions, or move out without giving notice.

Tip #6: Provide secure premises

Don't let your tenants and property become easy marks for a criminal—landlords have a duty to take reasonable measures to prevent crime at their rentals. Assess your property's security and take reasonable steps to protect it. Often the best measures, such as proper lights and trimmed landscaping, are not terribly expensive.

Tip #7: Don't enter a rental unit without giving proper notice

Tenants have a right to privacy in their rental unit—after all, it's their home. Notify your tenants whenever you plan to enter their rental unit. Learn your state's law about how and when you have to give notice. If your state doesn't have a landlord entry law, provide as much notice as possible (at least 24 hours is considered reasonable in most situations).

Tip #8: Disclose environmental hazards

If there's a hazard such as lead, mold, or bed bugs at the property, tell your tenants, either before they move in or as soon as you become aware of the problem. Landlords can be held liable for tenant health problems resulting from exposure to environmental toxins in the rental premises. Check your state law for other required landlord disclosures.

Tip #9: Oversee property managers

If you decide to hire a property manager or a management company, you'll need to choose and supervise them carefully. If a manager commits a crime or is incompetent, you might be held financially responsible. Do a thorough background check and clearly spell out the manager's duties so as to help prevent problems down the road.

Tip #10: Try to work with tenants

Lawsuits are expensive and time consuming, so it's in your best interests to take reasonable steps to avoid heading to court. If you have a conflict with a tenant over rent, deposits, repairs, your access to the rental unit, noise, or some other issue that doesn't immediately warrant a termination and eviction, meet with the tenant to see if the problem can be resolved informally.

If that doesn't work, consider mediation by a neutral third party, often available at little or no cost from a publicly funded program.

If your dispute involves money, and all attempts to reach agreement fail, try small claims court, where you can represent yourself. Small claims court is good for collecting unpaid rent or seeking money for property damage after a tenant moves out and the security deposit is exhausted.

Additional Resources

Although being a landlord can be challenging sometimes, there's not much you can't handle on your own by doing a bit of research. Nolo offers a number of landlord books that provide nearly all the information you'll need to operate legally and efficiently. Also, there's no need to start from scratch to create forms such as a rental application or lease—Nolo has many landlord-tenant forms available on its website.

All that being said, there are some legal issues a landlord probably shouldn't tackle on their own, such as responding to fair housing complaints, personal injury lawsuits, and contested evictions. When you're faced with a legal problem that has the potential to cost you a lot of money or seriously damage your reputation, it's best to consult with a local landlord-tenant attorney.

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