Don't rent to anyone before checking credit history, references, and background. Haphazard screening and tenant selection too often results in problems -- a tenant who pays the rent late or not at all, trashes your place, or lets undesirable friends move in. Use a written rental application to properly screen your tenants. For more information, see How to Screen and Select Tenants FAQ.
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 when and how you handle tenant complaints and repair problems, notice you must give to enter a tenant's apartment, and the like. For what to include in a lease or rental agreement, see Ten Terms You Must Include in Your Lease or Rental Agreement. Not sure which to use? See Whether to Use a Lease or Rental Agreement.
Establish a fair system of setting, collecting, holding, and returning security deposits. 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. For more information, see Leases and Rental Agreements FAQ.
Stay on top of maintenance and repair needs and make repairs when requested. If the property is not kept in good repair, you'll alienate good tenants, and tenants may gain the right to withhold rent, repair the problem and deduct the cost from the rent, sue for injuries caused by defective conditions, and/or move out without needing to give notice. For more information, see Repairs, Maintenance, and Entry to Rented Premises.
Don't let your tenants and property be easy marks for a criminal. 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 that expensive. For more information, see Criminal Acts and Activities: Landlord Liability FAQ.
Learn about your tenants' rights to privacy; see Repairs, Maintenance, and Entry to Rented Premises. Notify your tenants whenever you plan to enter their rental unit, and provide as much notice as possible, at least 24 hours or the minimum amount required by state law. For state-by-state information, see Chart: Notice Requirements to Enter Rental Property, State by State.
If there's a hazard such as lead or mold on the property, tell your tenants. Landlords are increasingly being held liable for tenant health problems resulting from exposure to environmental toxins in the rental premises. For more information on lead, see Lead Disclosures for Rental Property FAQ. Check your state law for other landlord disclosures.
Choose and supervise your property manager carefully. If a manager commits a crime or is incompetent, you may be held financially responsible. Do a thorough background check and clearly spell out the manager's duties to help prevent problems down the road.
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. For more information, see Tenant Injuries: Landlord Liability and Insurance FAQ.
Try to resolve disputes with your tenants without lawyers and lawsuits. 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 an 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. For more information, see Resolving Landlord-Tenant Disputes FAQ and check your state rules on handling security deposit disputes in small claims court.