How to Handle Dirty Tenants

Written by on April 1, 2013

How to Handle Dirty Tenants

Dirty Tenants are Risky Business!

Dirty tenants can be landlord’s nightmare, and oh boy, are they expensive! They can bring down the real and perceived value of your rental property.

Unclean living conditions will not only damage the property, but they will attract bugs and rodents, and ultimately make it very difficult to re-rent. If you learn to spot a dirty tenant before they become your tenant, you will be able to save yourself a lot of grief.

If it’s already too late, and your property smells like a trash depot, then you’ll want to take action immediately.  If your lease allows it, mandate that they clean up.  If not, kick them out at the end of their lease.  If they fail to clean at lease termination, you can hire a cleaning company and deduct it from their deposit – again, if your lease allows it.

What is “Dirty”?

Generally speaking, Landlords cannot dictate the cleaning behavior of a tenant unless they have reason to believe the tenant is violating health or fire codes, or causing damage to themselves, the property, or other people.  With that said, if your lease states that the tenant must hire a monthly maid service, then that is a contractual expense which should hold up in court.

one-roach

Examples of “Dirty Tenants”

  • Anything from the TV show Hoarders
  • Mold growing up the bathroom wall
  • Animal feces not in a litter box
  • Garbage in the house that is more than a week old
  • Signs of rodents or roaches (learn how to kill roaches)
  • A potent smell coming from the property
  • Unsafe chemicals lying around the property
  • Rotten food or dirty dishes that are never cleaned
  • Appliances that are “sticky” to the touch and their performance is affected
  • Junk piled up so that it blocks the furnace intake and prevents proper air circulation
  • Anything that looks dirty enough that it could start the Zombie Apocalypse

Have a Rock-Solid Lease

In the multifamily rental industry (such as high-rise apartments), it is just easier to let the tenant trash the unit, and then just completely renovate after the lease ends.  Large apartment buildings usually have on-site maintenance crews who can lay 2000 sq/ft of carpet before breakfast.

In my case, and most do-it-yourself landlords, money doesn’t grow on trees – therefore we cannot afford to replace the carpet after every tenant.

If the cost (consequence) of unclean habits is high enough, tenants will typically change their habits.

Lease Agreement Icon

My approach is to be tough up front (in the lease) and then be more lenient when it comes time to enforce the rules.  I’ve found that it’s impossible to force tenants to clean the carpets if you don’t have a clause in the lease that backs you up.

To help you, I’ve listed my favorite “cleaning” clauses at the end of this article.  If you need a complete lease, make sure to buy one that is written specifically for your state.

The US and UK Regulations Differ

To my knowledge the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) does not prohibit US Landlords from enforcing general cleanliness in the lease.  However, in the UK, the Unfair Terms of Consumer Contracts of 1999, says that a cleaning mandate is not “fair” to the tenant and creates a contractual “imbalance”.

Ignorant vs. Lazy Tenants

Ignorance can be Taught

Sometimes the issue is just that they don’t know how to keep a clean house.  Perhaps no one has ever showed them!  This is common with tenants who have just graduated college and are just learning how to live on their own.  In this case, I think it’s important for you to show them exactly what you want cleaned and to what degree.  Show them which cleaning brushes and chemicals work best for the various parts of the house.

When doing this, put aside any frustrations, and try to have a heart of a teacher.  If you don’t judge them, nor act condescending, your tenants will actually thank you (seriously) for the quick lesson in “shower cleaning 101“.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” - Lao Tzu

There is No Cure for Laziness

Other times, tenants don’t have the money to buy cleaning supplies, so they just don’t bother. If this is the case, they will be hardened to your help, nothing you do will motivate them to clean. You’ll just have to wait it out. At the end of their lease, you should refuse to renew their lease, hire a professional cleaning company, and then charge it back them.

Hopefully you wouldn’t rent to a flat-out-broke tenant in the first place, but it is indeed hard to screen a tenant for laziness.

Dirty Room

3 Ways to Help Your Tenants Clean

1. Hire Maids:

Maid ServiceEnsureI have a clause  in my lease that allows me to hire a maid service, at my discretion, and at my tenant’s expense. I have used this clause before, to hire a monthly maid service to clean a mistreated rental property. When enforcing this clause, tenants typically become annoyed and insulted. Because they are insulted, these tenants usually don’t opt to renew their lease at term end. Hiring a maid is a win-win for me – the property stays clean and the dirty tenants don’t renew their lease.

2. Describe the Tenant’s Cleaning Responsibilities

Easy OffEnsure that your lease describes the proper cleaning practices that you expect.  I have some lengthy clauses that describe the cleaning tasks that my tenants are responsible for. You can enforce this clause under threat of eviction for a lease violation. I rarely ever want to evict a tenant, so I threaten to hire a maid service and bill the tenants for it. I even provide them with a checklist of common cleaning tasks – and which cleaning products work best.  Most tenants don’t know how to clean an oven – and that Easy Off makes it a walk in the park.

3. Show Tenants How to Clean

Clean this wayAt the beginning of the lease or whenever you have issues, tour the house with them and point out areas that will need regular cleaning. If they look confused, show them how to properly clean it. Remember, this is your property, and everything will last longer if it is cleaned regularly. I commonly show tenants how to use a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. I know it’s simple (get wet, rub on wall), but they often don’t realize how easy cleaning can be.

Applicable Lease Clauses

I use the following clauses in my leases to identify with responsibilities and general cleanliness in my rental properties.  These clauses give me “teeth” in the fight against dirty tenants.

Forums & Related Articles

Here are some quality forums and articles that talk about dealing with dirty tenants:

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16 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Michelle Clark

    The tenant next to me has the smell of feces coming into the hall and into my apartment. I am losing sleep and peace of mind with this health hazard. mC

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Michelle,

      I would lose sleep too in that situation. I would suggest informing the landlord and/or health dept. of the situation. It’s a sad truth, but potent smells are sometimes the sign that someone has died in their unit.

  • Laurie

    There is this tenant that never takes out his dogs and his apartment smells of dog urine. He opens the window and the smell is horrible. Also the smell is going into the neighboring units. How do I, as the office manager, write a letter to him to notify him that there have been several complaints?

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Laurie,
      It sounds like this tenants is not only messy, but is creating an unsanitary situation for other tenants. He is probably in violation of a health code by allowing the animals to use the bathroom in the unit.

      If you are sure that the unit is exactly how the neighbors are describing, I would send a very stern letter, giving him notice to remedy the situation or he will have to vacate.

      Check your state laws: http://www.landlordology.com/state-laws, to see how much notice to you have to give him.

      If he were my tenant, I wouldn’t tolerate this. He’s destroying your property, and causing issues with other tenants. He is effecting your ability to rent multiple units, and he either needs to clean up, or move out.

      If he does neither, I would wait until the notice period is over, then terminate the lease and file for an eviction, Also, notify your local health and housing department to perform an inspection. They will create a report that you can use as evidence in the eviction. Remember to take lots of pictures when you go to inspect the unit.

      Good luck!

  • Gpq

    My landlord uses the same entrance as me it is a double gated one . anyway to cut to the chase he has lots of wood and metal and gas bottles laying around with old boxes and broken refrigeration units . my kids use this area to play what are the legal standings on an issue like this as i have asked him to remove it but he tells me i have only rented the house an not the area i have to walk through to get to the house . If my kids injury themselves in this area can i sue him ?

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi there,

      Yes, the landlord is responsible for making the premise safe, which includes all entrances and parking spaces. Considering that is your main entrance, he needs to make it safe. If your kids hurt themselves, I think you could sue for damages.

      With that said, I’m not a lawyer nor is this legal advice. I’m just an experienced landlord.

      • Gpq

        Hi lucas , Thank you for your reply i must admit i was thinking i could but with his answers i was rethinking to myself that’s why i had to post . As his answer to me is all the time tell them not to play there ” its an area where they cycle up an down on the bicycles ” and also gives me his other answer that i dont rent that area only the house an garden but i have to pass through this area to get to the house i rent which he says we both have access to.

  • Jolene

    Need some advice, I have a tenant that does not clean the house, they have two small children living in the mess. I recently went into the home to do repairs to a water line and noticed that they have the back door completely blocked with dirty clothes and trash bags, I could hardly get to breaker box, I’ve asked them gentley to please clean the house but need further advice on legally what to do

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Jolene,

      For starters, if you have a clause in your lease (like the one above) that mandates cleaning, then everything gets really simple from here on out. Then, you are just enforcing the lease, and can hire maids at their expense, or even terminate the lease for the violation.

      But if you don’t have any sort of promise or agreement from the tenant to clean in the lease, then you are left to go by the county or city habitation ordinances. If you feel that the lack of cleaning is causing a housing or fire code violation, then you should contact the authorities and report the case. They will send out an inspector, who will issue a warning or force the tenant to move out.

      I can’t tell you what you should “legally” do, since I’m not a lawyer, but a phone call to the county/city would be a great place to start if your lease doesn’t give you any leverage.

  • Maurice Eddy

    I agree with having a cleaning clause in the agreement. I have a supplementary page of conditions to go with the standard Rental Agreement used in New Zealand. It covers car parking, noise, cooking strong odoriferous food, cleaning carried out before the tenancy started and carpet cleaning on tenants exit etc. At an inspection 6 weeks ago I was very disappointed with several issues of cleanliness. The tenants didn’t stay so we went ahead, as we are allowed to, and wrote a duplicate copy of concerns and labelled most of them as “Health Risks” and photographed them. I offered to go through each point with the tenants and offer advice of what products to use and how mould and sticky surfaces could be avoided. The young lady was very thankful but her male flatmate doesn’t talk to us. I also have them a page of things to help keep them get their bond back when they do vacate.

  • Jenn

    Hi I am a first time landlord. I bought a landlord package at office depot because I wasn’t quite sure what to put in it. I had a good feeling about the tenants when interviewing them, but each month I’ve had to text/call them on the 3rd of each month because I hadn’t heard from them. This is frustrating, but today I had to go over with a repairman because the washer wouldn’t work. I decided to buy a new washing machine because of the price of repair, but am reluctant to put it in there because they are not taking care of the current machines. When I got there, they were filthy dirty and it looked like a dust storm had gone through there and left dirt everywhere. I want to talk to them about it, but worry that they may do more damage if they feel embarrassed or upset by me saying something about about their cleanliness. I just don’t want any damage to my home. Any advice?????

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Jenn,

      My non-legal advice is to have a serious conversation with your tenants. Don’t try to be their friend. You have to accept the fact that they might not like you. If they damage the home, you can withhold their deposit to make repairs.

      It’s important for them to know that you take damage seriously, and you take them to court and ruin their credit if they cause severe damage.

      Encourage them to keep the place clean, but be realistic. Some people are just slobs. If they are not great tenants, you might want to even ask them if they would like to get out of their lease early? Then, if they say yes, give yourself 60 days to find another tenant, and then allow the bad tenants to leave.

      Also, I started using Cozy (http://www.cozy.co) last year to collect my rent. Since then, I’ve never had a late payment. Everything is automatic. No more awkward phone calls. Check it out.

      FYI, I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. I’m just an experienced landlord, trying to help.

    • Lucas Hall

      By the way, I would probably install the new washer – mainly b/c I wouldn’t want to fix the old one if it’s just going to break again.

      I would make sure the tenants area aware they are are not to put sharp objects, belts, coins, etc into the machine, and I will be holding them responsible for any excessive damage or abuse.

  • CoryB

    Hi Lucas~

    Thanks for starting Ladlordolgy!! I just discovered it, and it’s great! i have a question about cleaning. My tenant has given me notice that he’s moving out in 2 months (after a 2 yr lease). When I let him know that I would give him notice when I show the unit to new potential renters , he went nuts and said that I would be violating his privacy rights if I show my unit.. lol.. that’s obviously laughable (kinda, but really annoying).. but he then stated that he’s going to keep the unit so messy that no one will want to rent it. Do I have any recourse here? I didn’t put anything in the lease about cleaning, but can I require him to have it clean for showings?? ..is there anything I do??

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Cory

      I don’t believe you can require him to clean unless you had something in the lease.

      I would hope that he will change his mind because after all, you still have his deposit!

      You are correct that you have every right to show the place to potential tenants – just be sure to give proper notice before arriving.

      I suggesting you try to motivate him to clean by saying “the cleaner it is, the faster it will go, and then I don’t have to continue showing it and disturbing your privacy. The dirtier it is the longer it will take for me to rent. Do you want me to come over just a few times, or 20 times?”

      Also, just a word of caution, anytime this has happened to me, it usually means the tenant is hiding something – like drugs, a pet, or an illegal subletter.

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