How to Handle Dirty Tenants

Written on April 1, 2013 by , updated on May 13, 2016

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.


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.

Download the Cleaning Guide

Update: so many people have asked for my cleaning guide in the comments below, so I’ve decided to post it here.  Enjoy!

Forums & Related Articles

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

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138 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Alex Wang

    Hello, I am a landlord who lives in the same house as tenants, and I am looking for opinions from Lucas Hall and other landlords.

    For one year, I have rarely complained about messes my tenants made. Also, the mess is usually small (a little spill of oil or sauce on counter, stove, other kitchen areas or a drop of rice or other foods here and there). I used to clean up after them. This year though I am trying to get them in the habit of cleaning up after themselves, even if it is as small as a grain of rice dropped on the floor. This is because the house has roach and mice infestation, something that never happened before anyone moved in. Do you think it is too much to ask them to clean up after very small minor messes? Thanks for feedback.

  • Leah

    My property is not in the best of areas, I want to make some minor upgrades to make this place look cleaner, more appealing. I am frustrated as i spend so much money on fixing up (painting, new windows etc) for them to ruin. I then can not use the deposit as ransom as they hold out to move on that very last month, during an eviction process… and then its me shelling out the same money to fix again.Any advice is welcome. Do you feel making your presense more prominent on the property helps, or hard screening?

  • Brenda

    Love the article, loved the photo!! So real!
    In NC there’s a maintenance addendum (Form 440T) I make every tenant sign with the rental agreement. If I notice something has not been done, I notify them immediately.

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