How to Handle Dirty Tenants

Written by on April 1, 2013

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.

Forums & Related Articles

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

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75 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Melisse

    Hi! I own a triplex and have ongoing garbage recycling tenant wars! Two of the units gang up on the one unit that does not “properly” recycle into the correct cans. And one tenants regularly sends photos to me of the garbage unit to show the non-compliance problems.

    I have talked to the tenants , shown them how recycle correctly and given them Waste Management brochures. Charged a Non- Compliance $50 fee twice and yet they don’t get it.
    I am not sure what the next step is. This is certainly not an eviction matter?

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Melisse,

      I agree with you, it does not seem like an eviction matter – in my non-legal opinion. Further, does the waste management company even care? I mean, what do they do when they show up to collect the recyclables? Do they spend a few minutes sorting them, and fine you?… or do they just dump everything into a single dumpster and sort it out at the facility?

      If the waste management company doesn’t care, then neither should you or your tenants. But if you are getting fined for their actions, you certainly can pass that expense along. Also, I would be weary of charging a $50 fee if it wasn’t specifically in the lease. Further, if “proper” recycling isn’t in your lease either, then technically that tenant is not violating the lease – but rather just creating a community nuisance.

      It’s been said that hardest thing on this earth to change is human behavior. Sometimes you just need to ride it out, and hold them responsible for their damages. If I were in your shoes, I would continue to fine them, but I’d also know that I’m not sure if it would hold up in court. Further, I’d probably have a conversation with the other tenants and say “I know it’s annoying, and I will keep fining them, but it’s not an evictionable offense. When their lease is over, I will refuse to renew”. Hopefully, you can salvage any merit that you have with the other tenants.

      With that said, if that bad tenant is on a month-to-month agreement, you could terminate it for any reason, usually with 30 days notice, but sometimes less. Please check your state laws to see how much notice you need to give to terminate a periodic lease:

      I hope that helps. Please know that I’m not a lawyer, nor is this legal advice. I’m just an experienced landlord, trying to help. If you talk to a lawyer, he/she might tell you that you can kill a fixed lease over this – which would be nice for you.

  • Desiree Salazar

    I have a downstairs neighbor that leaves her trash, rotting food, and all her kids toys all over the property. I live upstairs and she likes to leave a trail of trash, food, and toys up and down the stairs. I’ve let my landlord know several times about it and it never gets resolved. It just gets worse. I’m hoping someone could tell me how to handle this cuz my landlord doesn’t.I have already had altercation with this neighbor so talking will not help. I feel I might need to go above my landlord head and go to Code enforcement. Help

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Desiree,

      I’m sorry to hear about the dirty neighbor. I don’t know how some people can live like that!

      Anyway, you certainly can call your local county code enforcement. You also might want to call the health dept.

      Also, keep in mind, if the landlord gets a fine, or gets in trouble, he will likely get angry with you. Some states have laws against retaliation, but others do not. If you are not protected by a retaliation law, then your lease could get terminated or perhaps you won’t get an offer to renew.

      If you are month-to-month, you could just end your lease with proper notice and find a cleaner place to live. Sometimes that is the best solution.

      Check our state law guides to see if your state has laws on retaliation.

      Also, please know that I’m not a lawyer, nor is this legal advice. Good Luck!

  • Angie

    You mentioned that you provide the tenants with a checklist of common cleaning tasks- can you share that? I want to include that when I sit down with tenants at the lease signing. Great ideas by the way, love your lease clauses on cleanliness!

  • Pam

    As far as you know Is it legal in Utah to include the cleaning clause in the lease agreement?

  • Jess

    Hi. I’m actually a tenant and I’m looking for some help. My neighbor is not very clean. My husband and I developed a NASTY gnat infestation about a year ago. For MONTHS we could not get rid of them. We would kill them like crazy, we made sure there were no sources for them to live in, and my apartment is absolutely spotless. I have no children & we take garbage out every day. Our complex did an inspection and it was discovered that the guy next door had MOUNDS and MOUNDS of beer bottles. A maid service was hired to clear out the apartment, and once it was cleaned out, the gnat infestation went COMPLETELY away. Fast forward a few months, & they’re coming back. I always see them come from our bathroom sink. How can I fix this?

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Jess,

      I’ve never heard of a nat infestation, but if they have a food supply, I suppose they’ll keep coming back. I’m not sure how to get rid of nats. You might need to hire a pest extermination company.

      Sorry I couldn’t be more help. Please let me know how it goes.

  • Patricia

    Please send me a cleaning check list for California.

    Thank you:)

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