You get a phone call from one of your renters at 1 a.m. that wakes you from a deep sleep. Groggy and exhausted, you let it go to voicemail.
In the morning, you listen to the message and learn that the tenant was upset about noise disruption from an apparent party being held next door. Relieved that it wasn't an emergency, you delay returning the tenant's caller for two days. But now the tenant is more upset than when she left the voicemail. Two months later, that tenant doesn't renew her lease, and you have an empty unit that needs to be filled.
The moral to the story? It's almost always best to respond punctually to a tenant's request or grievance, say the experts.
Put yourself in the renter's shoes
"Most tenants are reasonable and have simple needs. They just want to know that you're there for them and will address any issues in a timely manner," says Caleb Liu, owner of House Simply Sold in Orange, California, a real estate firm that buys and flips properties. "If you treat them right, they will probably return the favor."
Greg Bond, a real estate investor and CEO/founder of Maitland, Florida-headquartered Renovation 320, a firm that buys, renovates, and sells homes, agrees.
"It's important to respond promptly to keep good tenant relations on a personal level. And on a business level, you also want to assess the situation to make sure it's not something that will cost you or your owners a large sum of money," explains Bond, who notes that your on-time response may not only increase the rate of lease renewals but result in positive reviews for your property online.
Your legal obligations
"It's in your best interest to respond to all tenant complaints in a timely manner to avoid possible habitability lawsuits, which can arise when a tenant feels ignored," says Anderson Franco, a San Francisco-based real estate attorney. "Once a habitability suit is in litigation, the tenant and their attorneys are incentivized to continue pursuing it until you compensate the tenant for their damages," cautions Franco. He adds that how quickly you are legally required to reply to and resolve a complaint will vary from state to state.
"Generally, the standard is that landlords must address the issue within a reasonable amount of time," Franco says. "For example, if the tenant complains that their unit is flooded by a broken water main, the gravity of the situation necessarily requires that the landlord respond immediately. But if they complain of a sink that drains slowly, you can probably wait a few days to address the complaint."
The flip side of the argument
However, replying too quickly when it's not an urgent matter can sometimes send the wrong message -- that you're on call 24/7, 365 days a year, to solve every minor inconvenience a tenant may have. That can end up wasting a lot of your time and result in frustration and landlord burnout.
"The benefits of not responding too quickly are that tenants will probably reach out less often, allowing you to get more work done on other aspects of your business," Bond says. "But this can have negative consequences, too. Tenants may end up not feeling comfortable reaching out to you for anything, which can cause simple problems to turn into big ones and, eventually, big costs for you."
Kurt Westfield, managing director for WC Equity Group in Tampa, Florida, recommends establishing a communication protocol with tenants before they move in.
"It's prudent to have a separate 24-hour answering service they can call when emergencies occur. The service will then alert you immediately. But when it comes to non-emergencies and maintenance requests, require that these be formally submitted to you via email or text so that you have a legal record," suggests Westfield.
Franco says it's good practice to document every complaint and repair -- even if the complaint and your response were made verbally -- and to keep good records that you can retrieve, if necessary, to establish that you've done your job as a landlord.
"I would reply to a tenant text or email with a phone call, which allows you to dig deeper into the complaint and may end up saving time because you can converse quicker and with more clarity on the phone," advises Joshua Eberly, founder of 717 Home Buyers, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based real estate investing firm.