What landlord hasn't had this happen: You're just sitting down to dinner and get a phone call or text. You pick up your phone and see it's a tenant.
"Oh no," you think. "What happened?"
Stress before dinner is never a good thing. Turns out it's only about the refrigerator filter -- or a clogged drain or a fluorescent light going out in the closet. You get the picture.
The issue was probably unworthy of a call to the landlord, but it happened anyway. So how do you change this tenant behavior?
(Let me preface this article by saying my tenants do not call me constantly, but it wasn't always that way. There's a reason for the change, and it really boils down to one particular action I took.)
Good communication is key
You want your tenants to feel free to contact you. If they notice a water stain on the ceiling, for example, they should let you know immediately so you can address the problem before it worsens. Home maintenance/repair issues do not improve over time; they need to be handled, usually as soon as possible.
The best ways to keep up with your investment property are to schedule periodic inspections and have your tenants alert you of possible problems as soon as they notice them. So your tenants should feel free to call you, even if they're unsure of whether they're noticing a problem. I have a clause in my lease that addresses this as follows:
Tenant agrees to immediately notify landlord of any defects or dangerous conditions in and about the premises of which they become aware.
That said, you don't want them calling you about issues they can easily handle themselves. So how do you strike the right balance between your tenants contacting you about important matters versus the small stuff?
Have a clear policy
To minimize your tenants calling you about every little thing, spell out your policies in the lease, such as what you are responsible for and what your tenant should handle. For example, my lease has a clause devoted to tenant maintenance responsibilities, stating:
Tenant agrees to keep the premises clean and sanitary and in good repair and, upon termination of the tenancy, to return the premises to landlord in a condition identical to that which existed when tenant took occupancy, except for ordinary wear and tear.
And here's the one item I added in my lease that made all the difference -- a very simple but important clause:
Tenant is responsible for minor repairs $50 and under.
This short but sweet clause means I no longer get calls about the porch light going out, refrigerator filters that need changing, or any other minor issue. Why? The tenants are empowered to do small tasks themselves without needing to alert me and then wait for me (or my agent) to fix them.
But make sure you act promptly for big issues
Although you don't necessarily need to react to all the little things your tenants should be doing for themselves, you still need to handle big issues; you own the property and must abide by the warranty of habitability by providing a unit fit for living.
If there's a plumbing or appliance issue, if the heat went out, or if any other major problem occurs, you need to respond to your tenant promptly and outline your plan of action. Let them know what you plan to do and the approximate timeline for when they can expect the repair to happen.
Note: If your tenant caused the problem, they need to either fix it themselves or hire someone to fix it. Or if you prefer to manage the job yourself, let your tenant know you will either bill them or deduct the cost from their security deposit.
How to handle a tenant request
When your tenant contacts you with a complaint or issue, analyze each situation separately. For a minor request, point out your lease clause, assuming you have one, that addresses this and let your tenant know what their responsibility is. If you don't have a lease clause that addresses minor repairs, you should probably handle them yourself, then put in a lease clause about minor repairs at lease renewal time. The key is to teach your tenants when to notify you and when to handle a minor repair themselves.
For a legitimate request, reassure your tenant you have noted the problem and will begin to work on resolving it in a timely manner. After the job is complete, follow through with your tenant to ensure the work was done satisfactorily.
The bottom line
Tenants don't need to contact the landlord for everything that comes up. But they should be encouraged to alert the landlord if something goes wrong that needs attention.
Mutual respect is key. As long as you do your part by responding to your tenants and fixing big things in a timely manner, your tenants should feel confident in you, which should lead to your tenants being more willing to do their part as well -- namely by taking care of small stuff on their own.