A thorough tenant screening process is critical for a landlord, but it doesn't protect you from occupants not on the lease. Once a tenant brings an unauthorized occupant onto the property, both you and your home are at risk.
Did you recently find out someone has been staying in your rental property without your permission? Have there been complaints from other tenants about their noise or behavior? Here's what you can (and should) do about it.
What qualifies as an unauthorized occupant?
Unauthorized tenants come in many forms. At their simplest, they're any person who is staying at the property but not officially authorized to do so in the rental agreement (either as the tenant or occupant).
Common unauthorized occupants you might encounter as a landlord include:
- Significant others or partners of your tenant.
- Your tenant's friends and extended family members.
- An additional roommate or subletter.
- Airbnb, VRBO, or other short-term rental guests, if the tenant has listed the property without your approval.
You can usually spot an unauthorized occupant if you see them coming and going consistently and at the same time from the property (they leave around 8 a.m. every morning, for example). This indicates they're keeping a regular schedule at the home, as you would your primary residence. You might also hear about unauthorized occupants from other tenants or neighbors, particularly if the occupant is being disruptive.
Pro tip: If you have security cameras on your property, scanning your footage regularly can help you pick up on possible unauthorized tenants before they become a problem.
What to do if you discover occupants not on lease
Once you know about an unauthorized occupant, you have a few options. First, if you want the occupant to leave the residential premises, you can send your tenant a notice instructing them to do so. Make sure to give them a deadline by which the occupant must vacate, and stop by (in person) on that date to ensure they've left the property.
Alternatively, you could also ask the unauthorized tenant to fill out your rental application, and run both a background and credit check on them. If they meet your standards, you can amend the lease and have both the original tenant and the new occupant as the official renters. You might even ask for an additional security deposit and, in some cases, a rent increase may also be appropriate.
Your last option would be to evict the master tenant due to their non-compliance with the lease agreement. This one is trickier, as you'll need to prove that the unauthorized person is actually living there (not just visiting or staying occasionally.)
Considerations before evicting the tenant
While it can certainly be angering to learn that your tenant has violated their lease and let an unapproved person occupy the property, evicting them isn't always the best (or most economical) answer.
Here are a few things you'll want to consider before you choose eviction as your course of action:
- The tenant's record. Do they pay on time? Have you had any problems with them? If they've been a model renter thus far, you may be better off just amending the lease to protect that bottom line.
- The property. Are the tenant and the new occupant taking care of the property? Have there been more repair or maintenance requests since they moved in? If your property is being well maintained and cared for, there might not be any reason to evict.
- The community. Are neighbors or other tenants complaining? Have they damaged communal property? Evicting may be necessary if their actions are upsetting other renters.
- The cost of eviction. Do you have the funds to pay for an attorney? What about the time and resources to pursue eviction proceedings? Make sure you're prepared before choosing this route.
- The possible vacancy. How long will it take you to prep and market the property? How much will it cost you if the property sits vacant for a few months? Letting the tenant finish out their lease might be the best move if you think it will be difficult to fill their rental unit.
- The proof. Do you have proof that the unauthorized person is actually living at your property? Can you prove that they have no other address/place of residence? Proving occupancy is critical if you want to show your tenant violated their lease agreement.
At the very least, you may want to consult with an attorney before going too far down the eviction road. They'll let you know if you have a case, as well as what your chances of actually evicting the tenant may be. They can also help you draw up an amended lease if that's the path you choose to take.
How to prevent unauthorized tenants
Prevention is always the best policy, and fortunately, there are a number of ways you can prevent unauthorized occupants from ever becoming a problem.
First, address them in your lease or rental agreement. What constitutes an occupant and what qualifies as just a guest? Does staying there 10 days out the month mean they're an occupant? You should also stipulate that you must be notified of any potential new occupants in writing before they inhabit the unit.
Being present and visible around the property can also help prevent unwanted residents. Tenants are less likely to violate their lease if they know you're keeping a watchful eye. Having on-site superintendents and property managers can help here as well.
Finally, avoid long-term leases. The longer a lease is, the more time the tenant has for their life circumstances to change (new partners, kids, pets, etc.). That opens the door for potential unauthorized tenants.
The bottom line
Unauthorized tenants are more common than you might think. As a landlord, it's important you recognize these residents as early as possible before they can damage your property, disrupt the community, or cause other problems for your business.
When you do spot an unauthorized tenant, take action fast and screen them just as thoroughly as you would any new renter. If they're unwilling to undergo screening or your background check reveals less-than-ideal results, eviction is always an option. Just make sure you consult a qualified attorney before making your move.