Learn the rules of rental maintenance

Formal system for repair requests prevents legal trouble

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 23, 2010

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Formal system for repair requests prevents legal trouble

Robert Griswold
Inman News

Q: I have been an apartment manager at smaller buildings for many years and have just recently become the manager of a 50-unit apartment building. I learned that the prior manager was very informal about most policies and procedures, especially tenant requests for maintenance and repairs. She would simply write them down on a notepad and toss them when the handyman completed his work.

I also think the tenants were asking the handyman to make repairs without contacting the manager first.

Tenants have asked me why I'm being so formal -- they believe it's unnecessary. I haven't been at a large property before, but am I right that a more formal system should be put in place?

A: I appreciate your concern and have had the same experience where both managers and tenants think that a formal written maintenance request is a waste of time. On the contrary, having a written system of recording requests for maintenance from tenants is vital and has many benefits for both the landlord and the tenant. And while it's ideal for the tenant to place his or her concerns in writing, a manager can have a policy of accepting verbal requests and then documenting the contact in writing and recording all of the important information.

While at some communities e-mail or online requests are becoming more common, there are still many times when you will receive the request for service by telephone. While you need to be respectful of your tenant's time, you also need to ask questions to gather a detailed description of the necessary maintenance and the precise location of the problem.

This information allows you to make an informed decision as to the urgency of the problem and determine the proper person to handle the work. It also gives you the chance to make sure that the proper tools, equipment and parts will be available at the first service call, if possible.

Be sure that your tenants know that they cannot contact your handyman or maintenance person directly. Tenants may think they're doing you a favor by contacting the maintenance person rather than hassling you with their problem, or they may remember another problem when the maintenance person is in their rental unit working on something else. But either way, require all service requests to be routed through management. Then, whenever a tenant contacts you with a maintenance problem, you can properly record all information in writing on a tenant's maintenance request form.

You should always have proof that the tenant gave permission to enter the rental unit either by signing the maintenance request form in person or by giving approval on the telephone or by e-mail. If the tenant cannot sign the request in person, make a specific note indicating the date and time, and who gave permission to enter.

All tenant maintenance requests should be entered in a master maintenance log in chronological order. A good maintenance tracking system does much more than just record the request for service and the fact that the tenant granted permission to enter. The system can provide proof that the repairs were actually made, record the parts and materials used in the repair, and serve as the basis of a billing record if the tenant caused the damage and will be charged for the service call.

Copies of tenant maintenance request forms should always be filed in the tenant file and in a separate permanent maintenance file for each rental unit. If the tenant complains to authorities or makes allegations of a breach of habitability, tenant maintenance request forms provide a repair history that you can use to document that tenant complaints were properly addressed.

Your maintenance personnel and contractors are key in giving your tenants a positive or negative impression, because they have direct contact with your tenant and are a reflection on you. Remind them that they are entering your tenant's home and they must immediately identify themselves with proper identification, such as a photo ID.

They must always be well groomed, respectful and courteous, and they should never smoke in an occupied or unoccupied rental unit. They must be businesslike and stick to the facts while keeping the tenant informed about the status of the service request. They should always completely clean up after themselves as well.

Although responding to tenant maintenance requests can lead to excellent tenant relations, some tenants may have excessive demands. The best way to handle these tenants is to remain calm and courteous and address all legitimate health and safety items or maintenance repairs that preserve your investment.

When tenant demands become unreasonable, politely explain that providing extra service calls or cosmetic upgrades will necessitate an increase in the tenant's rent to cover your additional expenditures.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and "Property Management Kit for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."

E-mail your questions to Rental Q&A at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com. Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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