Solve tenant disputes using social media

Rent it Right

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 13, 2011

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Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News™

Q: We're facing a bit of a public relations nightmare, the result of a few disgruntled tenants whipping up a frenzy about our apartment complex. They claim it's mismanaged, and have used Facebook pages and groups, blogs, and countless tweets to spread the word and make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims. There's a kernel of truth in some of their claims, but most are way overblown. What can we do? --Robert and Susan

A: Welcome to the powerful world of social media, where a few people can make a huge impact. Just think of the role that social media played in the political uprisings in Egypt and other Middle East countries -- without it, it's quite possible that these revolutions would simply not have happened.

Dictators aren't the only ones who should be paying attention to what's being said on Facebook and blogs. Companies and service providers, including professionals like doctors and lawyers, have all been fair game to determined posters and bloggers. Most of the time, the wisest course is to treat a major campaign seriously and with respect, rather than to ignore it -- or, worse, disparage it.

Take the recent commotion over Proctor & Gamble's "Dry Max" diapers, which some parents considered the source of severe diaper rashes. Although the scientific evidence was scant (an independent analyst, a doctor at Harvard's School of Public Health, found the diaper's underlying technology safe), thousands participated in the Facebook groups, blogs and tweets, exchanging posts about "chemical burns" and other scary-sounding issues.

The manufacturer, meanwhile, simply dismissed the complaints, and even went so far as to suggest "poor parenting skills." Rather than engaging in the debate in the social media space, it worked behind the scenes, asking the Consumer Product Safety Commission to help it put some balance into the discussion.

Not a good move: Proctor & Gamble is considering settling a class-action lawsuit, which involves $1,000 for each of the 59 class members/parents, and $2.73 million in attorney fees! What's the lesson here?

You, dear landlords, need to get into the social media space and engage with your tenants. In the old days, tenants might call a meeting of their neighbors and plan a rent strike; nowadays, it's simpler to do it all online, but the purpose is the same.

Your admission that there's a "kernel of truth" in their complaints is proof enough that a respectful discussion needs to take place. You'd be surprised how an honest recognition on your part of the need to improve can de-escalate the online accusations.

Q: We signed a lease with our landlord two months ago, but he refuses to give us a copy of the lease with his signature (we have a copy with our signature alone). Isn't he legally required to do so? If not, what's the effect on our tenancy of not having a signed copy? --Marcia and Wes

A: Many states do require landlords to give tenants a signed copy of the lease or rental agreement within a specified number of days after signing. Consequences for failing to do so may include a preset penalty.

If your state has no such law, you're not necessarily in jeopardy. As long as you at least have a copy of the lease that you signed, you should be able to rely on it if you need to. The key will be in making it clear to the landlord now that you consider this document to be the same as the one he signed.

That way, you'll be boxing the landlord into your position, which will make it difficult for him to dispute the document later.

Here's how to do it: Make a copy of the lease you have -- the one with only your signature -- and attach it to a letter to the landlord (to be extra cautious, send the letter return receipt requested). In your letter, explain that you believe the attached lease is the one that the landlord signed, and that you're proceeding with this tenancy with that assumption in mind.

Ask the landlord to supply his signed copy if he disputes your statements. If you hear nothing back, the law will presume that the landlord agreed with your statements -- that the attached lease is, in fact, the lease everyone agreed to.

Let's suppose that, later, the landlord attempts to do something that's not provided for in the lease, such as increase the rent midlease (midlease increases are legal, as long as they're spelled out in the lease).

You'll be able to defeat this attempt by producing your lease copy and the letter you sent the landlord, and by proving that the landlord never disputed your claim that it is the correct document.

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