When I first became a lawyer, I was convinced that my education and newly acquired legal skills would make me a formidable opponent in the courtroom. Emboldened by my Juris Doctorate, I was ready to take on the legal community. However, before I had my first trial, my non-lawyer father had a piece of advice for me – he said “son, don’t be offended, but lawyers don’t win lawsuits, paperwork wins”. I wasn’t offended, but like all children, I didn’t immediately buy into his theory.
After twenty nine years in the Housing Courts throughout Connecticut, I must say that my father’s advice still rings true. I only wish more of my landlords would ascribe to it. Looking back over time, I am convinced that effective landlording requires following my dad’s advice. A landlord tenant relationship is a lot like a dating relationship. First it starts with a courtship (advertising and applying). In this case, instead of sending out a “vibe” letting the tenant know you are interested in starting a new relationship (lease), the landlord simply advertises. Tenants picking up on the vibe (advertisement) seize the opportunity to make a good impression (apply) in order to enter into that new relationship. We are now in the courtship stage, where the landlord and tenant is each trying to impress the other. Just like a courtship, landlords must be wary of this new suitor. This requires the landlord to take every step to make sure they are not going to get married (lease) to the wrong person.
As we know, relationships built on deceit are doomed to fail. Landlords must perform a full screening of the tenant. Always be wary of a tenant who fails to fill in every section of the application or has gaps in the application. Check each source and ask to review original identification. It always amazes me when I see incomplete applications, or landlord’s who have failed to perform any screening, show surprise when the tenant turns out to be a “bad tenant”. Proper screening requires review of credit history, past landlords (always go back at least two prior landlords) and an eviction search. Anything short of this would be like handing the keys to your henhouse to a fox and hoping it is a vegetarian. Similarly, finding out you are married (leased) to a convicted felon, or tax cheat will make for a bad marriage (tenancy).
At the end of the courtship, landlords and tenants move into their serious relationship (lease). From this point on, they are “married”. Marriage has been defined to be a contract between two people. Sounds familiar, right? This formal landlord/tenant relationship will have ups and downs like any other relationship. Maintaining a good relationship in a marriage, as in a tenancy, requires “communication”. Communication is a two way street, meaning both parties have to speak and be heard. However, the spoken word is often lost in translation, and to protect you from the proverbial “he said, she said” scenario in the future, landlords must create a physical paper trail which can assist the marriage counselor (housing specialist) or judge in deciding who is right and who is wrong. Over the course of my career covering over ten thousand evictions, time and time again I have clients come to their divorce hearing, I mean eviction case, without any documentation or paperwork to support their claims. I ask you, what is a judge to do? The simple answer is – pick the party they believe is telling the truth, while at the same time giving the tenant the benefit of the doubt since they are the ones who get kicked out of the house. Now, if we give the judge a choice, she will take the paper trail more often than not because it has the tendency to be true because the documents are created contemporaneously with the event.
We also know that the cost of divorce (evictions) is high and with divorces (evictions) as common as they are, we should always be equipped to enter the legal arena prepared to win. My dad was right and I now know it from years of experience – paperwork wins cases. Build your case from day one by creating paperwork which documents your relationship and memorializes the evidence you may one day need to win your case. A client of mine once placed the following quote on all paper in his office (e.g. note pads, phone logs, invoices, work orders etc.) “Write It – Don’t Say It!”. Litigating cases for him became a lot easier thanks to that wise edict.
In conclusion, think about your potential new tenant as a potential new spouse. Would you willingly give half of everything you own to a spouse without really knowing everything there is to know about him/her? Would you lend thousands of dollars to a stranger off the street without really getting to know him/her? Then why would any thoughtful landlord marry a tenant without taking every precaution prior to entering into the sacred contract of marriage? Knowing history, why would you leave it to a “he said – she said” situation, when statistically you will most likely someday be in court fighting over your failed relationship? My lesson for landlords – screening your suitor and documenting your relationship is like a well designed prenuptial agreement, making the divorce which you may have to go through less frustrating, costly and time consuming.