How to Avoid the Professional Tenant

A “Professional Tenant” is a tenant who “knows how to work the system” by taking advantage of select protections in the law to live rent free.  Being able to spot and avoid a “Professional Tenant” is one key to  being a successful and profitable landlord.  This “Professional Tenant” usually follows certain behavior patterns that should raise a red flag for the Landlord.  A common scenario we encounter with clients follows a sequence like this:  First, the prospective tenant  has a story to explain why he/she can only pay first month’s rent and will promise to pay the last month’s rent or security deposit once he or she moves in the apartment.  Second, he or she will start complaining about living conditions within a few months of moving in to your property.  Third, the tenant will then complain to the Board of Health and request an inspection, which inevitably leads to the issuance of a violation/citation by the City or Town to the landlord requiring that the landlord make repairs within a short period of time.  Fourth, the tenant, knowing the landlord only has a certain period of time to make repairs, will refuse to allow the landlord access to the apartment in order to make the required repairs.   Fifth, the tenant will then withhold rent because the repairs were not timely made.  The landlord, now needing to evict the tenant, ends up losing several months of rent until the eviction is complete.  The professional tenant has successfully lived rent free for several months and at the same time caused substantial  loss of income and emotional grief to the landlord.   How do you avoid the Professional Tenant? The landlord’s only protection is to do a thorough screening of a prospective tenant upfront by checking credit reports, speaking to prior landlords, etc.  Here is an excellent article from a colleague:

Attorney Richard D. Vetstein | Avoid The Professional Tenant

Using best practices to screen and select good tenants is the most important thing a Massachusetts landlord can do to avoid costly non-payment and eviction problems down the road. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

I have come across a sub-set of tenants which are extremely dangerous to Massachusetts landlords. They should be avoided like the Plague. I like to call them Professional Tenants.

Let me give you the profile of a typical Professional Tenant. (This is a generalization based on my personal experience, but it’s fairly accurate).

• History of eviction history and/or delinquency with prior landlords

• Surprising (and dangerous) knowledge of Massachusetts landlord-tenant law

• Background in real estate, engineering, contracting, or community activists types

• Marginal to bad credit: prior history of nonpayment collections, judgments or bankruptcies

• Gaps in rental history

• Non-existent or incomplete prior landlord references

The Professional Tenant’s Scheme

Shortly after moving in, the Professional Tenant will start to complain about small issues with the rental property. Some will complain to the local board of health to have the landlord cited for code violations. (The state Sanitary Code can trip up even the most conscientious landlord.) Then the Professional Tenant will stop paying rent, claiming they are “withholding rent” due to bad property conditions. Of course, these tenants completely ignore the law’s requirement that any withheld rent be placed in an escrow account. Then the Professional Tenant will assert the landlord violated the last month rent and security deposit law, and ask for their deposit back, trying to set up the landlord for a triple damage claim.

In the meantime, months go by and the Professional Tenant has failed to pay any rent and the minor code violations, if any, are cured. The landlord is forced to start eviction proceedings, only to be met with a slew of counterclaims and defenses from the Professional Tenant. The Professional Tenant then sends the landlord a myriad of document requests and interrogatories which automatically delays the eviction hearing by 2 weeks. If the Professional Tenant is really savvy, they will demand a jury trial, which in most small District Courts can delay the eviction by weeks and typically months. Meanwhile, the entire time, the Professional Tenant has still not paid any rent. Months and thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees later, the landlord finally gets his day in court. And the Professional Tenant doesn’t show up, leaving the landlord with a worthless judgment for thousands in unpaid rent and a trashed apartment.

Screen and screen again

The sad thing is that because Massachusetts landlord-tenant law is so tenant friendly, there is not much a landlord can do to avoid this situation, other than not rent to the Professional Tenant in the first place! Once a landlord has signed a lease with a Professional Tenant, they are stuck until the tenant violates the lease. My advice to landlords is to make screening the most important thing you do as a landlord, and do the following:

• Invest in good credit history checks.

• Follow up with landlord references

• Check employment info

• Check prior bankruptcies

• If someone seems fishy, they probably are

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