A Few Best Practices for Landlords

We get a bunch of phone calls here at the TRC. Right now, we've had some staffing changes, and we're a little bit behind (side note: do you want to volunteer for the TRC???). However, most of those piled-up calls are not folks who want to pick up the phone and connect about how great their tenant-landlord relationship is. It's tenants, landlords, roommates, friends, all struggling with a problem, and needing some information in order to resolve it. We love helping people, and we're glad to do this work.

But it's a nice change to go out into Wisconsin, teach the seminars, and help landlords and service providers who are trying to improve their skills. While they may have complex examples in mind, usually these folks that sit in our seminars do not have emergency-level concerns; rather, they are thoughtfully attempting to improve their skills. I love to see that. And I learn a lot from them.

Here are some tips from the landlords at this set of spring seminars.

(Before I jump in - we've learned things before! Here's last year's Tips for Landlords.)

1. Keep Emergency Contact Information for all tenants. We've heard enough stories of tenants going into a coma / becoming ill / becoming mentally unstable / dying, that we really encourage landlords to get emergency contact information when you're signing a lease. With everyone. Not just the tenants that look like they might keel over any second. You can get contact information for different kinds of situations (financial, medical, personal, etc), but it's a great idea to have that on hand, in case something seems weird.

2. Offer Roommate Agreements. If you have roommates living together, and your lease says they are jointly and severally liable, then they are. For sure. However, roommates often have problems with one another (100% of the time, if you go by the rate in our callback log), and that really doesn't have to be the landlord's problem. Roommates can hold each other accountable for problems, and that's way easier if they have a roommate agreement, so we encourage landlords to hand them out. This doesn't make the landlord responsible for enforcing that agreement, but it does make it much more likely that the roommates will talk about potentially problematic situations before they even come up. Our sample roommate agreement is here

3. Make your application criteria clear upfront. This will allow everyone to not waste their time/energy/money. If a low-income person is looking for housing, those application fees can really be crushing, and the constant credit checks, too. (Though prospective tenants can offer a recent credit report to offset the credit check fees). It also saves landlords and managers a lot of time spent screening applicants, if landlords offer application criteria before folks even apply. If you make the application criteria upfront, then folks who know that they won't pass, generally won't even bother applying. It's okay to put multi-tier criteria out there, as well (such as: if applicants have a credit score lower than X but above Z, then he/she will be approved with a cosigner whose credit score is higher than Y). As an added bonus: this does a lot to protect landlords from discrimination complaints. If your criteria is upfront, then people are less likely to say that they were shown different treatment based on their being a member of a protected class. (More on discrimination here. Scroll to the bottom to find out what landlords can do to avoid discrimination, accidental or otherwise).

4. Ask for what you need when you sign the lease. What are the things that drive you nuts as a landlord? Ice trays don't get returned? People don't tell you whether or not they plan to renew? Put all your this-just-bugs-me policies in writing. That way, if someone drives you bonkers, you'll have given them enough information that they could have avoided it, and you have a more solid reason for giving a non-renewal later on, or taking action in the ways authorized under tenant-landlord law. Which feels better than just seething about the dandelions in the yard. (Though that example is bad - it wasn't in the lease, and so they couldn't charge). 

5. Ask for information that you need when you are all sitting down to sign the lease. Such as:

  • Emergency contact info: (because of the reasons above).
  • Best time to enter the rental: As a landlord, you'll likely need to enter the rental unit during the course of a lease. It's helpful to ask when tenants would prefer that you enter, and why, when signing the lease. Perhaps they work nights (and sleep during the day), perhaps they have an authorized pet who will dash out the door. Some knowledge about these issues will make tenants much more comfortable with you entering during the normal course of business, and less likely to be angry/violent/naked/armed.
  • Preferred method of contact: At some point, you'll need to contact your tenants. At some point, you may need to prove that you've contacted you tenants. A great starting point for both of those concerns is to have the tenants fill out a sheet that gives their preferred method of contact. Email? Text? Phone? Paper taped to the door? Snail Mail? Ask, so that you can later get a hold of them when you need them, or at least show that you really tried.
  • Cars that will be parked on the property: Landlords have new rights to tow unauthorized cars, but one thing the laws do not say is how the landlord has to establish that the cars are indeed authorized or unauthorized. So, if you offer parking, it's important to get tenants to tell you the cars that will regularly be parking in their spot. Just his/her one car? His boyfriend's? The sitter's? The laws are new, but we anticipate a bunch of new small claims suits from tenants, saying that their landlord towed their car which caused them to miss work, which caused them to get behind on their electric bill.... etc. So, avoid that by knowing which cars are normally there, and having good contact info (above) to be able to contact your tenant and ask what's going on with that one car.

6. Make sure your lease was re-written since 3/1/14.  2013 Wisconsin Act 76 changed a lot of things, and if your lease hasn't been re-written and updated since then, you might be leaving yourself open to a tenant choosing to void the lease

7. Use your cunning to get tenants to actually read the lease. Plan a time to sit down and sign the lease with each tenant. Use that time to go over each clause in the lease. If they have questions about the rules you've written, encourage them to ask. The more understanding they have of what you are asking for, the more likely they are to follow the lease. Better for everyone. It's worth the time.



Did we miss anything? Email us if you have great ideas for other things landlords (or tenants) can do to make everything work better.


Hi! Did you know that we are not attorneys here at the TRC?  And this isn't legal advice, either.  If what we've written here doesn't sound right to you, talk about it with someone you trust. For help finding an attorney, check out our attorney referral list.