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Even short-term renters should be screened

Topic: Rental property

Q: We have short-term renters in our vacation unit in Palm Springs, Calif. They rented for one month with the option to extend for two more. As soon as they moved in, they began providing lists of what they considered was wrong with the unit. Some were legitimate, others were ridiculous -- such as the icemaker was providing only crushed ice and they needed cubed, etc.

They told us they wanted to extend a second month but then did not pay the rent.

After being served with a legal notice to pay rent by our attorney, they did pay. The attorney also found that they have been evicted 15 times in the past six years in Palm Springs.

I contacted some of their prior landlords and learned that their scam is always the same. They tell every landlord that they have been "ripped off" by unscrupulous landlords and had to threaten to sue or withhold rent to get repairs made, etc. Some of the prior landlords just let them leave without paying the rent, so it would appear that their scam and intimidation tactics actually worked on some landlords.

They continued in the second month to make demands and complained about things such as the white tile floors are causing extra cleaning work on their part and they want us to pay for weekly cleaning. We refused to do anything and they then said they wanted to extend for another month. Again they did not pay until receiving a legal notice. Our attorney has advised them that as of the end of next month they must move. However, he says that if they don't we need to begin the eviction process.

We do not understand why, given the specific terms of the short-term lease, we cannot simply throw them out after the third month. Fortunately, we do not have other renters coming in, but if we did it would be a serious problem. We have thought about arriving in an RV on the day after the lease expires and parking in the driveway, not entering the unit but staying outside to put some pressure on them to just go. Our attorney does not think we should do this. We can't believe that these short-term renters can cause us so much grief. Do you have any advice for us?

A: Your situation points out that there is no direct correlation between the length of the tenancy and the challenges and problems that can be created by tenants who seem to be determined to be difficult. One of the key points you mentioned was that upon their failure to pay rent in the second month you had your attorney serve them with a notice to pay rent or quit. This is good but apparently the attorney also did some checking and found out that they had been evicted 15 times in six years in your area. That is information that you should have obtained during your prospective tenant credit and background screening before making the decision to rent to them.

Now that they are in possession of the rental unit, the burden of proof is on you to get them out through a court action for nonpayment of rent or a breach of the lease. The one-month lease agreement that you offered and they accepted gave them the option of extending for one or two additional months. This was not a mutual option where you and the tenant both had to agree to extend it but a tenant option that gives them the unilateral right to extend the lease for an additional month or ultimately two months.

The bottom line is that you are stuck with this problem tenant until the lease expires at the end of next month. You can't evict them for being in your rental unit unlawfully during the initial three-month term. Like any lease, your attorney is merely suggesting that unless you can show that they didn't pay rent or they violated a material condition of the lease, you won't be able to take any legal action unless they attempt to stay beyond the expiration of the lease.

Parking your RV in the driveway in an attempt to encourage your tenants to leave could create a contentious environment. They might even claim you are taking unlawful action in retaliation.

The last thing a landlord wants is to give the tenant any legitimate complaints should the matter end up in court. Also, you need to continue to respond (preferably in writing) to any and all complaints, as your failure to respond to even ridiculous requests could be used by these experienced tenants against you. That doesn't mean you have to do everything they ask. But, just like the request for cleaning the white tile, which you reasonably denied, you need to make sure that you give them a timely response to each and every concern they raise.

While my experience in life (and especially from writing this column) indicates that there are some very bad landlords, generally speaking I find that tenants who tell you that they have had nothing but trouble with landlords are actually more likely to be the troublemakers themselves.

01/13/2012
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