Landlords and property managers, please think before you press send.
There are many ways for landlords to communicate with tenants, but when relationships become strained, landlords should be cautious when using emails or text messages. Also, recognize the limitations of technology.
You don't have to be a law student to understand that when something is put into an email or a text, it is preserved and can come back to haunt you.
We tell our kids this, right? Post an image on social media and even if it is deleted, the embarrassing moment gets recirculated and never goes away. It may ruin the chances of getting into a school or landing a job - we know of some companies whose sole purpose is to troll the Internet and find dirt on applicants. It's the same thing when landlords message tenants. Inartful messaging can lead to lifelong consequences, believe us.
Worse yet, the acrimonious rental relationship escalates to social media. One NBC news reporter who happens to also be a landlord recently made the news himself when he delighted on Instagram that a tenant was evicted.
When confrontation or the need for important communication arises, we prefer emails to be fact-based, short messages.
For example, when the landlord wants to engage in a buyout discussion with the tenant, we want to demonstrate that these negotiations are being done in good faith. We don't want any scent of coercion, threats, or intimidation. Ideally, we'd like the landlord and tenant to have a "heart-to-heart" in person.
Read our earlier article: The art of the tenant buyout deal →
Heavy-handed tactics are already prohibited under laws that have been on the books for a long time. Ordinarily, it is illegal to harass, deceive, annoy, intimidate, or alarm tenants. But several cities have enacted their own "anti-harassment ordinances" that increase penalties for harassing conduct.
Never mind the subject matter of text messages. Some anti-harassment ordinances - like that of Concord - say that the landlord cannot text at all if the tenant has stated in writing that he or she would not like to be bothered with a text. That's right - you can be sued if a renter finds any text to be intrusive.
Where we also see inartful communication is in denying rental applications
For example, a prospective tenant texts the landlord inquiring about an apartment listing. The landlord asks what type of job they have, the rental applicant says they have a Section 8 housing voucher, to which the landlord says "sorry, we don't accept Section 8," and then the denial invites a housing discrimination lawsuit.
This was a topic we took on in an earlier webinar.
Another concern we have surrounds requested repairs
Whenever there are texts or emails related to requested repairs, stay away from emphatic statements. If a contractor shows up late for a job, you can be sued.
Texting can be advantageous, of course, when the tenant sends photos of damages or repairs needed.
Do you have a log of correspondence with tenants?
Good landlording and property management is part knowledge of the law, part bookkeeping, and part excellence in communication.
Having practiced landlord-tenant law for over 25 years, we always get a gut feeling about how organized our clients are when they come into our office. Some meticulous clients have a log of all tenant correspondence, and this is the ideal documentation we would like to see so that we can build a narrative, a forensic history of the tenancy, if you will, if any problems arise.
A word about notices
Some landlords will attempt to somehow instruct their tenants to do something via email or text. We want you to be careful about this. Generally speaking, texting or emailing is not considered to be authorized methods of service of a legal notice.
Mobile and digital communication has clearly pervaded every aspect of our lives and cannot be ignored. It should be embraced. Yet we have to be artful in our communication and it is no substitute for written notices prescribed by law.
Part of the appeal is the instant gratification of the tenant, but this is a double-edged sword. The landlord can also have the instant gratification of harassing the tenant or making demands that controvert the law. Certainly, the tenant can also have grievances and in these instances, we want to respond to them but certainly not enlarge the dispute or engage in a "flame war" via text or email.
Think first. Less communication is more. We understand that some clients are a bull in a china shop and cannot have a constructive dialogue with the tenant and in these cases, Bornstein Law can broach the conversation.
Landlords, please think before you press send.