What Are Your Rights if a Tenant Trashes Your Long Island Rental Property?
Being a landlord can be incredibly lucrative, but it can also be a risk. There are thousands of blog posts, articles, and forum posts out there about landlords who get into their property only to find it has sustained damage well in excess of expectations. There are even tenants who damage the property on purpose because they’re sustaining some sort of anger against the landlord.
Often, landlord-tenant law focuses on protecting tenant rights. There’s an assumption the landlord has more power than the tenant. So you won’t find as many laws covering the landlord’s ability to recoup certain damages. Nevertheless, you do have some rights.
You have the right to inspect the property on a regular basis.
As long as you provide 24 hour notice you do have the right to enter the property and make an inspection while the tenants are still living there. You can make repairs at that time, and you can invoke the lease to demand any repairs the tenants are responsible for.
You can also mark and document any lease violations. This is important, because later you might need to prove who did the damage. If you wait until the tenant moves out it may open the door to an argument that someone else came along and damaged the property later.
Keep in mind you may only enter between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM.
The only exception to this law is if there’s an emergency. A major water leak, for example, may give you the right to immediately enter the property to address the trouble.
You have the right to use the tenant’s security deposit to offset damages.
Damages and unpaid rent are the reason why you’re allowed to collect and hold on to a security deposit. Deducting the cost of damages from the security deposit is your first line of defense.
Keep in mind you need to make sure any contractors you use are charging prices comparable with other contractors in Long Island. Choosing contractors who inflate the prices of their services can open you up to legal challenges. Tenants want their security deposit back, and they’ll often fight for it.
Of course, many landlords find the security deposit doesn’t begin to cover the damage caused by some tenants. What then?
You have the right to sue for damage beyond normal wear-and-tear.
You can always take the tenant to civil court in an attempt to cover the difference. Keep in mind:
- The tenant may not have the means to pay you, may be judgement proof, and may not even have any regular wages for you to garnish. If this is the case, taking them to court will only take you so far.
- You’re probably still going to have to dip into your own bank account to address the damages long before you see a dime from the lawsuit.
Normal wear-and-tear does have a meaningful definition. Dirt, dust, worn out locks, scratches on the floor, worn out carpet, puncture holes from pictures all count as normal wear-and-tear. A tenant is supposed to leave his or her apartment clean on the way out the door, and you can deduct the cleaning fee from the security deposit as well, but dirt is still considered wear and tear.
Many landlords ask me if they can also pursue criminal charges. It’s only possible if you can prove the damage was done intentionally. A tenant is committing a crime when he or she takes a sledgehammer to your walls. Unfortunately, proving intentional damage is very difficult. In many cases it will never get to court as the police won’t really care to pursue it.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t file a police report. Many insurance companies demand it, and receiving an insurance payment to help cover the damages may be the best and easiest ways to recoup your losses.
Know how to mitigate your risk!
There are a few ways you can make sure you mitigate your risks.
First, always make sure you have a vandalism rider on your insurance policy.
Second, make sure you screen your tenants thoroughly. Tenant screening is allowed as long as your screening methods and criteria are not discriminatory.
Finally, the way you write your lease makes a big difference, and that’s something I can help with. A well-crafted lease can strengthen your case. It can also outline consequences of damage before tenants ever receive keys, vastly reducing your chances of finding major issues at the end of the lease. And make sure you are enforcing the lease while the tenants are there. If you know the tenant has snuck in a dog he or she is not supposed to have, don’t wait until the end of the lease to deal with the dog and its damage.
No system of risk mitigation is perfect, but making sure you’re attending to all of these key points can make a huge difference in how often you have to write thousand-dollar checks to deal with intensive damage in your rental unit.