'Professional Tenants' and How Not to Fall Victim to Them

abandoned room in the factory.
ShutterstockThe Professional Tenant can leave the landlord with a worthless judgment for thousands in unpaid rent -- and a trashed apartment.
I am an attorney who has practiced in landlord tenant law for over 15 years in Massachusetts, one, if not the most, tenant-friendly states in the country. I've seen the good, bad and the ugly when it comes to tenant shenanigans. I've written all about it on my Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog. Most tenants are problem-free, yet there is a certain type who make even an experienced landlord cringe with fear: The Professional Tenant.

Let me give you the profile of what I mean by a typical Professional Tenant. (This is a generalization based on my professional experience.)
  • They have history of litigation, evictions and/or delinquency with prior landlords.
  • They have a surprising (and dangerous) knowledge of local landlord-tenant law.
  • They often have a background in real estate, engineering, contracting or law.
  • They have marginal to poor credit, with a prior history of collections, judgments or bankruptcies.
  • They have gaps in rental history.
  • They have non-existent or incomplete prior landlord references.
Now the above may sound simply like a poor rental applicant, and maybe that's true. But the Professional Tenant will make a landlord's life miserable and cost them thousands in lost rent and legal fees. Here's what a Professional Tenant will do to a landlord.

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

Professional rental screening techniques, experience and common sense instincts will help a landlord avoid a Professional Tenant.

code violations. Often the tenant has caused these very code violations -- bathroom mold is a common situation. (Most state Sanitary Codes can trip up even the most conscientious landlord.) Based on the code violations, the Professional Tenant will stop paying rent, claiming that they are "withholding rent" due to bad property conditions. Under Massachusetts law, for example, a tenant can legally withhold rent for even the most innocuous code violations and there is no rent escrow requirement. The Professional Tenant will also assert that the landlord violated the local last-month-rent and security-deposit law, and ask for their deposit back, trying to set up the landlord for a hefty legal claim. In Massachusetts, tenants can win triple damages for deposit law violations.

In the meantime, months may pass before the landlord will realize that they are being set up. The landlord will have repaired the minor code issues, only to have the tenant call the board of health again and again. 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 will then send the landlord a myriad of document requests and interrogatories which will often delay the eviction hearing. 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.

How Can Landlords Avoid the Professional Tenant?

Professional rental screening techniques, experience and common sense instincts will help a landlord avoid a Professional Tenant. 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 for all applicants. Call the past landlords and talk to them!
  • Check and verify employment information.
  • Check prior bankruptcies and court dockets.
  • Personally interview all tenants and size them up!
  • If someone seems fishy, they probably are. Trust your instincts!
Do you have your own story about dealing with a Professional Tenant? If you do, please share them in the comments!

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When I first started, I had a duplex in a not-so-great part of town. There was an occasion though when both tenants moved out at the same time. One of the tenants sent his buddy over to see about renting it. The guy took it on the spot and handed me cold, hard cash. I was thrilled.

I drove past a few days later, and there was a huge flatbed trailer loaded with all kinds of junk sitting in the front yard. I asked what was going on. He said it came from his last place and needed to be sorted out. Considering the neighborhood, it didn’t really bother me.

The next month I only got half the rent. He kept stalling and stalling. I went to the bar where he worked. He had been fired.

I went to the duplex one night trying to catch up with him. He ran out the back door, and I was met by his girlfriend who was high on something.

The next day, I went to the courthouse to start the eviction process. Thirty days later, I got my day in court. Of course, he didn’t show. The court issued the eviction, which I had to pay the sheriff to execute.

I met the sheriff’s deputy at the duplex, and he told my tenant he had one hour to pack up and leave.

But you know what I got stuck with … that flatbed trailer full of junk. It cost me $500 to get it towed away.

A few weeks later, I went back to court to file a judgment for the back rent, the court costs, and the expense of getting rid of the trailer. The judge gave it to me. Then she asked if I really expected to collect it, because this guy had five other judgments ahead of mine!

On top of that, while I was cleaning up the inside to get it ready to rent again, a friend of the evicted tenant came by looking to buy a dime bag ($10 worth of weed).

The lesson learned: If only I had done a simple background check, I would have saved myself a lot of time and money.

George Lambert
Author, What You Must Know BEFORE Becoming a Greedy Landlord. How to build a portfolio of investment properties for an income that lasts a lifetime.

Tuesday at 12:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Unscrupulous landlords? Please. If you only knew what people do. After getting burnt a few times and learning the law and justice have nothing to do with each other, we do get hard. There are an unbelievable number of professional tenants. Now that more landlords are doing background checks, they are starting to prey on tenants. I had a tenant bring someone home from the bar. Then, she wouldn't leave. After 3 days she set the apartment on fire, started s physical fight with my tenant, informed him at 3 days she could assert tenant rights, and had a restraining order placed against him. He ended up in jail and I spent months getting her out. I now have another tenant, who in violation of the lease, let s couple stay with her for a week, and BOOM. She couldn't get them out do she has left and they are refusing to leave until I get an FED (eviction order). Tenants...careful or soon you will understand

May 02 2015 at 4:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh, and I forgot to add, once, when I looked at prospective property to rent, we were asked, "So, what church do you attend around here"! Also, since I'm sure they knew we were a gay couple, we were also asked, by this same "born-again"-HYPOCRITE, about our "wives and children"!! Well, after that, and our responses, of course the place was no longer available to rent, butI had already decided that I would not, and COULD NOT, ever rent from someone like THAT! When we were asked about our religious affiliation(s), and we both responded that we were Roman Catholic, well, that seemed to cinch it; since we weren't Southern Baptists, as all too many people are in this area, that ALONE got a very sour facial expression.

I tried to report them for their highly discriminatory line of questioning, but I got nowhere.....Catholics like us are just very hated here in Stark County, Ohio! Oh, well.......that was over 15 years ago now, and I have since bought my own house, so....to HELL with ANYONE who would discriminate based upon such religious ignorance and outright hatred! It still gives me a laugh, though, all these years later, that....as Catholics, we "worship statues"...! Yeah, right.

September 15 2014 at 7:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree, BILL.....I have rented from sheer, GREEDY sociopathic landlords before before, and....even after leaving the rental unit in as good as, or even better condition than when I moved in, i.e., scrubbed and highly polished tile floors, shampooed carpet (with NO remaining stains or odors) washed walls, spotlessly clean oven, range, refrigerator, etc., it was an uphill legal battle here in Ohio to get that deposit back! I clean rental units and houses as a side job, I KNOW the filthy, disgusting messes MANY people leave behind (and actually think it's all ok, and come to get their deposit back!) but I am not, and have never been, one of them, but that didn't stop a few landlords from trying to screw me out of hundreds of deposit dollars! I was recently cleaning one property, which was absolutely FILTHY, complete with dog and cat feces ground into the carpets all throughout the place, and this fat pig had the audacity to show up, kids in tow, to collect her deposit!! I side with the landlords on cases like these, but...so many more are just plain crooked and greedy and will fight a deposit return regardless of how spotlessly clean and sterile and up-to-date the rent payments are or were. Been there, done (and have seen) THAT.

September 15 2014 at 7:00 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Now Counselor,
When can we look forward to your article on unscrupulous LANDLORDS???
Write about the predatory LANDLORDS who will rent an apartment and then wait until move in time to claim they cannot rent the apartment because..............but will rent a different apartment for a "slightly" higher rent!!! Or, the landlord who gives a tenant 30 days to vacate because of "noise complaints" or some other "violations"...who may be swayed by a voluntary rent increase with a promise to avoid making noise.
Because of these schemes, as well as a million others, I will NEVER rent an apartment from an owner who lives on the property...these characters will always invite themselves into your life and your apartment whenever they take a notion to do so!! It's always preferable to rent from a rent management company; they do not have time for the petty stuff owner landlords engage in.
Write about the landlords who fail to observe local "rent control" laws, especially when dealing with immigrants or single woman with kids. They are the ones to most likely get the "offers" of "relaxed" rental demands in exchange for other "CONSIDERATIONS"! (A practice common among divorce lawyers, by the way...That could be your next article after the landlord "expose'" Yes?

September 10 2014 at 7:33 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Keep in mine when you can, alway attempt to inspect the prior dwelling the tenant is moving from. Pay attention to the condition of the unit and look for signs of plants which in some cases will indicate that the tenant may could be a good candidate. If and when you make an inspection of the prospective tenant dwelling try to make an un-schedule. Visit. Sometimes you might see or run into some dubious conditions that the prospective tenant don!t want you to see. Also, used good common sense and pay close attention what prospective tenant is saying his or the Landlord conditions. You could learn a lot. Professional Landlord for over forty years,in Chicago Il. Lost maybe 3 case pro-se

September 01 2014 at 9:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to hamcgary's comment

.......""an inspection of the prospective tenant dwelling try to make an un-schedule Visit."

(Especially if said "unschedualed inspection" can be timed to when a female is most likely to be in the shower or otherwise unprepared clothing wise...Yes, "professional landlord"??

I Rest My Case!!!

September 10 2014 at 7:44 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Plants? I'm an excellent tenant as I'm a former home owner who treats any place I rent like it is my own. I've also been a landlord and want to make sure I'm never the PIB that several of my tenants were. I'm never late with rent and leave the home cleaner than when I moved in. But I have no plants or other living things like animals because I work too much and don't want to worry about those things. But I guess you wouldn't want to rent to me.

October 07 2014 at 12:33 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply