Why All Landlord-Tenant Communication Should be in Writing
One of the biggest challenges I have as property manager in Austin is convincing tenants that it’s in your best interest, as well as the landlord’s, to have all communication with your landlord or property manager in writing. By “all communication” I mean matters that affect your lease and/or legal rights, such as repair requests, lease changes, disputes, notices, etc. I’m not talking about informal communication about matters not material in nature, or questions seeking clarification of something already in writing.
Landlord-Tenant disputes are the most common action in Justice of the Peace (small claims) Courts in Texas, and probably elsewhere as well. If you were to attend and watch some of these cases at JP Court, you’d quickly notice that, most of the time, neither the landlord or tenant is prepared. Neither the tenant or the landlord has anything documenting their assertions. It’s the classic “he said, she said”. This leaves the Judge having to decide who to believe.
If you ever become a tenant in such a dispute, you want to be able, when it’s your turn, to hand the judge copies of the letters and/or emails you’ve sent to the landlord, in reverse chronological order, along with any responses you’ve received. This written history is called “evidence”. The communication is in black and white and not subject to memory or interpretation. It’s all there in writing to see and read. Otherwise, all you have is a story to tell, and the landlord may have a different story, and the Judge has to try to figure it all out, which isn’t always easy.
Likewise, if you ever call the Austin Tenants’ Council for free assistance in a dispute with a landlord, the first two things they ask for if you come in for an appointment will be a copy of your lease and a copy of all written communication between you and your landlord. If you don’t have any written communication, but instead have simply left 6 unreturned voice mails about your broken A/C over the past 3 days, you don’t have squat from a legal standpoint. You haven’t legally reported the matter per the requirements of your lease agreement and Texas Property Code. You’re at square one, starting from scratch and you will be advised, for starters, to make the proper written repair request, as you should have done at the beginning.
We provide our tenants with an online Repair Request form which automatically emails both us and our tenant a copy of the submitted repair request upon submission. This gives us both a documented record of when the request was made and what was communicated. It’s quick and easy to complete, even from a smartphone web browser. This isn’t the 1990s anymore. Anyone can get online and spend 2 minutes completing a written repair request, often from your cell phone, so there’s no excuse for not following procedure.
Despite this, when an A/C breaks, or hot water goes out, the first reaction of most tenants is to pick up the phone and call, despite being instructed otherwise at lease signing, and in the lease itself. Sometimes multiple voicemails are left, with escalating levels of urgency and frustration. My response to a voice message or phone call seeking repair is ALWAYS “go online and complete a repair request form and I’ll be able to respond to that, but I can’t do anything over the phone”. We do not accept repair requests over the phone under any circumstance other than true 911-grade emergencies such as flood or fire.
Some tenants become extremely frustrated, irate and angry at having to put things in writing. I’ve been threatened, cussed out and yelled at. This always puzzles me. It takes a couple of minutes. If you want us to take action, we have to be provided with the written notice that was agreed to in the lease. Yelling, screaming and otherwise acting like a spoiled crybaby throwing a tantrum won’t accomplish anything and only delays the desired outcome, which is a quick and efficient response to a legitimate repair request. I do not personally know any professional property managers in Austin who will deviate from this “in writing” rule, us included.
As a property owner, if you have employed an Austin property manager who operates in such a way as to not have a paper trail of events and communication regarding your property and tenant, then you are exposed to a much higher level of risk and liability that you otherwise would be. You are more likely, not less, to have confusion and misunderstandings arrise between your tenant and property manager when you place your property under the care of a sloppy operation. You could end up being dragged into court over something that would have been cut and dried and avoided had proper written communication been used instead of a series of phone conversations and voice mails that are subject to differing opinions and recollections. Nobody benefits from loose policies that allow voice mails and phone calls to substitute for written communication.
Tenants sometimes feel put off, or inconvenienced about having to go through the process of of writing up a repair request. As a lanldord, I do too. It would actually be easier to take a call sometimes, but it wouldn’t be prudent. In the end, as a tenant, if you ever get tangled up in a dispute with a landlord, and the landlord is truly in default of repair requirements or something else, you’ll be very glad you are able to document the entire episode if it ends up in court. Your deposit could be at stake as well as your rental history and credit if the lanldord is asserting damages. So, communicating in writing between landlords and tenants is a very good habit to form for both renters and landlords. At Crossland Real Estate, we help you form that habit by making it easy to communicate with us in writing.