This is probably one of the most stressful conversations I have with property owners and landlords—individuals and property managers alike. Your tenant is complaining about mice, a broken sink, the light switches not working, mold growth, and a whole laundry list of items. These complaints might be occurring way before an eviction has ever started, or you might be in the middle of an eviction and on the eve of a trial. And now you’re hearing about this laundry list of things that need your attention. What’s worse is that your tenants are several months behind in rent. What I hear from landlords at this point is something like this: “My tenant is several months behind. I’m not fixing anything!” Others say, “I don’t have the money,” or “I don’t want to deal with so and so tenant since I’ve had such a bad experience.”

I have to tell all my clients the same thing over and over again—although I agree with all their claims and complaints, the rental business is not for the faint of heart, and now we gotta play the landlord-tenant game. I get many puzzled looks and upset responses at this point. I tell them, “Look, you have an obligation to fix any issue that may go to basic habitability, whether your tenants are paying rent or not.”

I explain that  the landlord-tenant game typically begins when tenants start falling behind on rent or other long-time issues outside the landlord’s control decide to surface and sour the landlord-tenant relationship. That’s when things tenants should have been reporting to you all along come out of the woodwork. Or tenants bring up a whole lot of problems with the property after you’ve filed for an eviction, in hopes of delaying the eviction.

So you’re probably asking, “How do I play this landlord-tenant game?” Here’s what you should do:

  1. Review your tenant’s complaints.
  2. Investigate the complaints and determine if they’re valid or not.
  3. Fix the habitability issues.
  4. Be ready to document and report the fixes in court (if you are going through an eviction).

I could write an entire book on these four points, but the general idea of the landlord-tenant game is to not ignore tenant complaints. Instead, you’ll have to be proactive and respond quickly to assess the issues and have everything fixed, ASAP, that could legally affect the habitability of your unit. If you respond quickly and in the right way, complaints your tenants make in an attempt to delay an eviction will be less and less of an issue. Each scenario will be different, so you’ll need help from your own legal counsel to address the specific issues. But whatever you do, don’t just say, “It’s not my problem.” It is your problem, and you’re going to want to be on the winning side of this game.