How to handle a complaining tenant

  • Article by: RENTING and THE LAWKELLY KLEIN
  • Updated: October 31, 2011 - 12:14 PM

Q I rent my townhome to a woman who has signed a one-year lease. For the past four months, at the first of the month when her rent is due, she complains about something being wrong with the place. She always says that she has the rent money but that she won't give it to me until I fix the problem she's complaining about.

One of her complaints was that the trees needed trimming, and she withheld the rent until I had the trees trimmed. I've put up with this for four months.

This month, she is complaining about a leak in the kitchen faucet. So, I am replacing the faucet and told her that I needed to pick up her rent then.

She said she won't pay the rent until I fix the shower. She had already complained about the shower last month. I had it serviced, and it works fine.

I have another renter in my townhome next door, whom I have no problem with.

What are my options?

A Under Minnesota Statute 504B.161, the landlord has a duty to keep the place in reasonable repair. A shower that works pretty well, but not perfectly, seems reasonable.

Ordinarily, if you have a bad experience with a tenant, you can give her a notice indicating that you do not want to renew the lease, and you will both go your merry way.

Your problem is that when a tenant makes a valid complaint, and a landlord takes adverse action against the tenant within 90 days, other than attempting to evict for non-payment, the tenant can defend the action by arguing that the adverse action is retaliatory.

Courts really lean to the side of the tenant in determining whether the adverse action is retaliatory, so you don't want to be in that situation if you can avoid it. In addition, you can bring an eviction action for nonpayment when the tenant has not paid the rent, but she can defend by saying the property is not habitable and also can post the rent into court and stay even if the court determines that the property is habitable.

It sounds to me as if your tenant is using the shower and other complaints to avoid paying rent on time and possibly to assert a retaliation defense at the end of the lease if you choose not to renew.

You have a couple of options.

First, you can continue to go forward as you have in the past, hoping that she will move out when the lease is over.

Second, you can begin enforcing the lease terms regarding paying rent.

Does your lease have a clause indicating when rent is due? Most say that it's due on the first of the month. If so, you should send all your tenants a letter indicating that from now on, rent is due on the first.

Does your lease have a late-fee clause? Under Statute 504B.177, landlords can't charge a late fee for rent unless agreed to in writing, so make sure it's in your lease; and the late fee charged cannot exceed 8 percent of the overdue rent payment.

Then, you have to begin enforcing the lease. If this tenant doesn't pay her rent on the first, you should write her a letter saying that the rent is due on the first, and that if she does not pay by a specific day, you will proceed with an eviction. You will need to evict her if she doesn't pay the rent.

If she shows up in court, you can come to an agreement on what needs to be done to repair items, the process to do those repairs and the person who determines whether the repair is completed, and that she will pay the rent by certain dates. You also could get her to agree to move at the end of her lease as part of the agreement.

Third, you can write to tell her that you have fixed the shower and that if she doesn't pay her rent on time, you will evict her.

Unfortunately, when you're dealing with a difficult tenant, or when a tenant is dealing with a difficult landlord, it is not always easy to end the relationship. But if you make sure to communicate in writing as opposed to verbally -- and make sure you are clear about what is going on -- you will be able to document your side of the story better than having to tell it in court, which is where you are likely to be headed.

Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to kklein@kleinpa.com, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 425 Portland Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.

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