My tenant won’t take care of the yard maintenance, what should I do?
1. What, precisely, does it say about yard maintenance in the lease? If there’s no mention of it in the lease, the tenant doesn’t have an obligation that you can readily enforce – at least, nothing that would enable you to force an eviction on that basis, if you wanted to.
This is because most jurisdictions have laws stating that the written lease agreement constitutes the entirety of the agreement between the landlord and the tenant.
Yes, oral contracts have the force of law in most cases. But dig into state laws and you will find that they carve out an exception for landlord-tenant agreements. In this context, the agreement has to be in writing to be enforceable.
Also, if you mention yard maintenance in the lease, but you don’t define the expectation well, then you also have an issue. “Yard maintenance” might mean one thing in your head and something quite different in the tenant’s head. This isn’t uncommon. You might be thinking, “landscaping” and your tenant might be thinking, “I have to mow the lawn once a month and rake up leaves and run the sprinkler once in a while.”
When a disagreement like that goes to trial, the courts will generally rule against whoever it was that wrote the contract. Why’s that? The legal doctrine of contra proferentum. Courts generally regard tenants as the weaker party, compared to landlords, and it’s almost always landlords writing the leases, with the advice of a trained lawyer.
As a counter against potential abuse of bargaining power, under the doctrine of contra proferentum, if there are two reasonable conflicting interpretations of a provision in a contract, the courts will grant the benefit of the doubt to whoever didn’t write the contract. That is, the tenant.
Every landlord should understand this principle, because it really means you have to be very precise in the wording of lease contracts. With contracts, the more specific things are, the better. Vague provisions lead to problems.
2. Assuming you don’t have a difference of opinion as to what constitutes yard maintenance, under the terms of your lease, have you checked in with the tenant? Is there some reason the tenant can’t personally fulfill the yard maintenance obligation? Such as illness or injury? Is he or she not present on the property? Was there a job change that makes it more difficult? Most people want to do the right thing, and most people want to get a good reference from their landlord for the next time they want to rent.
If it’s a matter of a tenant who’s willing but unable, you may be able to solve the problem by working together to get a few lawn care estimates, and then amend the lease to add the cost into the rent.
If that’s not possible, how long into the lease are you? Even if you could evict over it, evictions aren’t free. And then you have the time and expense of remarketing a vacant property, plus some time without collecting rent.
It doesn’t take very long before you lose more money with a property sitting vacant than you would pay to a lawn care contractor to just take care of things. So if the only issue is the yard, and the tenant is otherwise paying on time, I’d probably advise against eviction as just more trouble and cost than it’s worth.
Then, when it’s time to renew, if the tenant wants to stay, renew at a higher rent that covers the cost of the yard care you originally expected – and then some additional compensation for the hassle.
Now, can you dock the security deposit against the cost of yard care the tenant failed to provide? Probably – as long as the yard care is detailed in the lease, and the amount you dock is just sufficient to pay for the yard care specified in the lease and not more.
What’s the lesson to be learned? In most cases, I believe that the landlord should retain responsibility for whatever yard work or landscaping they want to have done, and charge a rent that is sufficient to cover the work.
That doesn’t mean you can’t give someone a break on the rent if they need one and they’re willing to put in the work. But that should be the exception to the rule, and only after you have assured yourself that the tenant 1.) understands what you expect, and 2.) Has the knowledge and ability to carry it out.
Writing about personal finance and investments since 1999, Jason Van Steenwyk started as a reporter with Mutual Funds Magazine and served as editor of Investors’ Digest. He now publishes feature articles in many publications including Annuity Selling Guide, Bankrate.com, and more.