Wouldn’t you think that a judge would possess some type of legal background? Not always! Often it is an elected position (read: all about politics). Someone knew someone, perhaps the popular town butcher, ran to be district judge and got voted right in. It’s not common, but it does happen. According to the Federal Judicial Center: “There is no specific course of training for judges and no examination.” Scary stuff, huh? The FJC explains that judge selection varies from state to state, however, the most common selection is by commission nomination and by popular election. What’s commission nomination, you ask? It means the judge was appointed by a small group of local power brokers, who know and like the person they’re appointing to be a judge. So, here you are Mrs. Landlord, with a very “educated” tenant. I am not speaking of higher education, more like, “know how to work the system” education. Don’t think they’re out there? I have tussled with them time and time again. And in a district court, they can sometimes confuse a judge to the point of winning or sending it to the next level, county or state. What could have and should have been a simple non-payment case starts dragging out (can you say more time with no rent?). You get the privilege of spending more time in court, and possibly escalation to a higher court where you will have to retain an attorney. Mo’ money…  

The frightening costs of court entanglements

First things first: become intimately knowledgeable with what is permitted and not permitted in your state and local laws. For instance, Chicago landlords: did you know that there is a Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance you must adhere to? Philadelphia Landlords must get a housing rental license! Oh, and it does not stop there, each Philly tenant must be provided with a Certificate of Rental Suitability. If you get taken to court without these items, guess who loses? I saw the tenant of a landlord friend live in his rental unit for six free months FREE! All while there was a disagreement over shared utilities in the basement. The lease agreement even covered the issue, outlining a rent credit in exchange for the shared part of the utility. That landlord not only lost the six months’ rent but ended up paying an attorney plus he ended up offering and paying this tenant a settlement just to get her out! His money just flew out the door. Have I scared you yet? I hope so – my goal is to scare you enough to educate yourself. It is only by education that we learn how to avoid the many pitfalls of being a landlord. You wanted to become a landlord to make money, correct? Unbury your head from the sand and get busy.  

You need to become a local legal expert, whether you like it or not    

Visit your local town or county website. If they do not have one, visit the housing or township office. Ask for all the ordinances and information you can possibly get your hands on. Read your state landlord-tenant laws (or relevant summaries of them). Pay especially close attention to restrictions and requirements. Lucky for you, we offer landlord-tenant law summaries for each state here on SparkRental.
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Ignorance will never be a winning argument in any court, even if you are standing before the local butcher. However, you must go one extra step here, and that is knowledge! Know and understand the ins, outs and the rights of both you and your renters. Many landlords believe they can shut off the electric or change the locks on an unpaying resident’s door. You can’t make a self-help eviction, and you can’t just enter a tenant’s apartment without invitation or reason. Know the rules of the game, or you’ll lose when you’re challenged by a professional tenant who does.  

A cautionary tale

Here is a story of a young girl a long time ago (okay, it is me). She was filled with excitement as she held onto her freshly minted real estate license. I got a great first gig of working at a small apartment community. I was the leasing agent, rent collector, maintenance repair coordinator… hmmm, I guess I was a property manager. Stop laughing, I was young. The owner lived in another state, and gave me a list of the non-paying renters. He then requested me to enter each of the apartments of these residents (while they were not home) and look around for mail, etc. to see if there were other unpaid bills, or checks. Now, I was young and did not want to lose this job but it did not seem right. After calling my father, and he finished screaming at the illegal audacity of my employer… I knew I had to quit the job.  

Use the proper tools and never assume!

I am hoping you understand the importance of screening tenants so well that you know what they eat every Thursday night. Collect thorough rental applications, run credit, criminal and eviction reports on all applicants, and verify their income, employment and rent payment history. You also need a state-specific lease agreement that protects you like a bulletproof vest. Never assume! Read about the regulations in your state, town, city and neighborhood. Join social media groups, local real estate investing clubs, befriend an attorney. Do whatever it takes to make sure that you are in the know. Taking some time now will save you money, time and aggravation, and perhaps a visit to your local butcher judge later. By the way, I have nothing against butchers. I love them! But would you go to the auto mechanic for an ear ache? Have you learned any legal lessons the hard way? What tips have you learned for avoiding courtroom encounters with system-savvy tenants?    

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