Bad, bad tenants.
January 1, 2008 9:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm asking a 2 part question for my mother. She currently rents out our old family home in south-west Sydney, and has had a real bitch of a time tenant-wise. More details follow.

She has an agent manage the property. Her last three tenants in a row have been DREADFUL. They have all stolen property (as in all the curtains from the windows and a couple of old bits of furniture we didn't really care about but the curtains were actually good), and have left the property damaged in some way. All have been evicted due to rent being in arrears.

Please excuse the rambling. I just spoke to my mum who sounded close to tears. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

The problems are mostly from the last tenant.

They were two months in arrears. They were evicted. They did not move. The sheriff was consulted. The locks were changed, with tenant possessions to be sold off to recoup losses. They broke in, stayed at the house anyway. Most of their possessions are junk anyway. The house was full of trash. The yard was full of trash. The parquetry floors are damaged. The doors are damaged. The kitchen drawers are missing (??!!). Mum changed the locks again. They broke in again. She had the yard cleared at a cost of a few grand (it's a big yard), and is about to get hit for the bill for cleaning out the house itself...then she'll have to deal with the actual damage to the floors/walls/doors etc. She's getting the locks changed a third time. The bond she's kept will not cover the clean up costs in any way, and she's had to make several insurance claims along the way.

My questions are:

1. She needs to have the electricity disconnected, in case they break in again to stay at the place. How do I find out which energy company they've signed up with and how do we get them to cut the power off? I'm surprised they haven't already, because chances are, they haven't been paid either.
2. What sort of recourse does my mother have with the property manager? She has made no complaint with them so far because she needs them to fill out forms etc, and doesn't want extra trouble on that front but really, how did they manage to find 3 sets of really bad tenants in a row (we know the landlords for a house a couple of door down, and they've had zero trouble)? She should have changed agents ages ago, yes, but she's only after simplicity in life and doesn't tend to play hardball. Or complain. Even when she's being screwed financially. She's a pensioner who doesn't have unlimited funds to fix things up all the time. The agent has been no help at all. Why did they leave the rent in arrears for so long? How can the property inspection reports claim the house is in good order when it's been trashed? Why did my mum only find out after the tenants were evicted that one of them was on parole?
posted by mooza to Law & Government (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would open a criminal police complaint against the tenant for trespassing and accompanying property damage (I assume that breaking into a property you've been evicted from has no special protective status in Australia from criminal prosecution); I would open a civil complaint against the tenant for the costs involved in yard clearage, house repairs, etc.; and I would fire the property manager/agent immediately for massively poor performance. Perhaps Ask Mefi might be able to recommend a reliable replacement. I would seek legal assistance with all three tasks. If a lawyer truly cannot be afforded, see if there are organizations, law schools, etc. that offer legal representation or advice to the elderly. After reading what you've written, I'm very much of the mind that this situation requires legal recompense through the courts. As for the energy company, if you visit the property, would the name of the company providing the energy be on the meters (usually near the fuse box)?
posted by WCityMike at 9:47 PM on January 1, 2008

Also I need not say that I'm not a lawyer, I'm not your lawyer, and I know nothing about Australian law, so please take any advice I offered above at your own risk.
posted by WCityMike at 9:48 PM on January 1, 2008

I'd suggest kindly trying to work with the property manager before firing them. Though they no doubt try to indemnify themselves from everything, custom (and common law, probably) dictates that they have some responsibility here.

And, really, your mother has done nothing to deserve this, but if she's too kind to get fire-breathing, take-no-bullshit tough in this sort of situation, she ought to sell the property and buy some Telstra or Woolworths bonds.
posted by Kwantsar at 9:57 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't get the electricity company to disconnect, that is expensive and time consuming to reverse. Instead, turn off and lock the main breaker panel.

The main breaker on the electric service panel probably has a safety lockout hole. I couldn't find any good pictures online, so I took these of my breaker panel. On the second picture, you can clearly see a hole that accommodates a padlock in the off position. Yes, it is breakable, but for reasons stated above, it seems like a better solution than involving the utility.
posted by Chuckles at 12:59 AM on January 2, 2008

Also turn off the water. With that off the place won't be much fun to stay in. As with the electric co., you may or may not need the water co. to do it--you can likely find the valve out in the yard somewhere and just turn it off. Sometimes there is a way to lock this with a padlock or something so that it can't be turned back on very easily.
posted by flug at 1:10 AM on January 2, 2008

What about installing an alarm system? Next time they break in, the police will be dispatched within minutes, will throw them out and the company will call your Mom to come and lock up again.

Better yet- get everything cleaned up and rent it out again ASAP. Offer the new tenants a month or two of reduced rent and tell them the situation, in a nutshell- I assume this will obviate your legal liability should the worst occur and the previous tenants break in again and harm one of the new tenants. Once others possessions are occupying the house it will be even less inviting to break into, and your new full-time, on-site "caretakers" will be helping with your mom's budget.

As to the management company- what about sending a formal letter indicating your concern and asking for an in-person meeting to allow them to explain from their point of view how this happened, how the tenants were selected, and what they will do next time to make sure it doesn't happen again.
posted by arnicae at 1:51 AM on January 2, 2008

Electricity in Sydney used to be provided by a government monopoly in each area. These days while the physical grid is maintained by monopolies, from a consumer's point of view you deal with an electricity retailer of your choosing. The previous tenant would have chosen a retailer, so the problem is to identify which one. This website lists the electricity retailers for NSW.

Probably the best first step is to call one of the help lines at the NSW Department of Energy. If that doesn't help, the only other option I can think of is to start contacting each of the retailers asking if they service that address, starting with the majors (e.g. EnergyAustralia, AGL, Integral, Origin). I'm sure your mother isn't the first landlord with this problem, so they should be able to give you some help.
posted by CaveFrog at 2:17 AM on January 2, 2008

See a lawyer, pursue the management for allowing tenants to get so behind in rent, and otherwise failing to care for the property. In the UK, management companies do inspections while you live there. Anything British isn't too unlikely to be possible in Australia, I assume. Where does the management company's responsibility end, anyway?

Management companies can be evil. It happens. They talk themselves up, then fail to deliver. I live in a place managed by the biggest estate agent in South Africa. They do jack to take care of the place! They don't even do what they're supposed to do. They break the law, too. They behave as though the contract only obligates the tenant, not the landlord/management.

It seems to me that they aren't doing anything to screen tenants. What's up with that? Other places screen prospectives half to death. When I was renting my house, I found in that area (peculiar) I had good luck as long as I refused to deal with anyone that didn't have a current phone number. Yes, this ruled out some folks that may have been fine. But if you don't want trouble, you are better off turning away good tenants than letting bad ones in.
posted by Goofyy at 3:00 AM on January 2, 2008

Best answer: Seconding arnicae's advice of re-renting it ASAP, at a reduced rate of rent for six months (in the current rental climate, this gives you much greater choice of tenants, and is likely to incline the tenants to want to stay and take care of the place), and telling the new tenants that if the old tenants show up (describe and name) the police are to be called. Get the sort of tenant who seems comfortable with doing that.

Get the real estate agent to blacklist these tenants if they haven't already. Then I strongly advise you to dump the real estate agent. They're definitely not needed in the current rent spiral, they're not wanted, they have contributed greatly to the current ludicrous rental climate, and a lot of them are just rent-seeking (heh) middle-men who will do as little as possible for as much pay as possible. You can get all of the necessary info about managing your own rental property here (you should definitely read all the tenant's info as well as the landlord's) and here.

Put an ad in the paper and be prepared to devote a couple of weekends (and weeknights if possible) to showing people through the place. Make up some kind of simple tenancy application form - name of chief tenant, contact number, most recent address, source of income, most recent landlord/agency name and contact number, reason for moving out. Have a section for names, sources of income, and relationship to the chief tenant of any other tenants. Be aware that responsible tenants are also busy people, and they often will send just one of them out to scope out a prospective place to see if it's worth the others looking at it. Have a signature and date block. If the people express interest in the place, even if they are obvious bogans, give them one to fill out and tell them "We had some extremely bad tenants last time, so we're not going to make a decision straight away, but we'll let you know either way." Be aware of your legal obligations re discrimination and privacy (which may apply to parolee status - a parolee is meant to be able to rebuild their life) as noted in the guides above, but the object of your questions is to be simple and easy for responsible people, and a total roadblock for bogans. Engage in no verbal argument - just firmly say, "please fill out the form, and we'll let you know in a week." You probably won't even need to check references, in practice. Let them know that you are deliberately renting below market rate because you want to have a wide choice of tenants this time, because you care more about renting to honest and decent people than about the money, but you do reserve the right to put the rent up after six months, probably to $x.

Treat the process similarly to hiring an employee: narrow it down to a few acceptable ones, call them in order, give them 24 hrs to make the decision, tell them you have a shortlist and will be renting to the first ones on the shortlist to get back to you, and courtesy-call the ones you didn't accept (except for the bogans, who have already forgotten that they applied). Nothing more than "Sorry mate, but we've rented it out to someone else. If they don't work out, we'll give you a call back, but don't wait for it, these other people seem keen."

Collecting the rent in person fortnightly is a great way to keep an eye on the place. Arrange a mutually convenient time. Be a bit flexible about it, after the first few times (I had an arrangement with a landlord I rented from some years ago to leave the rent in the fridge if I was out and he would let himself in to collect it, but we'd established trust on both sides before I suggested that.) If they get into arrears, the guides above tell you what to do - but informally, I'd give them a week and if they don't cough up at the end of the week, start the official eviction process. In the current rental climate, tenants are easily replaceable.

If you find you have no time to manage a property yourself (and I really do recommend trying it out for a month or two, a real estate office commonly has one clerk managing dozens of properties, so it can't be that hard), ask your friends which real estate agent they rent through, and go talk to them, and lay out all of your experiences and concerns in detail. You are interviewing them. If they try to hard-sell you, or quibble over services that a tenant really should get (ie, emergency repairs etc), or seem like they're out to conspire with you to rip the tenants off, do not sign with them. Tenants can tell, tenants resent it, and if they're honest people they will endeavour to get their money's worth out of the rent by having the agent fix every busted lightbulb and squeaky window, and if they're dishonest people, they will trash the place. First be fair-minded, all else will follow. :)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:10 AM on January 2, 2008

I would recommend looking through the NSW Office of Fair Trading which has basic information about the rights of landlords and tenants.

I'm unsure beyond this. You say the rent was behind by 2 months and the people were evicted. To me, that sounds like the right timeframe with the right outcome so I find it hard to judge the estate manager harshly.

Your admitted rambling question hasn't convinced me of much of anything. I'm not saying there aren't legitimate grievances here nor am I criticising you for the way you've written your question, but I can explain the Realtor's role here away pretty easily in any number of ways. Why couldn't it be the case that they were simply unlucky with the tenants?? And what are they required to do when vetting potential renters? Does your mother have final decision or is she totally removed from it?

My first port of call I think would be to contact the estate manager and ask what professional bodies they belong to eg. Real Estate Institute of NSW etc. It would be with this body that I would initially think of making enquiries/lodging a complaint.

I agree with contacting the Police though - repeated break-ins are of course crimes.

Some of what kwantsar says makes sense too. Also, I'd be checking the extent of the insurance coverage - maybe it won't help with what's happened already but it can be beefed up for the future perhaps.
posted by peacay at 5:18 AM on January 2, 2008

Sydney, Australia or Sydney, Canada? You say sheriff, so I assume Canada?
posted by tellurian at 10:17 AM on January 2, 2008

Response by poster: Sydney Australia - we have sheriffs apparently (that was news to me too). Thanks for the suggestion of cutting the electricity at the box - we've done that...and will continue on the detective work in the meantime....

I suppose one might give the property manager the benefit of the doubt, peacay... but my mother's been removed from the tenant selection process etc, and has just received "satisfactory" condition reports when they've supposedly occurred. The extent of how the place has been run down I guess doesn't quite match the time periods between inspections, in my mind. I can't see how sub-standard management hasn't played a role in all this. No one is going to get litigious, but stern words will be uttered.

I've put forward the suggestion of renting out the place again ASAP for all those reasons, and selling would probably take the headache away as well.

Thanks for the help, all.
posted by mooza at 3:47 AM on January 3, 2008

sources of income

Can you ask that in Australia? You can't in the U.S.
posted by oaf at 8:42 AM on January 11, 2008

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