By Pamela Alton
We have all experienced this scenario: You are doing your morning lock check and find a unit with the door wide open and the unit empty. Your first thoughts are: Did someone sneak in in the middle of the night and break into the unit, or did the tenant vacate after office hours? You return to the office and check your records--sure enough, the tenant was 10 days past due, but because your state lien laws say you can't overlock a unit for 14 days or more, the tenant gained access to the facility and vacated the unit while still owing rent. What do you do now?
Collections begin the minute you rent the unit by getting as much detailed information from the prospective tenant as possible. Making a copy of a photo ID is an absolute must. There are companies that sell cameras that will take a tenant photo along with a copy of the rental agreement and driver's license. If you don't have one of those, a simple desktop copier will do the trick.
Obtaining phone numbers of employers and emergency numbers of a friend or relative not residing with the tenant should be part of your rental process. Asking for a credit card is not out of the question either. You can hardly go to any Blockbuster Video store nowadays and rent a $3 movie without providing a credit card. Some "economically-challenged" areas use more cash than credit cards, and I wouldn't necessarily not rent to someone because they didn't have a credit card, but consider making it a company policy to ask for one--and a consistent policy at that. If you ask one person to provide one, you must ask everyone.
Have clear-cut and concise rental agreements, and rules and regulations sheets outlining company policy about move outs and money owed. If explained at the time the rental agreement is signed, it could help eliminate any misunderstanding when the time to vacate comes. When a tenant comes in to vacate, before you delete them off the computer, always walk the tenant out to the unit and verify they have removed all items and their lock. This will save you time removing abandoned property or finding that a tenant has left their lock on, in essence removing the unit from the rental market.
If you find the unit vacant, don't hesitate to call the tenant and ask him to come into the office, bring cash and sign a vacate notice. All vacating tenants should pay in cash only. This will prevent them from stopping payment on a check when vacating. If you find their numbers have been disconnected, call information or check the phone book. This is why it is extremely important to obtain additional phone numbers when renting the unit.
Daily lock checks are a must. If I find my managers are writing off an unusual amount of uncollected rents, then this could be an indication they are not out there on the premises, but sitting in the apartment watching Jerry Springer. Gates should be automatic and deactivate a tenant code after they are a certain number of days past-due. This will help eliminate some problems.
If you do find a need to turn a tenant over to a collection agency, the more complete the information, the better. I suggest you employ an agency that is in your local area. The chances of a company on the East Coast making phone calls to the West Coast to collect a few hundred dollars is almost nil.
Having a clear-cut company policy for the vacating tenant and explaining it to him at the time of rental could save you and the tenant a lot of headaches. Remember, collections begin at the moment of signing a rental agreement. Proper care could mean avoiding having to track the tenant down later.
Pamela Alton is the owner of Mini-Management®, a nationwide manager-placement service. Mini-Management also offers full-service and "operations-only" facility management, training manuals, inspections and audits, feasibility studies, consulting and training seminars. For more information, call (800) 646-4648.