What's one thing self-storage operators can do that will have an immediate and positive impact on their business? The answer is simple, at least from a legal perspective: Remove any reference to "authorized access" from their rental agreement and other forms. Collecting the names of people who have access to a tenant units causes trouble for operators every day.
On your rental agreement and other intake forms, you may be asking the customer what appears to be a simple, innocuous question: Who else may have access to the unit? Many of you put this in your agreement because youve followed previous advice (perhaps even from me) to avoid having more than one tenant on the contract. Maybe you've added such a line to appease a spouse or significant other who want to be named on the lease. The problem is it puts you in a potentially terrible position down the road.
When you take names of those who have "authorized access," youre gratuitously expanding the services you offer to the tenant. The business model of a storage facility is to rent a unit where a customer can store personal property, accessing the space at will with no involvement on the operators part. The tenant rents the unit, you collect the rent and, hopefully, both sides are happy with the transaction.
When you allow for authorized access, you increase your responsibility to your tenant. Youve essentially assumed the role of gate-keeper. Like it or not, you've implied that you stand at the gate to ensure only the tenant and authorized parties are allowed into the unit. Otherwise, why would you ask the customer to identify authorized visitors?
Authorized access should be defined confidentially between the tenant and whoever he wants to allow into the unit. Your involvement in that process adds another layer of bureaucracy, liability exposure and risk. Instead, simply tell your customer, Whoever has your gate code and key will be able to come and go at will until you change your code or lock. That way it remains a private matter between your tenant and his invited guests. Youre not making decisions about letting people come and go or cutting locks for people who may or may not be authorized.
Dont Be a Referee
Allowing for authorized access may appear to be a convenience for your tenant and the other person, but it sets you up for potential legal problems. For example, someone whos approved to access the unit might show up without the gate code or a key and expect your assistance. This is not your business. If a person doesnt know the gate code, he should be able to get it from the tenant. If he doesnt have a key, he needs to get it from the tenant rather than cut the lock.
Dont let one fill-in-the-blank field on your rental agreement expose you to liability and risk. There are many operators whove being bitten by the authorized-access clause.
For example, a woman who had filed an emergency divorce stopped by her self-storage unit to change her lock and keep out her soon-to-be ex-husband. However, she forgot to delete him from her authorized-access list. Two days later, the husband showed up and tried to get into the unit, asking the manager to cut the lock. When the manager wouldn't comply, the man summoned the police.
Heres another point to remember about authorized access: Peoples feelings change. Someone might be given access to a tenant's unit at the time of lease signing. Then the tenant might change his mind down the road due to a fight, break-up, divorce, etc. If he fails to notify the facility operator in a timely fashion, the other party may already have accessed the unit. If the operator facilitated that access, he could potentially face a lawsuit.
Youre in the business of renting space in exchange for rent. Nowhere in that relationship should you be acting as a referee, deciding who can access a unit.
Avoid Additional Risk
This is all extra risk you don't need to take. In truth, there isnt a single benefit to extending authorized access in your rental agreement. Let your tenants decide who can enter the unit by distributing their own gate code and key. If they change their mind, they can swap their lock or code and keep you out of it. This will keep your business relationships cleaner, simpler and safer.
This column is for the purpose of providing general legal insight into the self-storage field and should not be substituted for the advice of your own attorney.
Jeffrey J. Greenberger is a partner with the law firm Katz, Greenberger, & Norton LLP in Cincinnati and is licensed to practice in the states of Ohio and Kentucky. Mr. Greenbergers practice focuses primarily on representing the owners and operators of commercial real estate, including self-storage owners and operators. His website, www.selfstoragelegal.com, contains legal opinions and insights as well as an article archive. You can send your questions, comments or suggestions for future topics to [email protected].