Keep a Paper Trail (Electronic Trail)
This is one of the most important points all Massachusetts landlords should heed, get everything on paper or get the electronic equivalent, because it’s not if you will end up in court, but when you will end up in court. Keeping a paper trail is essentially preparation for an eviction action you will take against a certain tenant in the future or to defend yourself in a lawsuit by a tenant. It’s hard to say, but if your landlord in Massachusetts, this is a reality that you will be dealing with.
Maintain your records individually; by property address, by unit number and finally by tenant. Good record-keeping skills are simple for some landlords and very difficult for others, but it’s a skill that all landlords need to master.
Almost as important as maintaining records, is maintaining clean records. It’s a simple fact, courts do not want to see documents that have writing all over them, highlighted sections, crossed out sections or any other alteration to the original document. I cannot tell you how many times I have had clients come in my office and hand me paperwork that has handwritten notes or changes all over them, this is completely unacceptable. Every time a document is created in print, and then additional pieces are added to that (usually handwritten in), that makes either the addition unenforceable or the entire document may be considered unenforceable. If any addition to a document is ever made, all parties signing that document must initial the changes. But it is always better just to start with a brand-new document and not use one that has been molested in one way or another. If you do want to take notes for your own benefit, then it’s important to get a photocopy of that document and write the notes on a photocopy in somewhere on the top explain that this is only a photocopy. Always remember any type of alteration to a document, commit that document on admissible in court.
Always maintain an accurate rent ledger with the following information: date the rent was received, the check number, and the name on the check or the person giving you the money. This will become critical in the future, especially for those landlords who have multiple units or have more than one person in a unit that provide payment. Many times housing court matter is one by the person who provides the court the best evidence, and the situation that would be the best records.
Even though it is already been mentioned in a previous training session, security deposits and last months rent must be addressed again. Due to the differences and severity of the laws governing security deposits and last months rent in Massachusetts, keeping accurate records of this is critical. I cannot stress enough how the vast majority of landlords lose hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, by not following these laws exactly. Due to the strict laws on the subject matter, it is very important that you keep accurate records such as listing in the memo line on a check if that check is for a security deposit or last months rent. If you provide a lease, security deposits and last months rent must be clearly stated on the lease itself. Furthermore if providing the tenant a receipt (because they paid you in cash) make sure the receipt clearly indicates that the money being received is either for security deposit, last month’s rent or one month’s rent. Even if it takes more work, it is critical that when providing receipts you provide a different receipt for security deposit, last months rent and a single month’s rent. You should always have the tenant, if paying by check, provide you a separate check for all three of these fees and have what the fee is clearly written on the memo line. Please see our training series on security deposits and last months rent.
Communication with the tenants should always be in writing. If you and the tenant have an oral conversation about a particular subject, make sure you write them a letter or an email, explaining the entire oral conversation, along with the exact meaning of said conversation, and save yourself a copy of either. I highly suggest you do not use text messaging as a form of communication with your tenants, because they are too easy to be misinterpreted. I highly suggest using emails to communicate with clients, as this is by far the simplest means of collecting this very important information in being able to store it electronically. I highly suggest in your email account you set up an email folder called rental properties. In this folder you will have subfolders for each property or unit you own and further subfolders in those for the individual tenants. After you set up these folders every time you have a communication with a particular tenant cc that email back to yourself and save that email in the folder that corresponds to that particular tenant. If the tenant communicates with you via email, not only do you want to save your response but you also want to save the email from the tenant. Finally, once you set up these email folders and have important information such as a copy of the lease or other important document, you should invest in a quality scanner and scan all documents that come in, not only correspondence and email those documents back to yourself, saving them in the subfolder for the particular tenant in question. This may all seem like a lot of work, but when you’re in eviction court keeping very good records is often the difference between a win and a loss. Please remember when there’s a discrepancy between the two opinions of a landlord and a tenant, without corroborating evidence vast majority of the time the courts will side with the tenant and not landlord. But if you’ve kept your correspondence in order, the likelihood of your success is much greater.
If your tenant has violated their lease or rental agreement, you need to inform them of this in a letter and explained that they must cure the violation immediately. In said letter, explained that any future rent received by the landlord does not waive your right to have the tenant cure the violation in question. In a housing court matter, if the tenant can demonstrate to the judge that you continue to receive rent month after month, even though the violation was not remedied, they can make the argument that you are waiving your rights to complain about that in that situation the courts may not allow your claim even though it was valid.
This might all seem a little overwhelming too many landlords, but it simply because you do not have the experience of 20+ years as an attorney in housing court and seen what we have seen. I had one case where tenant had informed the landlord that they were moving, remove most of the items from the unit and return the keys. Then a month later they wanted it back and went to court claiming that they were illegally evicted. What really happened was the tenant moved out and moved in with their girlfriend, that didn’t even last a couple of weeks and they wanted to get back in even though I was in the process of renting it to someone else. In that situation because there was no paper trail that actually show the tenant informed me that they were leaving and return the keys, the courts ruled on the tenant side, simply because I had no documentation to prove the tenant had moved out.
I could literally write four hours explaining how many cases I’ve seen landlords lose simply because they didn’t have the proper documentation to back up the truth and without said documentation, landlord Massachusetts is literally at the whim of how big of a lie that tenant will tell the judge. If everyone in the world was honest, there would be no reason for this and for that fact no reason for lawyers, but that’s not the reality of the world we live in. In closing, I cannot overstate enough the importance of documenting everything and having a good method of recording all important information and correspondence with your tenants.
Joseph F. Botelho, Esq.
BOTELHO LAW GROUP
Attorneys At Law
901 Eastern Ave.
Fall River, MA 02723