By Robert L. Cain
You know this rule as well as I do if you’ve been in the rental property business more than17 hours.. Rarely in a rental property does anything break or be discovered to have broken, before Friday night, after six o’clock, the eve of a three day weekend.
When a tenant calls to say that the oven won’t heat, the furnace quit, or there’s a leak “somewhere,” it is guaranteed to be at a time when the repairman will charge double-time. Lets’ cut though all that. I have developed a system which helps me deal with this irritating problem.
My first rule of thumb is to stay calm. . Usually I tell my tenant that I’ll call him back in a few minutes. Then I give my heart a chance to pick up where it left off before the call and the cold sweat a chance to stop. Then I sit down, and as calmly as possible assess the situation.
Usually these problems are simple, and many times do not even require my going out the door, much less calling the repairman. Even so, I often can do wonders to complicate a simple problem.
For example, a several winters ago I got a call from one of my tenants telling me the furnace had quit. They had taken it upon themselves to call the repairman and he wanted to talk to me. The “repairman” told me that the furnace was shot and the only solution was a new $700 flame retention burner. That pretty well stopped my heart. I went right over.
He reiterated the story he had told me on the phone and then proceeded to wiggle, push and prod parts of the furnace to prove that it was beyond repair. Now I don’t know much about furnaces, but I do know crooks. So, when I heard “I couldn’t sleep nights if I didn’t put in a new burner,” I knew I was listening to and looking at a real-life, verifiable crook.
I none too politely sent him on his way and called the man I usually called to fix oil furnaces. He came over and pushed, poked and prodded. Finally, he said, “Are you sure you’ve got oil?” The tenant assured him she had. They’d just bought some a month before (January). So he pushed, poked and prodded again, then he went out to his truck, got his dip stick and measured the oil in the empty oil tank.
The whole thing ended up costing me $60 for service calls to find out the oil tank was empty. Don’t worry about the crook who tried to sell the new burner. He’s not in business anymore.
Recently, another of my tenants called to tell me their gas furnace had quit. This time my wife (not me, my heart had stopped) had the presence of mind to ask if the pilot light was lit. It wasn’t. So I took a half hour and went over to relight it. End of problem.
It cost me six miles of driving, that I wrote off on my taxes, and two matches (which I can’t). You see, sometimes the gas company turns off the gas in an entire neighborhood and never bothers to tell their customers. Apparently it’s the old Ma Bell attitude, “we don’t care; we don’t have to.” When they turn it back on, of course pilot lights are all off.
The second rule of thumb in my system of dealing with tenant call about breakdowns is DON’T BELIEVE THEM. If you have owned and managed rental property for more than three months, you probably have a better idea than they do what’s going on.
So as a result of my “vast” experience and consistent thought, I have etched the following in stone:
Rule 1: Ask pertinent questions, or even impertinent ones if you can’t get a straight answer.
Rule 2: It’s probably not as bad as the tenant is making it out to be or my mind has manufactured it do be.
Rule 3: Corollary to Rule 2 — if the tenant says “I don’t think this is a serious problem, but…” rush right over because the building may be on the verge of collapse. In fact you may want to tell the tenant to evacuate.
Rule 4: Look at the problem before you call the repairman. Because even if you do have to call him, you probably can tell him exactly what’s wrong and save him having to go “back to the shop” or to Home Depot for the right part seventeen times.
That’s how I handle tenant calls. But I’m not sure what’s worse: the calls or the notes with the rent checks saying “I didn’t want to bother you so I just thought I take care of this myself….”