By Kimberly Rau, MassLandlords
Unlike harassment or discrimination, it’s not against the law to brag about how much money you have or show off a fancy new car. And there’s nothing wrong with being proud of something you worked hard to get...as long as it’s in front of the right audience. Showing off your flashy new vehicle or classic car restoration to friends who enjoy the same things is practically expected. But you probably wouldn’t go out of your way to visit your neighbor’s house and rub it in when you know that his 12-year-old car is back in the shop. Likewise, displaying your wealth, even passively, around your tenants is going to be seen as pretentious and could lead to future strained interactions.
Perception is Reality
There are a lot of myths out there about landlords, including the old chestnut that all landlords are greedy millionaires hoarding their gold and stealing bread directly from the mouths of hungry children. Statistically, though, many landlords are “mom and pop” or “small” landlords, with only a few rental units. A Forbes article states that 77 percent of small building units are owned by just such landlords.
But public perception is another story. If your tenants are already coming into the situation with negative misconceptions about rental property owners, you may be able to provide a different perspective. Or, you could end up reinforcing their stereotypes. Optics are important.
Watch Your Watch (and suit, and tie, and car...)
Designer gear is a lot more attainable now than it was even 20 years ago, making it an inaccurate way to assess whether someone has money.
That said, there are certain things that are ostentatious enough to give the impression that you are flaunting your good fortune. That may be fine at your high school reunion, but when your relationship to someone is landlord-tenant, it’s just a show of superiority or dominance. Neither you nor they need that.
Rolling up in a new, fully loaded luxury car to respond to a call about a leaking faucet (and parking right in front of the building, and being really obvious about locking it from afar so they notice the insignia on the key fob) might make your tenants feel like you’re trying to rub something in. So will other obvious displays of your financial state.
Consider this scenario: it’s approaching the second week of the month and your tenant has not paid rent, so you call them up to ask about it. The tenant reveals that their employer messed up with the paycheck, and they plan to pay you by the end of the week. They then mention that their car has a big repair coming up, and it’s been stressful waiting for the payroll error at work to get fixed.
You, in an attempt to be relatable, state that you understand, because your renovations on your vacation home are going to cost $60,000, and, thanks to some unforeseen necessary work on the foundation, you may have to skip the hot tub installation your spouse was looking forward to.
In your head, you’ve commiserated with your tenant about money woes and budgeting. In your tenant’s mind, you’ve just stated that upgrades to your vacation home (when your tenant hasn’t been on vacation in two years) are going to cost more than he makes in a year. Your intent was good, but your tenant is going to have a hard time seeing past the display of wealth.
You’re going to have a pretty good idea about what your tenant’s household income is (at least, you’d better have verified that they can afford the place before agreeing to rent it). If you know your tenant is probably on a tight budget, don’t wear your $6,000 suit to the lease signing. Leave your Rolex at home (even if you inherited it from your great-uncle and aren’t exactly rolling in cash). Don’t talk about fancy vacations. In fact, don’t talk about anything personal with your tenants; that’s not why you’re a part of their lives, and it’s not why they’re part of yours.
In that same vein, don’t talk about how well your retirement is going when your tenant is working two jobs.
The University of No One Cares
Massachusetts is ranked #8 among U.S. states with the most public and private universities and colleges. This means there’s a good chance that college (or education in general) may come up when you are showing the property, especially if the property is located near major universities. A family with a senior in high school may tell you they are moving closer to their son’s college of choice. Perhaps your apartment building is located in Boston and is attractive to professors or international students. Maybe the private elementary school in your town is so good, people move there just to get their kids a spot.
If your tenants (or potential tenants) bring up education, this is your opportunity to discuss the rich educational landscape that exists in the Bay State. This is not your chance to name-drop your Ivy League alma mater. The one caveat is if they mention that they or their child attended or are attending there. Then, go ahead and tell them you matriculated from the same place (but don’t be the person who asks how they managed to get in or if they’re going on a scholarship).
Rent Raises and City Life Protests
You might ask, why should I care? If I have something nice, why should I hide it? No one is suggesting you do. However, if your tenant gets the sense that you are trying to show off, it’s going to make it difficult for them to see you as relatable. And while your tenants are not your friends, you want them to be able to humanize you, just as you should be humanizing them.
When does this matter? Not when you’re showing the apartment, but when it’s time to raise the rent. You might be relying on your triple-decker to make ends meet, but if all your tenants see is a flashy car or expensive suit, they’re going to begrudge you that extra money every month. If they think you’re exploiting them, they may move out, and it costs more money to get a new tenant than to keep your current one happy. If the entire reason they’re moving out is that they think you’re raising the rent just to gouge them when you don’t need to, then it costs you $0 to not give that impression in the first place.
On a small scale, this might amount to a tenant here or there getting angry and leaving. However, if you are a larger-scale landlord, rent hikes that seem greedy or unnecessary may leave you in the crosshairs of some very visible pushback, such as this 2019 protest in Malden, when United Properties reportedly raised rents as much as 50 percent.
All of this really means that it’s important to use your discretion. You want a good, working relationship (not friendship) with your tenants, and that’s going to be difficult if they think you’re constantly flaunting your wealth. A little common sense and sensitivity can go a long way toward a good, professional rapport with your renters.