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5 Invaluable Rules for Being a Landlord but Not a Jerk

Written By
Adam on May 12, 2021
A consistent theme that has reverberated throughout history is that landlords are some of the worst people roaming the planet.

This reputational catastrophe  goes back to the Code of Hammurabi , around 1700 B.C:

“If a free person signs a contract to rent a field for cultivation but fails to raise a crop in the field, that person must pay the landlord an amount equivalent to the harvests of the adjoining fields.”

WTF?  That’s rough.  If you agree to grow a crop, but choose not to, your landlord is owed whatever might be grown in all the adjacent farms.  

That stereotype of a punishing, merciless landlord  has continued on for centuries.

Adam Smith – the father of capitalism , believed landlords were parasites , that they reaped what they never sowed.  Karl Marx, the father of communism, actually referenced Smith, writing that landlords have their “origin in robbery.”

Flash forward to today, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the Congresswoman from Queens who has catapulted into Democratic Party stardom and has become a powerful voice on the left.  Pausing to speak to a homeless man she said : "I really, really envy you … seriously, like, you don't have to deal with evil landlords and pay rent to them.”

We don’t accept that crushing stereotype of landlords, for one good reason: You.

You’re a nice person.  Someone who cares about people and property and the neighborhood.  You may have inherited a house or decided to rent yours rather than sell it: That’s called an “accidental landlord.”  Or you may have invested in a house with an intention to rent.

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So how do you unwind what is no less than centuries of bad blood?   Stand by.  Your friends at Belong have a foolproof recipe, a set of non-jerk rules that can almost instantly bring homeowners and residents together based on two factors: Some fundamental truths of human nature, and a shared love of house, and love of neighborhood.

• Non-Jerk Rule #1:  You are your tenant.  Your tenant is you.

You need to free yourself of traditional frameworks.   In today’s fluid economy, you may become a resident tomorrow, and your current resident may become a homeowner.  That property egalitarianism is unprecedented in our real estate history, and the blurring of the lines happily breaks down the ancient feudal hierarchy.   

So as the golden rule goes, treat your resident as yourself, because the only difference between you is a point in time.    Think of your relationship with your resident as a mutual commitment first, and a legal contract second.

• Non-Jerk Rule #2: Don’t think the worse of people.

Probably the single phrase that has most poisoned the dynamic between residents and homeowners is “Nobody ever washed a rented car.”  Translation:  Whomever is living in your house has no motivation take good care of it.”  

The reality is that conventional wisdom –  which maintains that people are only motivated by self-interest – has been disproved by “overwhelming evidence ” which shows that “concerns for altruism, fairness, and reciprocity strongly motivate many people.”

The same research paper cites “neuroeconomic evidence that is consistent with the view that many people have a taste for mutual cooperation…”   So our advice is to start your resident relationship with positive efforts to tap into the urge for fairness; more likely than not, it will be reciprocated.  And unlike the cynical rented car aphorism, you might actually find your home in better shape than you left it.

• Non-Jerk Rule #3: Cutting corners cuts against you.

Can you let things slide?  Can save some money on that roof repair or paint job?  Can you get away with a few dead shrubs in front of your house, even if it is un-Instagrammable?  Yes and yes and yes continued; there is no shortage of short-cuts.  

But when you show a lack of commitment, you are sending signals to your resident that you don’t care about your property, which leads to the inexorable question:  Why should they? By contrast, when you demonstrate you love your home – by quickly and responsibly investing in its maintenance – you are encouraging “love it back” behavior.

What’s more, something wonderful happens when everyone in a community works together to maintain houses and property: property values increase.  And there’s a great deal of data which shows the tragic opposite is true: neighborhoods decline in value when people stop caring.

• Non-Jerk Rule #4: Don’t hide behind anonymity.

We believe that it’s a positive force when a homeowner allows their resident to get to them a bit, rather than cloak themselves in anonymity.  Of course, everyone has their own standards of privacy.  But when a resident can put a human face on a house – the face of someone who loves and cherishes it – it’s going to encourage be behavior we talk about in our Non-Jerk Rule #2 – an obligation of reciprocity.

By contrast, when a homeowner works hard to mask themselves, it makes it easier for the resident to shove the owner into the faceless “evil landlord” category.  So our advice is to let your resident or residents get to know you to the extent you feel comfortable; let them into your life and they will love your home even more.

• Non-Jerk Rule #4:  Hire a property manager who reflects your values.

We’re not saying everyone should have a property manager.  But understand that if you take on that responsibility on your own, it’s much easier to become a landlord who is, in fact, a jerk.  It’s massively time-consulting and emotionally draining to be sufficiently available, and have sufficient resources at your disposal, to bring residents what they deserve.

If the furnace stops working at two AM, and there’s a new baby in the house, anything less than an impeccable response will rapidly turn into you an evil figure, living up to what united Adam Smith and Karl Marx in landlord rage.

We created Belong to take on this responsibility for you – and for your residents – with a fresh combination of technology and humanity.  There’s a thread in Quora that asks: “Is it inherently even to be a landlord .”

The answer to that is what gets us out of bed in the morning.  Even when the morning is two AM.
About the author
Adam Hanft
Editor in Chief
Adam is a futurist - co-author of "Dictionary of the Future" - brand strategist, public-company board member, former comedy-writer (but he hasn't stopped being vaguely amusing), and an investor in Belong.