Property managers and landlords have a legal and ethical responsibility to leaseholders. Tenants are screened during the application process before signing a lease agreement for good reason—you need to know who is living on your property. But sometimes a tenants invite visitors to stay in their rental unit for longer than a short visit, and before you know it your property is housing ongoing occupants who haven’t been screened, aren’t paying you rent, and are not legally bound to the terms of a lease agreement.
The key to avoiding guests who overstay their welcome is to be proactive, starting with a clearly defined guest policy included in the lease agreement that spells out, in basic terms, the difference between a tenant and a guest. This may seem unnecessary since most people already understand the distinction, but to protect yourself legally, it’s important to clarify the difference between tenants and visitors.
Tenants pay rent to live on your property. Guests visit occasionally, may sleep over during a pre-defined time period, but they do not pay rent, are not listed in the lease, and are not liable for upholding other obligations in the lease agreement.
Your guest policy should include language to cover short-term guests (up to two weeks) and long-term guests if you’re okay with extended visitors for a temporary period of time. Tenants should be required to ask the permission from the property manager or landlord before inviting a long-term guest, and require these visitors to sign a long-term guest agreement.
Communicating openly with your tenants on your guest policy will help you avoid sticky situations that can have complicated legal ramifications. Landlord-tenant laws vary from state to state, so it’s important to understand your state’s guidelines governing tenant guests, notices to quit, rent payments, and tenant-guest definitions.
Put a system in place to monitor activity on your rental property as well. Security cameras can help you keep track of who’s coming and going. If you suspect a tenant has a long-term guest staying without permission, most jurisdictions allow property managers or landlords to enter a rental unit to check for violations after giving the tenants a minimum of 24 hours’ written notice. Make sure to visit vacant rentals periodically to make sure squatters haven’t moved in.
In order for squatters to take possession of the property, they are required to be living in it for an uninterrupted number of years designated by your jurisdiction.
There are ways to spot long-term guests who have taken up residence without your permission:
- A tenant’s guest appears to have taken up residence without signing a long-term guest agreement and they don’t pay rent. If a long-term guest agrees to pay a portion of the rent and/or utilities each month, you and the guest are entered into an informal landlord-tenant agreement.
- A guest receiving mail and package delivery at the property signals that they have moved in. Even if the guest spends time elsewhere but regularly receives mail at your property, you can present this as evidence.
- Nightly sleepover guests lose any claim to the guest designation. Security cameras or noticing their car parked every night at the property can help identify can help you identify “guests” who are actually residents. If parking is included in your lease agreement, you have a record of those vehicles and plate numbers authorized to park on your property. However, frequent daytime-only visitors do qualify as guests.
- A guest who is spotted moving furniture, a pet, and/or a significant amount of personal belonging into a unit they’re “visiting” is probably taking up residence.
- Guests who have a key to a unit, regardless of whether they were given a spare key or illegally obtained a duplicate key are more likely living there as tenants than guests.
If you have vacant units, these behaviors could indicate the presence of squatters on your property, which is why it’s so important to check vacant units routinely. While taking preventative measures in the first place is always the best course of action, if you discover rogue tenants or unauthorized long-term guests at your property it’s important to take swift action to prevent more serious legal issues down the road.
When you create your tenant guest policy, set specific parameters regarding the following:
- Maximum number of tenants permitted in the living in the space
- Relationship of guests to the tenant (e.g. only friends or relatives of the existing tenant to prohibit subletting or Airbnb visitors).
- Number of guests permitted in a rental unit at one time.
- Number of consecutive nights a guest can sleep over at the property without long-term guest permission.
- What measures you will take to deal with guests who overstay the terms of the guest tenant policy, and what penalties will be levied against tenants who violate the policy (e.g., fines or eviction).
Here’s an example of language you can use in your guest policy: Guests may stay on the property for a maximum of 14 days and nights in a six-month period. Any guest residing at the property for more than 14 days in a six-month period will be considered a tenant and will be required to sign a long-term guest agreement or be added to the existing tenant’s lease agreement. The landlord may increase the rent any time a new tenant is added to an existing lease.
As the property manager or landlord, you decide the maximum occupancy of each unit according to your comfort level, whether it’s a one-bedroom or five-bedroom apartment. Remember to check your jurisdiction’s occupancy laws that stipulate how many people can live in a space, based on square footage.
We recommend having your attorney customize your guest agreement and lease in a way that protects your property so you can prevent any issues before they begin instead of simply running with a standard lease agreement.
Any time you sign a new tenant, the most important action you can take is to establish a good landlord-tenant relationship from the start. This way you can review the details of the lease agreement rules with the tenant and explain the consequences of breaching them, making sure the tenant acknowledges that they understand the rules so there they can’t claim later that they were not made aware of any of them. Establishing a good landlord-tenant relationship right off the bat establishes a culture of communication based on mutual understanding.