Landlord psycology and the “line of death”

libyalineBack in 1986, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi re-instituted a decade old claim that the Gulf of Sidra was part of Libyan territory.  He claimed that if Americans crossed the “Line of Death” from the Mediterranean Sea into the gulf, they would be destroyed.  In the ensuing months, America crossed the line again and again to Libya’s extreme detriment.  Landlords can take an important lesson about dealing with tenants from General Gadhafi’s failed handling of the situation. 

Many years ago, comedian Robin Williams did a bit on that Libya situation.  Mimicking Gadhafi and making an “imaginary” line in the sand, he said:

“This is a line of death.  You cross it – you die”  [then, moving back a step]
“Okay, you cross this line, you die”;  [moving back another step]
“Okay, you cross this line, you die”;  [moving back yet another step and finally saying]
“OK, you knock on my door and I’m not coming out!”.

Too many times, landlords act like General Gadhafi.  They make noise.  They flail their arms.  They threaten.  They prod.  But, in the end, they fail to take their own threats seriously.  They don’t follow through.  Eventually, the threats become laughable.  The tenants know that the landlord is not serious.  They cross the “line of death” over and over. Soon, the landlord is a laughingstock.

It’s like those “which is better” commercials.  Which is better?  Paying rent or living for free?  I know what most tenants would answer.  Like most people, landlords want things to work themselves out naturally and without conflict.  We all do!  They don’t want “trouble”, so they hope that the tenant’s good nature or moral compass will eventually get them paid. The landlord then works gradually up to being “serious”, hoping all the time that the tenant will just go ahead and pay.  Instead of serving a five day notice, the landlord will start with a text message or an email (no need to confront the problem when you have a faceless means of communication like email, right!).  After that, the landlord may send a letter to the tenant detailing what is owed and making arguments for why a tenant should pay.  After that doesn’t work, the landlord might even call an attorney to send the tenant a letter making demand for payment.  (As an aside, our office does not send out those kinds of letters for a number of reasons, main among them, they rarely work).  Do you see where this is going?  Cross this line, you die.  Rinse, repeat.

Sometimes, the landlord might even get a “partial” result.  A tenant who is behind $1000 might come up with $300.  While $300 is “better than nothing”, it probably is not if it took 20 days to get the $300 and in 10 more days, it will be the first of the month and the tenant will then be behind $1700 when the next month’s rent is due.  When tenants see a landlord “back up” and make a new line in the sand, they are happy to continue playing along.

Landlording is a business and needs to be treated as such.  When a tenant is behind in rent, a landlord should never take the “wait and see” approach.  A landlord should act with a plan and the fortitude to follow through on the plan.  Draw a line in the sand and when that line gets crossed, act.  Rather than making a call to the tenant, go see the tenant in person to collect the rent.    Rather than sending a dunning letter, the landlord should serve a 5 day notice.  Believe me, when the landlord fails to pay the mortgage payment to the bank at the beginning of the month, the bank draws a line in the sand and fires away.

About Richard Magnone

Co-founding member of Reda | Ciprian | Magnone, LLC, attorney at law and Illinois licensed lawyer since 1996.
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