Sunday, April 10, 2016
Should landlord point out rent overpayment to tenant?
A reader, let's call her Lil, owns a two-family house in the Northeast. She and her family live in one apartment. Lil rents the other apartment out to another family. The renters, who have lived in the apartment, are on a month-to-month lease.
Since they started renting, Lil has only raised the rent once, and even then it was a minimal amount to help offset the increased cost of city water that Lil pays. The tenants pay for their own heat and electricity.
Last month, Lil noticed that the renter include $50 too much in the monthly rent check. She emailed the tenants to let them know and asked if they would like the $50 back or if they just wanted to take $50 off of the following month's rent.
One of the tenants who handles the bill was embarrassed she had wrote the check incorrectly and seemed to feel terrible about causing any inconvenience. Lil assured her it wasn't a bit deal. The tenant chose to simply pay $50 less for rent the following month.
When the following month's rent check arrived, it was for the agreed-upon monthly rent. No $50 deduction had been made.
"She felt awful last time about making the check out incorrectly," writes Lil. "Should I just forget about it and not point out her error again this month?"
Lil's inclination is to not say anything, mostly because she doesn't want to make her tenant feel bad. But is that the right thing to do?
It's understandable that Lil doesn't want her tenant to feel bad. Lil considers her and family to be great tenants, ones she can rely on to keep an eye on the house when Lil is out of town, to take the mail in occasionally, to pull the rubbish bins back in from the curb on trash day, or to help out with shoveling snow when a storm hits. They've been tenants for several years now and, knowing how hard it is to find good tenants, Lil doesn't want to make the tenant feel stupid.
But while Lil's intentions are good, the right thing to do is to return the $50.
Sure, the tenant made a mistake writing the check two months in a row, but that doesn't remove the fact that she overpaid. The extra money is hers, not Lil's.
Lil doesn't need to make a big deal about the overpayment -- and, given her past response, it's unlikely she would. But she should alert Lil to it.
She can simply email or tell her in person that she overpaid and ask how she would like the money returned. The same offer she made the previous month of giving her back $50 or simply letting the tenant take it off of her next rent check would take care of business.
At some point, the tenant is likely to recognize that she overpaid once again. When she does, her feeling foolish could turn to resentment if Lil says nothing.
But that's not the reason Lil should point out the error. In a relationship built on honesty, such as theirs has been, doing the right thing is necessary even if it might create a bit of awkwardness in the process.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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