Sunday, June 03, 2018

Should my tenant's free-ness with her keys concern me?

In addition to her primary residence, a reader we're calling Lillian owns a two-family house, which she rents out. She does her best to manage the rental property herself, making sure everything works in each apartment and taking time to make sure that the yard is kept up. Mostly, however, Lillian relies on her tenants to take care of their apartments, asking them to alert her if anything is in need of repair.

Lillian has friends who also own rent properties. She's heard stories of tenants wrecking apartments, and even one who put a room in her apartment on Airbnb so she could make some extra cash, even though her lease prohibited subletting of any kind. For the most part, aside from an occasional late rent payment, Lillian has felt fortunate that she has had few run-ins with her tenants.

She says she is glad that the wear and tear on the apartment has been minimal. She takes the fact that most of her tenants come from word of mouth from previous tenants as a sign that her tenants have been pleased with their rental experience.

Lillian says she does her best to keep up each apartment and to make each tenant feel as safe as possible during their tenancy.

In addition to showing up regularly to take care of yard work or other tasks around the building, Lillian often drives by the apartments on her way home from work. "Just to keep an eye on things," she writes. Most often, there's nothing to see and the house seems in good shape.

But a few weeks ago, as Lillian was driving by the apartment, she saw a couple of people leaving the first floor apartment. One was carrying a tray of cleaning supplies. The other was lugging a vacuum cleaner. They were also wearing identical shirts with a pocket logo Lillian couldn't make out.

"It looks like my first floor tenant has a cleaning service," Lillian writes.

On the surface, this didn't strike Lillian as a bad thing. Having tenants who take care of their apartments is good. Still, Lillian was concerned.

"I didn't see my tenant when I saw the cleaning people," writes Lillian. "I'm worried that she's made a copy of the apartment key and given it to the cleaning people without asking me if that was OK to do."

While there's nothing in her tenants' leases that prohibits making copies of keys for others, Lillian is concerned about security because of apartment keys floating around about which she doesn't know.

"Am I going to have to change the locks each time I rent to someone new?" she asks. "Should I say something to my tenant?"

If non-renters having keys to the apartment concerns her, Lillian should certainly say something. If she wants to forbid the practice of having keys made, she might consider placing that in future lease agreements.

But the right thing is for Lillian to get clear on what concerns her. Is it not being asked if it's OK for a tenant to make a key for a cleaning person? Or is it not wanting anyone but her renters having a key? Once she is clear on that, she should speak with the renter and let her know. Until she does, the renter does not appear to have done anything wrong. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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