Podcast 74: Bad Smells and Odors from a Tenant

When tenants live close together, as in a multifamily building, sometimes strong odors from one apartment can penetrate to other units or into common areas. Whether the smells are from cooking, garbage buildup or something else, landlords have a responsibility to notify tenants of these odors. In this episode of the podcast, we’ll check out the steps landlords can take to create and deliver such a notice in the right way.

Transcription of “Dealing With Bad Smells From A Tenant”:

Jeff: Welcome to Landlord University Night School. I’m Jeff Pearson and I’m here with my cohost, Stephen White. How are you doing today, Stephen?
Stephen: I can’t complain, Jeff, doing pretty well, obviously excited to be on another episode and talk about kind of a funny topic, but not always funny when you’re dealing with it firsthand, and something that comes up a lot of times with landlords, is you deal with…you get tenants that their house smells. You know, whether they’re cooking food that stinks the whole hallway up. I don’t if anyone, you know, if you’ve ever lived in a multi-unit place, it only takes one person cooking some sort of, you know, I’m sure it’s a delicacy in some country, but some food that ends up stinking really bad, and it creeps into the hallway, into your own apartment and causes a problem. And so landlords will very often get complaints or calls saying, “Hey, this person is cooking this or that, and it smells,” or maybe it’s sort of a more unpleasant type of an odor that’s coming from the apartment.
But, in any event, as the landlord, you obviously have a responsibility to give notice to that person. You don’t want problems and you can’t just let something like that continue on. And we always stress the importance of documenting everything and creating a paper trail, so the best way for a landlord to do that is, obviously, with a written notice. And, believe it or not, there is a written notice that exists. We have it at RentPrep if you’re looking for one, called Notice of Odors, and it’s a pretty simple statement that you hand to the tenant. And I’ll read it verbatim. It’s very short, but it gets the point across and it’s…
“This notice is to inform you that there have been complaints of an odor coming from your rental unit. For your own health and safety, as well as the comfort of all members of our community, we ask that you please investigate the cause of this odor and remove the source immediately.”
Keeps it kind of broad and doesn’t narrow it down, you know, that it’s cooking or whatever it is, maybe a dog, I don’t know, whatever else that it could possibly be. But this is sort of your first step to taking action, and you’re providing a service not only to the other tenants that are complaining about it and giving them some satisfaction that something’s being done, but in the event that it really, truly becomes a problem, there has to be a step one, and this would be step one, that initial notice, that you gave them notice and did they or did they not respond to that and comply with any of your demands to fix it.
Jeff: I mean, I can understand if somebody has trash built up in their unit and that stinks. That’s a pretty simple one. They need to clean it up and get rid of it, otherwise, you’re going to take steps to get rid of them. But if they like to cook with spicy foods and those spicy foods happen to smell up the place and smell up the hallway, I mean, what rights do you really have as a landlord to address that? Again I’ve never lived in that type of a multi-unit complex that has that type of thing, but does that mean people who barbecue outside on their patio, who create odors for the people above them, are subject to receiving this type of a notice?
Stephen: I would say yeah, and you know, I have been in those situations and it’s tough. It’s a really…it’s a tough position because I can understand both sides. You know, I come from a very Polish family and my mother loved to cook Polish foods, and I’m sure that, growing up, if we had a neighbor that liked to complain, they may have said, “Hey, I’m sick of smelling sauerkraut,” or kapusta, or whatever it is that she was making that didn’t smell so great, and that would cause a problem.
I think that part of it’s just being a good neighbor, you know. I think this is, you know, you would hope that if it is something that can be controlled, that maybe they would do something, maybe if it’s just as simple as opening a window or turning a fan on while you’re cooking, or just trying to be respectful in that way. But yeah, if they’re a good tenant otherwise, as a landlord, I’d find it tough to kick somebody out because they’re cooking and it smelled, you know.
Jeff: It wasn’t something that somebody else liked. Obviously, they’re cooking it because they like it, it’s what they’re used to. I would think, one of the things to make sure that you do is, like you mentioned, the fans. Are they using the fans, and if they are, are the fans working properly? Is there something that you can do as a landlord to make sure that you’re taking care of your tenants and the property as much as possible?
So inspect the fan, make sure that it’s venting properly, make sure it’s vented outside. You know, sometimes fans get set up and they’re venting into an attic space or a crawlspace, and that’s certainly not appropriate. And so having a discussion with them when you give them that Notice of Odors from the apartment, you might let them know, “Hey, I’m not sure if you use the fan, but let’s start by trying to use the fan and see what happens.”
And instead of just giving them a notice and saying, “You’re under notice. You have to take care of your odors, or else,” coming at this from a customer service standpoint, saying, “Hey, I understand it’s not a normal thing. It’s kind of uncomfortable for me to have to come to you and say that the stuff you’re cooking is causing problems for other people in the complex. But I want to be sure that both you and I are doing everything we can do to minimize the impact on the other tenants. So, let’s talk about all of these different things, the fan, the window, and all of that kind of stuff.”
Stephen: Yeah, and just to take it into another direction real quick, also, if it’s not cooking related, let’s say it’s the smell of urine or feces from a pet or a dog or something, this can be another great start to the eventual process of, maybe you have to go in there and inspect it and make sure that the unit’s not being destroyed, and the person’s actually taking care of the place, or taking their dog outside. So, again, you know, I think that it can be a good way for a landlord to keep their eyes and ears on the ground and find out what’s happening, and deal with it appropriately if it comes up.
Jeff: Yes, exactly.
Well, Stephen, I think that wraps up another evening of night school. I look forward to talking with you tomorrow evening.
Stephen: Okay. Thanks, Jeff.