This is not a smiley-happy post. In fact, the topic is downright depressing. Yet, if you’re in this business long enough, eventually, someone’s going to die in one of your rental units. It happens. In my 25+ years, I’ve had three deaths. The first was a drug overdose; the second a “peaceful” death, and the third was suicide.
No matter the circumstances, there isn’t anything much more disturbing than to find a dead body in an apartment or house you manage. The event can haunt you for months. At the moment you discover the death, it’s easy to make critical mistakes – confusion takes hold, and we don’t always think clearly about what we should be doing.
Following are a few guidelines to help you deal appropriately with a death in one of your rental units:
- First things first. Call the police. Whether the death was “natural” or somehow related to a crime, it is a police matter. Do not touch anything in the rental unit, and certainly do NOT move the body. Wait outside for the police to arrive. You will need to make a statement. The police will examine the property, call the coroner, and release possession of the property back to you, once the body is removed.
- Contact the deceased’s next of kin. Your tenant’s rental application will likely have contact information for relatives. There will be many questions for which you do not have answers. Refer the family to the police for details. Do not speculate on the cause of death, or any circumstances surrounding the death.
- Contact the property owner. This is likely to be a very difficult conversation. The owner is going to rely completely on your expertise as a property manager, and your guidance here. It is your job to orchestrate an orderly transition, and assure your owner of your competency in handling the matter.
- Contact the owner’s insurance agent. In most cases, a death in a unit is an insurance claim on the owner’s policy. The insurance adjuster will likely guide the process of restoring the unit to rentable condition. Remember that, regardless of the cause of death, you are dealing with potentially hazardous conditions. Only use licensed professionals for cleanup work. This is not the job of a handyman.
- You will likely need to talk to the neighboring residents. There will be many questions. Once again, it is not your job to speculate as to the cause of death, or circumstances surrounding it. Assure other tenants that you will handle the situation professionally. They may simply need an opportunity to vent their fears and frustrations. Yes, sometimes we’re in the business of counseling our owners and tenants.
- If the death was a violent one, you may have to deal with the press. The rules here are the same with anyone you talk to. Do not speculate, and do not share private or personal information about the tenant, or your client. If you are an on-site manager, refer press inquiries to the property manager.
- Secure the unit. Remember, you are responsible for the safekeeping of the tenant’s personal property until it is legally claimed by family members. Make sure all doors and windows are locked at all times. When releasing property to the family, be sure you know who you’re releasing the property to. Make sure the family member is authorized to claim the property, check identification, and get a release signed by the family member who claims the deceased’s property.
Do I have to tell a new tenant about the death?
In Nevada, we are not required to disclose a death in a rental unit to a prospective tenant, unless the death was related to a defect in the unit that has not been corrected. For example, if a tenant died from a fall because the stair rail gave way, and we haven’t properly repaired the rail, it’s a material fact – it must be disclosed. Otherwise, there is no obligation to disclose the death.
Just because you might not be obligated to disclose the death doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be in your (and your owner/client’s) best interest to disclose it. Consider this situation – a situation I experienced with my very first tenant death.
The apartment was located in a multi-unit property. Most of the neighboring tenants were long-term residents, and were friendly with one another. Naturally, they all knew about the death. Imagine not telling a prospective resident about that death, and then having him learn about it via his neighbors, after moving in. This sets the stage for a relationship between you and your new tenant based on lack of information and mistrust. Not good for you, your owner, or the new tenant.
Rather than keeping the death a “secret,” I sought the owner’s permission to disclose the death to prospective tenants, before they committed to rent the unit. I easily found a new tenant for the unit who didn’t care that someone had died there before. The unit had new carpet, paint, and window coverings, it was located in the area she wanted to live, and she was very happy to have found it. The honesty conveyed by my disclosing the death set the stage for a positive landlord/tenant relationship. She ended up living in that unit happily for several years, until she bought her own home.
There’s no doubt, discovering a death in one of your rental units is tragic, no matter the circumstances. Handling the matter with a calm and professional attitude will serve you well. Have you experienced a death in one of your units? Do you have tips or advice to share with the rest of us? Please do so, by posting a comment on this story.