Great relationships between tenants and landlords are built on having good communication. So how can you communicate well without overstepping boundaries, and still respecting your tenant’s rights to privacy?

With the added stress of job losses and business closures bought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, emotions are running high. Now, communication and good tenant landlord relationships are more important than ever.

At a time like this it’s a great idea to get in touch with your tenants asking how they are. It can make them feel at ease, and help to build a trusting relationship. They are looking after your property, and are probably paying the mortgage for you. In return, you are providing them with a safe, warm and secure place to live through a time of extreme uncertainty.

What can I legally ask my tenant?

To respect tenant’s rights to privacy, you should normally only ask them things related to their tenancy. Things like proof of identification, name and contact information, and whether or not they own pets are all relevant questions.

For some it can be hard to reach a good balance between being professional, and being friendly. If you begin to ask more personal questions, be mindful that your tenant may not want to answer them.

What can’t I ask my tenant?

Unless your tenant discloses it to you willingly, you cannot ask them about their physical and mental health. It might seem like the friendly thing to do, but be aware that your tenant does not have to answer these questions.

As a landlord, you are in a position of influence. As a result, tenants may feel pressured to answer even when they don’t want to. Unless it relates directly to the tenancy, it is best to avoid this type of question.

If your tenant has COVID-19, or are self-isolating they do not need to let you know unless you are coming to carry out urgent repairs on the property.

Can I ask my tenant for proof of employment?

Instead of asking your tenants for proof of employment, you can ask for proof of income. You can only ask this if they are currently living in your property, or you have chosen them as a preferred applicant.

Some people may not feel comfortable disclosing to you where they work, and they are within their rights not to tell you. It is recommended that you don’t ask your tenants about their employment history. But for the purpose of being able to pay rent throughout the lockdown, it may be appropriate to ask about their current employment situation.

If your tenant has listed a work colleague or employer as a referee on their tenancy application, you can contact them. However, when you speak with them you can only ask about things related to the tenancy.

Does my tenant need to show me proof of job loss?

If your tenant has told you that they have lost their job, and are unable to pay rent, be very sympathetic. You may be facing the exact same situation yourself. But if not, try to put yourself in their shoes and think about how they feel.

If your tenant says they are struggling and they ask for help with rent, you can request proof of hardship. Landlords are not legally required to reduce rent or give tenants a rent free period, so it is up to you if you want to do this.

For evidence that tenants are struggling to pay rent, you can also ask for proof of income. However, you can’t ask your tenant for proof of their current expenses. If they have asked for rent relief, you can’t question them about what they are spending their money on. Many Kiwis have seen a drop in income and will be struggling to meet their usual expenses. Adjusting to living on a lower income will take time, so it’s best to look at tools to help each other moving forward.

Providing tenants with help to see what government support they can get during the lockdown is also a good idea.

Can I go to their house and check to see if they are ok?

It’s a lovely thought, but please hold off on visiting in person and send them a message instead. While New Zealand is at Level 4 and in lockdown, there is no reason for any of us to be out and about other than for essential trips. During this period you also cannot carry out rental inspections, as they are not an essential service. Any that were scheduled during Level 4 must be put on hold until further notice.

Do you want to drop in and check on their wellbeing after the lockdown? Contact them via text message, phone, or email and ask if they want you to visit. The same laws still apply around giving at least 48 hours’ notice. If you want to help people, try to do it on their terms. What one person thinks is helpful might not be what someone really needs, so ask first to make sure you’re both on the same page.

Always respect your tenants’ rights to quiet enjoyment, this is one of your key responsibilities as a landlord. Your tenant’s idea of a caring landlord could be one that stops by for a chat while maintaining the property, or it could be one that leaves them in peace. Through good clear communication you should be able to tell what sort of approach your tenants prefer.

For a guide to what information you can ask for, the Privacy Commissioner has a helpful PDF available online:

What information can a landlord ask a tenant for?

Help for tenants

If you are a tenant, and you’re concerned about the type of information being asked of you by your landlord, you are allowed to question why they need that information.
When you think the information being requested is too intrusive, you can complain to the Privacy Commissioner.

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