How to set community rules: be smart, be kind

Barbara Ballinger
Barbara Ballinger | 5 min. read

Published on April 19, 2016

The Dalai Lama once famously said, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” Which, to be honest, is probably the way most of us would love to live our lives. Except, managing a multifamily building full rule-breakers can create tension, unhappiness, and a greater likelihood that some tenants won’t renew.

You don’t have to regulate everything (and shouldn’t), but deciding which rules to include in a lease and requires a lot of patience and wisdom (much like the Dalai Lama). For example, if you don’t allow pets in your building, you may eliminate a broad spectrum of today’s residents. Or worse, you’re inviting people to break the rules with “small,” “quiet,” critters.

That said, you should be able to create a “rule book” that protects your business and your community without violating any stipulations of any Fair Housing laws or the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Here are 10 topics to consider when writing your rules:

  1. Rules about animals. As you know, many people consider their pets to be family members, so it may be in your best interest to allow pets. You may want to limit the number of pets allowed, as well as the size/weight/breed of certain animals (for example: 60-lb labrador is probably okay; a 200-lb pot-belly pig is probably not). You should also consider the neighborhood and how easy it is to walk a large dog. If you have a pet play area, provide clean up bags for everyone’s happiness.
  2. Quiet hours. This is especially important in buildings with a lot of students or musicians (which is very common here in Boston). For example, you may want to institute building-wide quiet time between 11 pm and 7 am, to limit parties and late night music rehearsals.
  3. Smoking. These days, most buildings have a 24/7 hour smoking ban, with consequences for violations. If you do levy fines, you might consider donating the money to the American Cancer Society, as one Midwest Management firm has done.
  4. Painting and other renovations. This varies widely between communities and landlords, so you should be specific about what you’ll allow tenants to change. For example, you may allow them to paint, but require that they paint the walls back to beige or white before they move out.
  5. Rent. Provide a due date for rent in the lease (usually the 1st of the month), how the rent should be paid (electronic payments or check only, for example), and include any penalties for late rent.
  6. Overnight guests. Guests, when they’re just in town for the weekend, are probably not an issue. But, if they aren’t paying rent, they weren’t subjected to a credit and background check, so if they overstay their welcome, they may make residents very uncomfortable. In the lease, state how long guests can stay (a full week, for example and if they’re permitted to use the gym and business centers in the building.
  7. Maintenance. Tell residents how they should alert you to any issues, whether it’s by phone, an online maintenance request, or via email.
  8. Security deposits. Whether you require one or two months deposit, be sure to put it in writing. State whether or not the deposit can be used to cover a last month rent payment if a tenant vacates their unit. Also, specify what constitutes wear and tear and damage that may cause some or all the deposit not to be returned. Some municipalities have laws to cover this already.
  9. Parking. Rules vary depending on the amount of space available, whether there’s a garage or a driveway, or if it’s limited to on-street parking. Regardless, be sure to include limits and charges within the lease. You may want to include a notice of rules in the garage or lot itself.
  10. Access to individual units. Communicate how alert tenants if you need to enter their unit to avoid conflicts with their schedules. Many buildings offer a 24-hour notice (except in emergency situations).

Regardless of what you include, don’t be afraid to be specific: grey areas can cause confusion, and therefore, problems.

And, don’t forget to be flexible. If a rule isn’t working, it may not be the right rule: when Gordon James, founder of a D.C-based property management firm noticed that residents weren’t returning shopping carts, he changed the rule to require they leave their building ID with the security desk until they returned the cart.

Your list of rules should be available in the lease, at the office, and in your property management software if you use one. Be sure to go over them before the lease is signed.

In your experience, which rules have stuck and which ones have floundered? Have you found a way to enforce rules that aren’t viewed favorably among residents? Get the conversation started in the comments section below!

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Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate, design, and family business; her website is Her most recently published book is The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing).

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