Smart landlords and property managers do a very thorough job of screening tenant applicants. They check references and work places, former landlords and addresses. And of course, they have a background check and tenant credit check done.
But how many of your prospective tenants are checking YOU out? And what do you need to do to ensure you’re attracting the type of tenant you want—who will be as choosy about you as you are about them? After all, if you each choose the other, the landlord-tenant relationship will have a better chance of success!
What Great Tenants Look for in a Landlord:
- Professional behavior and associations. Tenants want landlords who are professional businesspeople. Who take their business seriously enough to belong to professional associations. If you belong to your local apartment association, the National Association of Residential Property Managers, or other group, say so on your website!
- Organization: Tenants are impressed when paperwork is ready to be signed, and when processes are documented. Do you have lease applications, background check authorizations, receipts, leases, move-in and move-out lists, emergency contact information and other forms ready to go at all times? Or are you fumbling around looking for forms? It never looks good to tell a prospect that you’ll need to get back to them for necessary paperwork.
- Great reputation: People will talk, and if your applicant asks current or former tenants about you, what will they hear?
- Reliability: Are your leasing office phones answered promptly? Even if you’re a one-person operation, it matters. If you miss calls, do you return them right away? Can tenants count on you to be available when they need you?
- Honesty: Be truthful at all times, even if that means pointing out issues with the rental apartment or house. Better that prospects know up front and make an informed decision, than starting out the relationship on a negative note.
- Communication: As in every relationship, it comes down to communication. If your skills are sub-par, good tenants will know it.
You may not realize that tenant applicants are checking you out, but it never hurts to put your best foot forward, just in case!
Out of any 10 lease applications, how many contain lies, omissions or truth-stretching? Unfortunately, many will. That’s why landlords and property managers can’t assume every applicant fills out an application truthfully. If you’re lucky, the majority will be hard-working, honest people who are simply looking for a great place to live. But can you count on every applicant to tell the truth? And how can you tell if they’re not?
Verify, verify, verify! It’s up to you to do the digging and reveal the truth.
The best way is to do that is through a thorough background check, which can reveal the following information:
- Whether the applicant has ever used another name.
- If the Social Security Number listed is valid.
- Whether the applicant has declared bankruptcy, and when and where it was filed.
- Any liens or judgments against the applicant.
- Whether the previous addresses listed are accurate.
- Any addresses the applicant omitted.
- Whether the applicant is listed as a registered sex offender.
- Any flags on any of the addresses listed by the applicant.
What’s more, a background check can also tell you whether you can be confident in accepting the applicant’s check.
Of course, you’ll need to do some verification on your own, including contacting and talking to the applicant’s previous landlords and current employer. Be sure to verify that you’re actually talking to the property owner and a representative of the employer. Look up names and phone numbers online, and compare them to what the applicant provided.
We all know the importance of tenant screening. It provides benefits to you as well as to your other tenants, including:
- Peace of mind
- Quality tenants
- Fewer evictions
While a tenant credit check will tell you whether an applicant meets your qualifications, and a tenant background check will inform you about an applicant’s criminal history, you should do a little more digging before signing that lease.
Every landlord should look at every prospective tenant’s current employment, employment history and rental history. Here are a few tips:
- Call the tenant’s current landlord, as well as at least one previous landlord. More is better. The current landlord might just be anxious to get rid of the tenant, so don’t accept a glowing report as the truth. But, if two or three previous landlords—who have nothing to lose—also say great things, you might have a gem of a tenant! On the contrary, if previous landlords say he was a problem tenant, but the current landlord says he’s great, it’s possible that he cleaned up his act, but can you be sure?
- Ask whether the applicant was current on rent, took care of the property, were courteous to the landlord and fellow tenants, and followed the rules of the lease.
- Check on the applicant’s current employment situation. Make sure you are talking to someone at the company who is authorized to verify employment. Often, applicants will provide the phone number to a friend or co-worker who is coached to give the right answers.
- Check to see if the actually applicant worked at the previous jobs listed on the application. Unless you check it out, you’ll never know if she has decided to stretch the truth or make up a job she never actually held.
When screening tenants, do a little digging of your own to provide a complete picture of each prospect. You’ll make a more informed decision about whom to accept as your new tenants!
If you’re like many landlords, you often have more than one qualified tenant wanting to sign a lease. Let’s assume you’ve already gone through your standard process: application, application fee, tenant background screening and tenant credit check, verifying employers and income, and checking references. Now you have two or more approved prospects, and only one vacant unit.
What do you do? Here are a few guidelines to help you decide:
- Who wants to move in first? Each day your unit is empty, you’re losing money. We give extra points to the tenant whose move-in date comes first. How do you know? Hopefully, you’ve either had this conversation at some point in the process, or your lease application contains the question, “When do you want to move in?”.
- Who has the security deposit and first month’s rent ready? Obviously, it’s a good thing to have all your prospective tenants ready to pay you rent and deposit, but this isn’t always the case. If any approved prospects need some time to come up with the money, move on. And cash is always nice. Let all your applicants know that you will continue accepting applications and showing the unit until the first month’s rent and security deposit are paid.
- Don’t give in to your emotions. You may hear that a prospect can’t pay the security deposit until they move out of their current place. You may hear that they need a week or two to get the rent and deposit together, but they definitely want the unit. They might be nice people, and excellent tenants, but… don’t let them get the upper hand. Don’t forget that he or she may not get the deposit back for awhile, and may not get it all back. So they need to be able to come up with full rent and security deposit for you.
- Be realistic. If a good prospect is looking at your vacancy on the 25th of the month, and want you to hold it until the 1st, it’s not likely you’ll have anyone else ready to move in before then. You can always ask for a deposit to hold the place, and convert it to the security deposit. Adjust your procedures when it makes good business sense.
Owning rental property is not always an easy way to make money. But it doesn’t have to be drudgery, either. Enjoying your role as a landlord is completely possible, when you follow these simple tips for success.
- Practice patience. It takes a great deal of patience to be in this business. Tenants are people, with problems and struggles. Not all tenants will treat your property exactly as you would. Not all tenants are great at following through, paying rent on time or parking in the right spot. They might drive you nuts, but they are your customers, who make it possible for you to have a rental business. Be patient when they’re upset, and be patient when you’re upset. Breathe and count to ten.
- Remember, this is a business. It’s important to take a “strictly business” approach with tenants. Owning and leasing rental property is a business. You’re not a non-profit organization with a mission to house people for free or less than market rent, are you? Remind yourself of that whenever necessary
- Enforce the rules. If you don’t take a strong stand with your tenants, you will lose control quickly. Sometimes (well, often) you have to say, “no.” You have a legally binding agreement with your tenants, and when you don’t require them to uphold their end of the lease, the relationship becomes something less than business. It could have ramifications down the road, especially in evictions and other court actions.
- Enforce the rules equally. Making exceptions to a rule, such as offering an extra day on paying rent to Tenant A and allowing Tenant B to grill on the patio—when your lease clearly forbids each of these activities—is asking for trouble. Not only is this type of action a slippery slope (before you know it, everyone is grilling on their patios), but even more important, it could be interpreted as a form of discrimination. Here’s why: what if Tenant C needs to pay her rent a day late, too, but you refuse to allow it? What if she thinks it’s because you are showing preference to Tenant A based on race, creed, color, religion or marital status? Whether you intend it or not, perceptions can often lead to charges of discrimination and even lawsuits.
- Listen. Landlords need to be good listeners. When tenants feel heard, they feel respected. A little respect goes a long way toward establishing good landlord-tenant relationships.
- Screen every tenant applicant. Conduct tenant background checks, credit checks and reference checks on each person over 18 will be living in the rental unit. Landlords who make exceptions to this rule can be seen as discriminating against certain applicants (see #4). Plus, they usually live to regret it. “I’ll never do that again,” is a frequent lament from landlords who fail to conduct tenant background checks. Your business and the safety of your tenants are too important to ever skip this step.
Smart landlords always run tenant credit checks and prescreen tenants. They talk to applicants’ former landlords and check for criminal activity. But when the economy is so tough, many landlords find that screening tenants and making decisions on signing leases is based partly on data and partly on circumstance.
For example, Wendy has been a landlord for many years, and has “seen it all.” She says that tenant credit scores are as volatile now as she can remember. “Some people with six-figure incomes have been forced to short sell their homes, and have lower credit scores as a result,” she said recently. “I’ve had to look more closely at their credit card and car payment history, and not just their credit score.” For Wendy, renting to people who recently owned and lost a home is less risky than renting to those who are continually late with rent payments or have history of evictions.
Mike, on the other hand, looks at credit scores and collection reports closely; he considers student loans collection activity to be a deal-breaker, but thinks medically-related collections reports are acceptable. “People can’t help what happens to their health,” he said. “Medical costs are outrageous and so many people don’t have insurance. I try to work with people who have had medical concerns.”
For most landlords we know, any eviction or rent collections activity on a prospective tenant’s credit report is not okay—even in these tough times. Bob is a fairly new and cautious landlord, who has been seeing more rent issues on credit reports. He always checks work references and tries to talk to as many landlords as he can. “Landlords usually tell me the real deal on their tenants. At first, I thought they’d give only good references, just to be done with a poor tenant, but I’m finding that they don’t want me to inherit their problems.”
Bob shared that he also talks to tenant applicants about any issues he finds on their credit reports. “I ask them why they didn’t pay their student loans, or what happened with the late car payments. Some will make excuses. Some will blame others. And a few own their credit problems and explain how they’re making them right.”
While credit scores are an important indicator of whether or not a tenant will qualify for a lease, many landlords indicate say that it’s not the only factor they consider. “A good rental and work history means more to me than a number,” says Brian. “I’m careful, but I prescreen and talk to work and landlord references before I make my decisions.”
If you’re landlord who has just closed on your first rental property, you may be wondering if this is a good time of year to find good tenants. After all, Thanksgiving is a few weeks away, and that means the winter holidays can’t be far behind. We often hear new landlords ask, “Do people move this time of year?” or, “Will my rental property be sitting vacant until after the New Year?”
Of course, every situation is different, but the short answers to the above questions are “yes” and “not necessarily.” Tenants move at all times of the year, and depending on their circumstances, plenty of people move just before or after Thanksgiving, or the week of Christmas, or even on New Year’s Eve.
If you have a rental property ready for your first tenant, you should create a plan for marketing the property right away. Here are a few tips for filling a vacant rental property fast, no matter what time of year it is:
Remember you may not screen out any tenants on the basis of race, color, religion, marital or family status, gender, or disability. New landlords should become very familiar with the Fair Housing Act and all state and local rental ordinances.
Define your best-fit tenant: Who do you want living in your rental unit (staying within the FHA, of course)? Is it a high-end property with a higher rent, or is it middle- or low-income? Will you seek out Section 8 tenants? Is it perfect for students? What is the income requirement to rent your property? Who can afford it?
Post plenty of signs: Place “Now Leasing” or “For Rent” signs in the windows and on the lawn. If possible, put “For Rent” directional signs at intersections, pointing the way to your rental property. Your signs should include the number of bedrooms and bathrooms and your phone number, along with a website where prospective tenants can view photos.
Put up a few fliers: Post fliers where your best-fit tenant will see them. This could be a coffee shop in the neighborhood, a Laundromat, a grocery store, or a community center bulletin board. Include a thorough, well-written description of the unit, and provide tear-off tabs with your contact info. Highlight any features that will sell the tenant on living there. Is it bright and sunny? Are there details like a fireplace or hardwood floors? A patio? A view? Close to trails, the grocery store or library?
Advertise: CraigsList.org is probably the most popular rental advertising site, although you can also post on Rentals.com, ForRent.com and ApartmentFinder.com. The more you advertise, the more exposure you’ll get and the faster you can fill the unit. Write a good ad that appeals to your best-fit tenant.
Incentivize: When you get closer to the holidays, you may find it tougher to get prospective tenants to agree to move. You can always offer an incentive, such as half off the first month’s rent, waiving the application fee, or offering an appliance upgrade if they sign a one-year lease before Thanksgiving.
Pre-screen tenants: Don’t get so antsy about filling the rental unit that you skip the tenant screening process. Background checks and tenant credit checks are vital to starting the landlord-tenant relationship off well. Protect yourself, your property and any other tenants you may have by properly screening each prospective tenant.
Landlords approach apartment or rental house rehabs differently. Some think that no matter what they do, tenants will damage their rental property, so there is no reason to upgrade or make it look nice.
Other landlords invest in major improvements to their properties in order to charge higher rents and attract higher-income tenants. Still others make small improvements each time a tenant moves out, to slowly but surely increase the appeal and attract the best tenants.
There is no right or wrong approach – just the one that works for you. Here are some pros and cons to each approach:
Leave Your Rental Property as Is and Make No Improvements
- You save money.
- You can turn over the rental to a new tenant more quickly.
- You avoid the possible frustration of seeing improvements damaged or ruined by tenants.
- You probably won’t be able to increase rents unless vacancy rates decline.
- You could easily find your rental property losing value.
- You may attract only tenants who are okay with living in less-than-attractive housing.
Invest in a Major Rental Rehab
- The result is usually worth the effort.
- You can often charge a premium rent to increase your return on investment.
- You can attract more desirable tenants.
- The value of your rental property may increase.
- Remodeling can be very expensive.
- There is no guarantee your work will be valued or respected by tenants.
- Your rental property value may not increase, due to current market conditions.
Make a Few Improvements Each Time a Tenant Moves Out
- Your investment is spread out over time.
- You may increase the value of your rental property.
- You can gradually improve the quality of tenants your attract.
- It can take much longer to see real improvements.
- You may not keep up with the market at a slower pace.
- There is risk in subjecting your property to less desirable tenants for a longer period of time.
Remember, attracting desirable tenants is a worthy goal, but it’s not for every landlord. If you’re fine with minimum investment in your rental property, just beware of starting down the slippery slope to slumlord status!
No matter how nice your rental property is, you can’t be sure that tenants are going to keep it that way. Minimize your risk by conducting tenant credit screening and tenant criminal background checks.
When a landlord leases a rental property to two or more tenants, and one wants to move before the lease is up, what is the best way to proceed?
Some landlords make the mistake of splitting a $1000 monthly rent so that each tenant is responsible for $500—and accepting that amount from each tenant, month after month. When one tenant leaves, they worry about finding another tenant so that the remaining one can continue paying their $500.
However, the tenants are together responsible for ensuring the rent is paid in full; therefore, when one tenant moves out, the remaining tenant or tenants must continue paying the full rent on time every month. For example, if the lease runs through September and a tenant moves out in June, both tenants are still responsible for full rent until the end of September—whether that means the tenant who moved keeps paying their half on a rental they no longer live in, or the remaining tenant pays the entire rent.
In most cases, the lease will be in the names of each tenant, and each tenant is responsible for upholding its terms—including whatever penalties are in place for breaking the lease early. It is up to the tenants to work out how the full rent will be paid until the end of the lease.
Another issue some tenants raise is the security deposit. Would a tenant who is leaving early be entitled to a pro-rated portion of the security deposit they paid at move-in? Most landlords would say “no way.” It is standard practice to tie the security deposit to the rental unit. Only the tenants still living in the unit at the end of the lease would be eligible for any return of the security deposit.
Remember, if your tenant finds a new roommate, follow your standard procedures for any new tenant. This should include a lease application, thorough tenant screening and credit check, and checking all work and former rental references.
If one of your New Year’s Resolutions is to increase your cash flow, one way to do so is through application fees. Landlords and property managers use these fees to recover their expenses for background screening, credit checks, and the time it takes to vet a potential tenant.
If you’re really lucky and have several applicants for the same unit, you may opt to screen the best (on paper) applicant first and, upon approval, refund the fees to the remaining applicants. Or, you can screen all at once and choose the strongest applicant. In this case, the other applicants would not receive refunds, since the background check on each was conducted.
If you decide to keep tenant application fees to cover expenses, avoid issues with applicants by stating very clearly both verbally and on the written application that fees are non-refundable. You’ll also want to determine your policy for refunding fees in the event the tenant changes his or her mind about going through with the rental agreement.
Obviously, a landlord would want to avoid accepting any deposit funds until all background screening has been completed and the tenant’s application approved.
Check your state and local laws for guidance—laws vary greatly and you could face limitations on keeping fees and/or time constraints for returning them. If your application fee policy is questioned, be ready to prove expenses with accounting records. Keep the application fee on a different line item from security deposits and rents in your books.
Smart—and honest—landlords also avoid questions of integrity around fees by only accepting applications for rental units that are truly available, and by doing some initial screening prior to running the tenant background check. If the applicant’s income is below your minimum, do everyone a favor and just turn down the application.