We’ve often advocated that screening tenants begins with placing your For Rent ad. It should continue with the phone conversation you have with prospective tenants when they call in response to your ad.
But what exactly should a landlord ask each prospective lease applicant to avoid the tire-kickers and those whose credit and rental history make them ineligible to lease the property? Here are a few suggestions for questions to ask before showing your vacant rental units:
- Where do you live now?
- Are you currently renting?
- Why are you moving?
- How many people will be living with you?
- What kind of reference will your current landlord give you?
- What kind of reference will your previous landlords give you?
- What kind of work do you do?
- What types of pets do you have?*
- How many people who will be living in this unit are smokers?*
- We run credit and criminal background checks on every lease applicant over the age of 18. Will there be any issues there?
- We require a lease application and a fee to cover the background and credit check for each tenant over 18. Is there any problem with that?
- When do you want to move in?
- Will you have the first month’s rent and security deposit ready if we sign a lease?
- Do you have any questions about the process or the rental unit?
- Do you have a problem with any of these requirements?
*Asking “how many” rather than “do you have pets?” or “does anyone smoke?” often elicits an honest answer. If you do not allow pets or smokers, you’ve just eliminated the applicant.
Depending on the answers you get, the interested party may decide you are not the landlord for him or her. And you may decide they are not the tenant for you. Either way, you’ve saved your valuable time by avoiding showing the rental unit and going through the lease application process.
How a landlord advertises rental property is the first step in signing a lease with the best possible tenant. If you want a tenant who pays rent on time, takes care of your property and doesn’t cause any trouble, you can start that process when you place your ads.
What to Include in a For Rent Ad
First you have to decide the basics: how much rent you’ll charge, the length of the lease, how many people your rental unit can accommodate, whether pets will be allowed and the requirements tenants must meet to qualify for a lease.
Once you’ve determined these factors, you can write your ad. Include the following:
- Number of bedrooms and bathrooms.
- Special features, like hardwood floors, washer and dryer, water view, or proximity to trails or parks.
- Size and type of pets allowed, if any.
- Website to view photos and find additional information.
- How to contact you. Include a mobile number.
- The rent, security deposit and any other requirements that will help you screen out less-than-desirable tenants. For example, let readers know up front that you will be ordering tenant credit checks and background checks on all applicants.
What not to include:
Any language that can be considered discriminatory. Don’t mention that your rental unit is best for singles, families, elderly, young people, or those of a certain religion. Even mentioning that it’s located near a church can be interpreted that you expect to rent to church-goers.
Once you’ve placed the ad, try not to allow calls to roll to voice mail. People are impatient these days and may not leave a message or call you back.
Pre-qualifying tenants means a good start to a mutually respectful, mutually beneficial landlord/tenant relationship. So what exactly is pre-qualifying, and how do you begin to implement this strategy? Here’s a list of what pre-qualifying is and is not:
- Pre-Qualifying is about finding the people who fit the minimum requirements you set for income, references, job and credit history. Proper tenant screening will further narrow the field by giving you solid background check results to base your decision on.
- Pre-Qualifying is not about discrimination. As a landlord, federal law prevents you from using a person’s race, color, religion, nationality, familial status, age, gender, or disabled status to determine housing eligibility. Your state may have additional guidelines.
- Pre-Qualifying is about laying the groundwork for a great landlord/tenant relationship by communicating clearly and effectively from the start.
- Pre-Qualifying is about reducing tenant turnover by avoiding broken lease agreements and evictions.
- Pre-Qualifying is not about judging applicants based on personal appearance, the car they own, or the number of people in their family unit.
- Pre-Qualifying is about applying the same rules and requirements to all applicants.
- Pre-Qualifying is a way to reduce your risk by keeping tenants with previous criminal convictions or negative rental histories out of your rental properties.
- Pre-Qualifying is started by advertising your property for rent in the right publications, including enough information to weed out individuals who are not a good fit for your rental.
Every landlord should consider pre-qualifying tenants. While it takes effort to begin any new procedure, it will soon be a habit—and this is a habit that will pay off through better relationships with your tenants and increased profits for you!
Whether you’re an experienced landlord, or a “newbie,” you probably have your share of missteps made in your rental property business. And while some landlords make the same mistakes over and over again, you don’t have to be that guy or gal.
We’ve rounded up a list of common landlord mistakes so you can avoid them!
1. Not treating it like a business. Because it is! You are in the property rental business to make money, not to house the world at your expense. Establish and follow procedures, open separate bank accounts, keep meticulous records, get professional help when necessary, and project a professional demeanor to your tenants. As one landlord put it, “If you look and sound like you’re not serious, you won’t be taken seriously.”
2. Being too lenient on rent collection. Your tenants signed an agreement to pay you on a certain date. Don’t allow late or partial rent, or they will know you’re not serious about the due date. See mistake #1.
3. Failure to prescreen tenants. Don’t be in a hurry to fill a vacancy, or you could end up with an unreliable tenant—which is a much bigger problem than an empty unit. Have your employment checks, background checks and credit checks in hand before you sign a lease with any tenant.
4. Lack of understanding about operating expenses. There is more to owning rental property than collecting rent and paying the basics: principle, interest, taxes, and insurance. If you don’t have sufficient resources to cover regular expenses (maintenance, advertising, repairs) PLUS accessible funds to cover the occasional (but inevitable) major repairs, you are setting yourself up for failure.
5. Trying to do everything yourself. If you have only one or two properties to manage, you might be able to handle rent collection and upkeep. Still, you might need a handyman for maintenance. But if you have more than three rental properties, consider hiring a property management company for tenant screening and placement, upkeep, rent collection, maintenance, etc. Ask yourself what your time is worth. You may find the expense of a management company is well worth your freedom from stress.
6. Not having an exit strategy. Before you buy an income property, do your homework—including how easy or difficult it will be to sell when you need or want to. You never know when you’ll want out of a rental property, but the likelihood is that you will sell eventually.
7. Not evicting non-paying tenants immediately. Even if you properly screen tenants, anything can happen. If your tenants break the rental agreement by not paying on time, you can—and should—take the proper legal steps for eviction. See mistakes #1 and #2.
8. Being a hands-off landlord. Although you may have a property management company, no one will care about your rental properties like you do. At the very least, inspect your properties on a regular basis and stay in touch with your tenants. You’ll probably prevent a lot of damage and trouble just by following this simple step.
In a college town, chances are you could fill your rental properties with students if you chose to. What are the advantages and disadvantages of leasing to college students? What should you look out for?
Students can be good tenants, or bad tenants—just like the rest of the population. They are also willing to pay top dollar in many cases. If you are clear with college students and let them know your expectations, you can be a successful college student landlord!
Since the new school year is coming up quickly, here are some Dos and Don’ts for considering student tenants:
1. Do make sure you have an iron-clad lease. Have a lease or real estate attorney draw it up for you.
2. Do specify that each individual tenant is responsible for the entire rent. Then, if one moves out, the remaining roommates cannot claim they don’t that person’s share.
3. Do remember that the security deposit won’t cover the potential damage that can be done to your property. Make sure the lease assigns responsibility for damages and losses.
4. Do consider the extra maintenance or repair costs when establishing your rent. Repainting, and replacing carpet and more often, as well as repairing damages, should be considered standard operating procedure.
5. Do specify noise restrictions in the lease. College students like to party, and even small gatherings can become out-of-control in no time at all. Let your prospective student-tenants know that if the police are called to your property due to noise complaints, it is grounds for eviction.
6. Don’t allow “squatters.” If your tenants want to have overnight guests, enforce a 7-day (or however many you deem reasonable) limit.
7. Do specify lease dates: is the lease period for the school year or for a 12-month period? Students might think “one year” means August – May! Be sure the tenant knows the number of months they are responsible for paying rent.
8. Don’t allow anyone who is not on the lease to live in the rental unit. Period. You have no protection against their actions if they have no binding lease agreement with you.
9. Do prescreen all applicants to verify employment history, criminal history, and credit history.
10. Don’t allow the students alone to sign the lease. Require co-signers, such as their parents, and conduct proper credit screening on co-signers, as well—before you offer to lease your property.
11. Don’t hesitate to call the co-signers/parents at the first sign of trouble.
12. Do keep the communication open with your tenants—if they’re late, follow up immediately, from day one, to break bad habits. And, if they’re respectful, clean, and quiet (hey, it could happen!), let them know you appreciate it.
13. Do check your local zoning laws for maximum number of residents allowed in a housing unit—but if you follow suggestion #1, your lawyer will know for sure!
From time to time, we get a handful of rental property-related questions that concern many landlords—but don’t fall neatly into any category. We hope you find one or two that you’ve been wondering about, too!
Q: My rental unit has a jetted tub. If it breaks, am I responsible for repairing it—or replacing it with the same type tub?
A: You might want to consider adding a clause in your lease agreement that states the jetted tub is as is; the tub itself will be maintained for bathing purposes; however, if the jets malfunction, they will be repaired at your discretion only.
Q: I live in a city where only the owner of the property can be billed for the water and sewer service. How can I handle this with my tenants? I’m afraid they’ll run up the water bill, since they’re not paying it.
A: Your lease can state that you will pay for a certain amount of the water and sewer, based on average rates in your area. The lease can require the tenant to pay anything above that amount, to be included with the following month’s rent.
Q: Is it necessary to prescreen tenant applicants if they were referred by a good friend of mine?
A: Not only is it necessary, it is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself, your other tenants and the neighborhood residents. You need the peace of mind that a professional credit and background check will bring you. But just as important, if you don’t follow consistent procedures for each applicant, you could be accused of discrimination. Apply the same rules and follow the same procedures on every single tenant applicant—no matter who recommends them!
Q: What’s the absolute most effective way to advertise my for lease property?
A: Landlords we talk to say that good signs in the yard or window, visible from the street, plus an ad with photos on Craigslist.com, are the two best ways to advertise. Do beware of scams on Craigslist—read the warnings posted on the site and don’t allow anyone you have not personally met send you a check to hold a rental—many scammers operate like this.
Q: What should I do to make my rental property appealing to high-quality tenants?
A: Give your rental the best curb appeal possible! Get rid of unsightly trash, hide the trash cans, trim shrubs and low-hanging branches, and plant some new flowers. Repair any broken windows or screens, and paint the trim if it’s needed. A bright color for the front door is a great way to make the property pop!
Q: How do I know when it’s time to hire a property management company?
A: If you no longer enjoy or have the time to spend on property maintenance, dealing with tenant questions and problems, and finding new tenants, you should research property managers. Base your decision on the out-of-pocket expense; if you decide your time and peace of mind is worth more than what you’ll pay the management company, give it a try!