Screening Tenants – Filling Out Applications

by Mr. Cheap

This post is part of a five-part series about tenants leaving a condo and finding and screening the new tenants:

Application

After showing the apartment to potential tenants, the million dollar question is “would you like to fill out an application?”. If the person doesn’t fill out an application, on the spot, they aren’t interested. I CONTINUALLY fool myself with this, someone will look me in the eye, say it’s a great unit, they’ll fill out the application and fax it to me. They even ask about details like “would it be acceptable to scan it and e-mail the application to you as an image?”. They won’t do so. I had 3 people say something along these lines to me this time and a number say similar things to me 3.5 years ago, I believed each of them (and mentioned to friends and family that there were more applications that were coming in), and none of them followed through.

If you get the once in a lifetime person who actually does this, enjoy, but if they don’t fill out an application immediately after the showing, treat it as if they said “thanks, but I’m not interested”.

If you don’t get at least 1/2 the people who see the unit filling out applications, it means your asking rent is too high. Keep dropping it until 1/2 the people who see it fill out applications (then pick the best applicant).

Some people will ask if it’s first come first served, or if they’re guaranteed to get the apartment if they fill out an application. I always answer this with: “Just like you’re trying to find the best apartment, I’m trying to find the best tenant. I’ll process all the applications and offer it first to the applicant that looks best, then to any others who are acceptable“. People don’t seem to love this answer, but they accept it.

Rental applications are a bit tricky. You obviously don’t want one that asks any illegal questions, but it can be tough at times to be sure what you’re asking is 100% legal or not (there are a large number of opinions on what is ok to ask about and what isn’t). In Ontario, joining the Landlord’s Self Help Center is worthwhile (more on this in the next post) and they provide a pdf rental application form to members. Most local property owner associations will have an application for members (I use one I got from a friend who got it from his association). Be careful if using a form downl0aded randomly off of the internet (it may be appropriate for another country / province but not for where you are).

Some people will ask “do I have to fill out this question?”, often followed up with “will it hurt my application if I don’t?”. I always answer “you don’t have to fill in any part of the application you don’t want to” to the first question, and “the more information you give me, the easier it will be for me to rent to you” for the second. If they repeatedly ask, I repeatedly answer the same way. It’s dangerous legal ground to go beyond this, so I avoid the issue entirely. I can’t process a credit report without a SSN (which legally they aren’t required to provide) and it makes it harder for me to do screening without the other info, so unless they have a good reason (that they give me) for not being able to fill out a field, I accept incomplete applications but I don’t bother processing them.

Screening

Screening tenants is half art, half science. Read as much about other people’s thoughts on this as possible. The first “filter” is your impression meeting them. If someone creeps you out or gives you a bad vibe, reject them. I had one guy who walked around the place talking quite slowly and gushing about how much he loved his dog. I thought, well I’m fine renting to this “good ol’ boy“, and he filled out half the application, then announced that he’s a lawyer and he didn’t have to providing any other information. I don’t know if he was a simple guy pretending to be a lawyer, or a lawyer pretending to be a simple guy, but either way I didn’t want to have anything to do with him.

Call up where they work. Legally there’s a minimal amount of information employers can provide, but they should be able to verify that the person actually works there, their position title, and their annual salary.

Call up their past landlords. Their current landlord isn’t to be trusted (perhaps they’re bad tenants and he’s lying to get rid of them). It’s more their older landlords that will be honest with you. Read between the lines (if they don’t want to give much information and keep repeating things like “they were my tenant from this date to that date”) it’s a bad sign. They should be able to tell you if the tenant was ever late on rent payments (which is an automatic rejection for me: I need tenants that pay the rent).

Google as much information as possible. A woman applied the first time I was renting the unit and looked reasonably good. She even cut me a check for a deposit and gave it to me with the application. I Googled her “landlord’s” phone number and it was the number for a company, owned by a man with the same last name as her that did the same work she’d told me her father did. I called, talked to a nice woman who gushed about what a good tenant she was, and after I asked if she had any relationship with the application other than being her landlord there was a pause, then she said “no, we met her for the first time when she rented from us”. I don’t rent to people who lie to me (and something MUST be going on if she has to get someone to pretend to be her landlord).

Personal references don’t need to be contacted. I’m sure Jeffrey Dahmer or Adolf Hitler could have easily provide 3 or 4 people who would say how wonderful they are. You get these contacts NOW in case you need to track the tenant down later. If they disappear in the night and leave owing money, you have the name and numbers of 3 of their friends / family to try to find them.

Thanks again to Alexandra and Rachelle! More details in future posts…

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