Screening Tenants – Filling Out Applications

by Mr. Cheap

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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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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 jesse

I always shudder to think that the many many people who don’t pass the application process have to live somewhere. It points towards more than a few hapless landlords drawing the proverbial short straw.

2 Kenny

Interesting posts,

I’ll just comment from a renter perspective. I am an excellent tenant, but have not and will not provide my SIN/SSN to rent a place. From the Service Canada website it says not to provide your SIN when ‘negotiating a lease with a landlord’ (http://www.servicecanada.gc.ca/eng/sin/info/yoursin.shtml).

I realize this makes credit checks more difficult, but it should not make them impossible. Normally they can be completed with Name, DOB, and current address.

Also as I’m sure you’re aware, applications cannot be denied just because the person doesn’t provide a SIN, although I’m sure it’s easy to just not provide a reason.

I work in computer security and know the costs of identity theft, so for me it’s just not worth it for any place. My last 4 applications contained a place for SIN, but the landlords have accepted the application without it.

I implore you to find alternative methods to check credit reports.

Kenny

3 Mike

Kenny, you make some good points. However, I don’t think the onus should fall on the landlord to “find alternative methods”. If collecting SINs is the easiest way to do a credit check, then that’s what they’ll do.

Perhaps the government should outlaw the use of SINs when doing credit checks? That would be a far more effective solution.

4 Kenny

Mike, I completely agree, and have previously suggested that to the privacy commissioner. I think SINs shouldn’t be allowed on rental applications to protect everyone information.

I understand that if it’s the easiest way to go a check, it’s going to be used. I’ve been fortunate to find landlords that either decided not to do a check, or used other information.

My suggestion is mainly to ask your credit check provider if they’ll provide non-SIN credit checks if tenants request it. You could miss out on great tenants otherwise. I offered to provide extra information if my landlords wanted to do a non-SIN credit check.

5 Financial Uproar

My application form is incredibly detailed. Quite honestly, I really have no idea whether I’m asking for stuff that I’m not allowed to. I put the chances of renting to someone who knows more than I do about the Residential Tenancies Act (Alberta) at about zero.

I ask for 6 references. (3 friends and 3 family members) This is so I have more people to contact in case the renter bails.

I also ask for banking information as well as employment information. Not sure if it’s the same in all provinces, but in Alberta you can garnishee a person’s bank account if you get a judgement against them. All you need to know is which bank they bank at.

Like Mr. Cheap, if someone doesn’t fill out the application form completely, I usually won’t even consider renting to them. With all due respect to commenter Kenny (who has a valid point about SIN numbers) I can’t trust someone who withholds information from me. I also find that tenants who are argumentative during the application process tend to be more vocal about their concerns, justified or not.

One of the pluses of living in a small town is that, for the most part, I know most of the other landlords. When 80% of the rental market is controlled by 10 people/companies, we tend to take care of each other.

6 HLL

If you have any questions about landlording, I recommend you check out the Ontario Landlord Association (OLA). It is a small-business landlord association with a very active, friendly membership. There are forms you can use and tonnes of advice on the forums.

As for screening, I joined TVS which is a credit-checking service. Through my membership to OLA I was able to get each credit check for less than 15$. DO CREDIT CHECKS! Insist your applicant gives you last month’s deposit with the application to ensure they are serious.

7 QD

I have honesty questions on my application that I can easily check when I do my credit check. I include them in my application for just the reason that you mentioned in the article. If they are lying to me on their application, I definitely don’t what then in a property.

If its feasible, I would suggest visiting the tenant’s current residence to ask them “a few more questions” and get a sense of how they are currently living. Doing as much due diligence as humanly possible, well help your bottom line.

8 lizz

i recently called about a house to rent and the lady had told me she would randomly show up and look at MY place before she lets me look at hers.. is that even legal to say you will randomly show up with out calling first?

9 Derek

There is nothing illegal about a perspective landlord showing up at the residence you are moving from. This happened to me in Red Deer Alberta. The next day after providing an application for a new rental the landlord showed up at my door wanting to have a quick look at how I lived. The place was clean, a few boxes as I was moving but she liked what she saw and offered me the new rental on the spot. I didn’t feel comfortable about this and decided that if she had the nerve to come to my current residence imagine how she might feel about how often she would show up at the door of a rental she may own. I declined her offer and continued looking. A year later, a local newspaper identified her as a landlord who was caught and arrested for illegal entry into one of her rentals. She was described as known for this sort of behavior.

In the 30 years I have been renting is assorted places, I have learned to be careful in the information I give to landlords. If a landlord wants to do a credit check I want to know exactly how they are going to do it. If they do it through a 3rd party etc. A lot of damage can be done to a credit history by people who don’t know what they are doing. If they do a full check that will lower your credit score for a minimum of 2 years. If you are actively looking for different places and have several applications out there. Those checks can stop your ability to get credit for a long period of time.

I have met a lot of great landlords in my time. And I have seen a lot of shitty renters and visa-verse. There are just as many psychotic landlords as there are bad tenants. Bad landlords are the last to tell you what you are moving into and if you are getting into a lengthy lease you should spend some time checking out the landlord as well. They are taking your money and some of them are particularly greedy and will tell you anything to get that monthly check from you. There is nothing worse than moving into a rental with a fixed term lease to find the landlord misrepresented the place.

I don’t mean any disrespect to the original publishers of this post Alexandra and Rachelle. I’ll bet dollars to peso’s that if I was applying for a rental in either of your possessions and asked either or both of you for references as landlords you would reject my application.

Some landlords take the definition of the word “lord” far too literally.

10 Tr

I will never give my SIN while renting since its optional and not mandatory. I have excellent credit history, just because I don’t give my SIN while renting that doesn’t mean I have something to hide but it protects me from identity theft . How and why should I trust that the landlord will safeguard my personal info, I don’t mind giving all this info, provided that the landlord is willing to give all his personal info like SIN to me in return. The LL can easily check my credit history with just my name, address and DOB if he wants..a SIN is not required.

11 Jean

I am a very good tenant, my credit is good, but having problems renting a place. I have been truthful with them….but I feel like my divorce is holding me back from getting a place….because my name is still on the house my husband got in the divorce. Anyone have any answers to help me get a place to rent?

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