Tenant Screening 201: Conversations with (Former) Landlords
Not your former landlords, silly — your applicant’s!
One of the most often-skipped portions of the tenant screening process is the call to the applicant’s current and former landlord(s). It’s skipped for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, the applicant seems genuinely afraid to give you their current landlord’s number, and they have a reason for that fear that has nothing to do with “I’m a horrible tenant.” Sometimes, it’s that you feel like you’re intruding upon the time and space of another landlord with something that seems unimportant or unnecessary. Sometimes, you’re just cranky and you don’t want to get on the phone with anyone.
Ok, that last one might be a legitimate reason to wait — but not to skip the call entirely. It has to be done. Especially if the applicant doesn’t seem to want you to do it. Why? Because there’s no one in the world who has a better idea of what kind of problems this applicant might cause than the person they’ve been causing problems to for the last year or seven.
Now you have to be sure you’re talking to the actual landlord — all too often, applicants who have bad relationships with their landlords will have someone pose as that person. Use Google to verify that the phone number, address, and name you were given all match up. Check public records to confirm who owns the property the applicant is renting/rented. Oh, and don’t forget to ask open-ended questions (i.e. “What can you tell me about her?” or “What was he like as a person?”) as it’s highly unlikely a “landlord-poser” will have an answer that sounds like a landlord’s response!
So, what can a current/former landlord tell you that you will find important enough to know? How about asking them (where appropriate)…
- What address are/did they rent from you?
- How long did they rent?
- How much is their rent?
- Have/did they give proper notice?
- Why did they move?
- How much of a balance did they stick you with?
- How many times were late on their rent?
- When they were late, how late were they?
- How many eviction notices did you send to them?
- How many times did you have to take them to court to collect rent?
- What property damages have/did they leave?
- How many occupants are/were there?
- How many pets did you allow?
- Are you related to the tenants or have a personal relationship with them?
- How clean and neat did they keep their home?
- What, if any, parts of the lease agreement or other rules did they break?
- How much of their security deposit did you return when they left?
- Did they smoke?
- How pleasant were they to deal with?
- How likely would you be to rent to them again? Why or why not?
This might sound like you’re unnecessarily harassing a fellow landlord, but there are two things to keep in mind. One, if the landlord is any good, they’re also doing this screening, so they’ll understand. Two, even if they’re not any good, the choice is literally between you harassing them for a few minutes, and you taking on a tenant that could potentially be making your life miserable for a year or more.
If you don’t want to sit on the phone for a long time running through all of these questions with the landlord, you can also sit and just ask the really critical ones, and then ask them if you can fax or email them the other questions. You may or may not get them back, but if you do, you at least have a solid documentation of the evidence behind your decision to lease (or not).
NOTE: federal privacy laws do require an applicant’s written authorization before someone can disclose personal information about the applicant. So, #1 be sure you have this covered on your application and #2 be prepared to send it to a fellow landlord to get your questions answered.
One last point: keep in mind a current landlord may be desperate to get out of an ugly situation with their tenant, so they may be prone to giving you a false review. That makes it even more important to try to contact an applicant’s previous landlord as they’ll have nothing to hide!