A Guide To Screening Prospective Renters

Now that short-term rentals have gone bust due to the CoronaPocalypse, many Airbnb hosts are either shutting down temporarily, or switching to taking longer term renters, obtained from Airbnb, or standard rental sites such as Craigslist or Roommates.com or other rental listing sites.  I strongly advise that if you have no experience with long term rentals, or are not well informed about local landlord-tenant laws, you be extra careful in considering taking longer term renters.

For those moving to seek longer term renters,  many of us have discovered that the quality of prospective renters has decreased significantly.  Particularly given that many municipalities are now passing some form of “eviction moratorium“, property owners are well advised to be extra careful with whom you take in at this time.  Particularly with low-quality inquiries for long-term stays via the Airbnb platform, keep in mind that the bar to entry is far lower via an Airbnb booking than via a direct arrangement.

For a standard rental arrangement, renter needs to provide you with referrals, employer contact/info, credit score, past rental history, and/or pass a background check which looks into past eviction history and/or criminal history.  Also in order to move in, the renter needs to pay first month rent, last month rent and security deposit.  You have the opportunity not only to see a photo of them but talk to them on the phone or via skype, or meet them in person and thus have more opportunity to get an intuitive “hit” on how you respond to them.
By contrast, when considering a prospective long-term renter via Airbnb, you get NONE of the above!  Consequently, it’s much easier for “bad actors” to gain access to your home via an Airbnb booking, than for them to do this if they approach you directly.  Consider yourself warned!  If someone requests to stay long-term in your home via Airbnb, and you have concerns/doubts or feel like you just dont’ know enough about them, I suggest limiting their Airbnb stay to less than 4 weeks, which means they dont’ legally qualify as a tenant. This will allow you to meet and get to know this person, and if both of you feel comfortable with the arrangement, you can allow them to extend their stay after you’ve had this opportunity to suss things out.
In general, I’ve found that Airbnb renters are of higher quality than those one finds on Craiglist or other sites, but not always, and at this time of upheaval and instability, I’m getting far fewer inquiries via Airbnb, and the ones which do come in are in several cases lower-quality inquiries.

bad renter cartoon

The first step you can take in your screening, comes at the time when you create your advertisement for your rental.  Instead of simply providing information about your rental in the ad, I suggest asking at least one, perhaps 2 or 3 questions in the ad, which you then request responders to answer.  Easy questions like: “What about my ad/rental is of interest to you?”  or “Have you read about my rental on my website?” (if you have one).  or “How is the pandemic effecting you?” In addition to asking questions, instruct interested people to tell you a little about themselves when replying to you.

I advise asking open-ended questions in particular, as this allows the prospective renter to say things about themselves without being clued-in as to what kind of response you are looking for.  Because the more you reveal about exactly what kind of person you are looking for, the more you give a prospective renter the tools to figure out how to lie and misrepresent themselves, so that they can appear to be the kind of person they believe you are looking for.

In particular as regards the question about how the pandemic is effecting the person: this can give you a lot of info.  If they respond by saying that they lost their job, this probably is not a person to whom you want to risk renting to.  If they respond saying they are going crazy and experiencing deep depression, you should be cautious about renting to someone in a state of mental instability.  Depressed person

Putting questions into your ad and a request for respondents to say a little about themselves, will help you accomplish screening even before you have to say anything.  It will allow prospective renters to screen themselves out, by demonstrating that they haven’t even bothered to read your ad.  A surprising number of those replying to ads on Craigslist don’t say anything at all about themselves, and a significant number of others will send “form replies” out, in which they send a pre-written response to all the ads they are interested in.  It’s my thought that people sincerely interested in what you are offering, can at least put in the work to read the paragraph that you’ve written, and respond to one or two simple questions.

Next step, is taking those respondents who have actually said something about themselves and/or answered your simple questions, and begin more in-depth screening.

To begin with, though this may come as a disappointment to many renters, property owners do actually want a renter who can pay the rent.  We aren’t interested in providing free charity housing for all those in need, particularly since we have to pay our mortgage, our property tax, our insurance, our utilities, our repair and maintenance bills.   I have not heard of one single city or government representative talking about forgiving or even deferring property taxes, for instance.
In this time of economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, many are out of work, or have had their hours cut back, are on unemployment, have lost their business, or have other financial difficulties.  Many property owners are responding to this devastation, either out of compassion or from practicality, by reducing our rents.  This is all we can do.  We cannot offer free housing.
Thus, it’s going to be difficult for people to find a place to rent, if they have no job, and no source of income, particularly during a time when eviction moratoriums are in effect in many regions.

Even for those with significant savings, I would caution property owners about taking in a renter who has no employment, but asserts that they have plenty of savings and thus can afford to pay their rent.  Why? Because the eviction moratorium laws in place in many regions, specifically state that landlords cannot force renters to use their savings to pay rent, if they have lost employment due to the pandemic.  What this means, is that someone could move into your unit after having shown you a bank statement proving that they have adequate savings to pay their rent, and then immediately stop paying rent after they move in, stating that government has said that you can’t force them to use their savings to pay rent, and showing you documentation that proves they lost their job due to COVID-19.  Now you’re up sh#t creek without a paddle, as the saying goes.

This is just one of the many examples of why property owners need to be capable of adequately thinking things through, before deciding to rent to someone.

bad tenant badder landlord

Now it may well be that this individual who says he has plenty of savings to pay rent during this time, is quite sincere and will in fact pay the rent. In fact I think that is likely in most cases.  But distinguishing the sincere and honest person from the desperate one willing to tell a lie to gain a roof over their head, may be difficult for some, so beware and take care.

Another screening point involves asking about where the renter is living now, and why they are moving.  What’s involved in this question, is you wanting to discern whether they are moving and seeking a new place to live for the RIGHT reasons rather than the WRONG reasons.  Right reasons would be things like: “My lease is up” or “My roommate moved out and I want to find a new place” or “I’m having conflicts w/ my roommate over coronavirus issues”  (You’ll need to ask about the nature of those conflicts, to ensure they won’t replicate in your home).  Wrong reasons would be things like, “I got evicted”, or “I found a little spot of mold on the wall and I’m suing my landlord for $100k” or “My roommate pulled a gun on me/was using meth” (Hint: people who have friends with very low functioning type behaviors, tend not to be too healthy themselves), or “I had a nervous breakdown” or “My roommate just tested positive for COVID-19”, you get the picture.

In general, I suggest you be very cautious about renting to anyone who is wanting to move because they are having problems with their current roommate or landlord, unless what they describe sounds like a legitimate “landlord from hell” or “roommate from hell”, or sounds like “Corona-stress”, eg a case of personality conflicts escalating due to stress from people being forced to spend more time together.  What you are looking for and want to screen out, is evidence that a prospective renter has poor judgment, and moved into a place without due diligence, or out of desperation.  poor judgment

Because people can lie when they think telling the truth might disqualify them for your rental, it might be a good idea if you ask “key questions” like these on the phone with the individual, rather than by email. Why? Because if you ask these “tricky” questions by email, they will have plenty of time to craft a lie in response, and you won’t be able to detect a written lie as easily as one told on the phone.  If you “surprise” a prospective renter with a question asked on the phone, they’ll have no preparation time to craft a lie, so you’re more likely to hear the truth this way.

Sometimes prospective renters will say things when you talk to them on the phone, that seem “odd”, or “out of left field” or which seem too invasive regarding your personal private information.  These are warning signs you should consider.  For instance, I once had a prospective renter ask me questions which were clearly oriented to uncovering what my screening process was.  Why would someone be curious about that? Well, I plugged this persons’ name into Google, and found he’d been sued by a previous roommate/partner for allegedly stealing $200k from that person’s bank account, and then I plugged his name into the local Superior Court website, and found an eviction record for him as well.  So a light bulb went on: this person wanted to find out how I screened for renters, because he was trying to come up with a strategy for how to “beat” or game the system, and avoid being screened out, with his eviction history and lawsuit alleging theft of $200k.

Beware the prospective renter who says “you wont’ have any problems with me.”  Because you’re likely to have problems with them.  I’ve found that the normal average honest person rarely says things such as “you’ll have no problems with me”, because they aren’t even thinking that you’d be thinking you might have problems with them.  But those who have good reason to think you might think you’ll have problems with them, are likely to try to reassure you that you won’t.  Make sense?

Beware the prospective renter who is very eager to demonstrate that “we’re friends” because they have interests in common with you.  While it might seem like a positive to rent to someone with similar interests, you need to be aware of something else that could well be involved when a prospective renter seems overly passionate about pointing out their similarity of interests, to the point of announcing “I can’t get over how similar we are!” or “We think exactly alike”.  And that is, that this renter may be subtly trying to influence you, to use not your ordinary methods of screening for renters, but instead rent to someone using THEIR preferred methods, namely, their own public relations stunt and to base your decision upon their presentation as twinsies with you .  If you feel overly influenced by someone’s campaigning for how great a roommate or renter they would be, it’s likely your intuition has something to teach you here, and there is in fact too much PR and too much campaigning.  A good renter simply presents themselves honestly and then lets you make the decision, they don’t try to con you and do a whole sales job number on you about why you should rent to them.

Beware the prospective renter who comes to your house to see the rental, and then makes weird/wacko statements/questions during the tour.  You do not want someone who asks if that spot on the wall/wood/furniture is mold or mildew, or a cobweb.  You might have cause to be concerned w/ someone whose questions seem primarily to point to trivial issues such as what temperature the thermostat is set at, or what day the trash pickup is, particularly if such questions are in combination with any comments that reveal the renter as not particularly thoughtful when it comes to your own needs.  I recently had a prospective renter come to my beautiful house to look at a rental room, and then ask if I lived in my own garage.  I was quite taken aback as to why someone would think I lived in my garage, when I had plenty of space in the house to choose to live in, and also as the garage gave no appearance of being anything other than it was: a normal garage.  People who say dingaling things during a brief tour,  may be helping you out enormously by revealing something not quite right in their mind, and saving you from all kinds of difficulty that you could have if you’d rented to them.

Beware the prospective renter who imposes upon you, isn’t respectful of your time, or does other things that are inappropriate or concerning.  For instance, a renter who makes an appointment to see a rental room in your home, then comes over to your house with one or two friends, not having asked in advance whether it was okay to bring someone else.  Or a renter who doesn’t show up at the appointed time.  Or one who starts snapping photos of your house without asking permission, saying something like “I want my girlfriend to help me decide.”  blabbermouth

Beware the prospective renter with too many questions.  While it’s a good thing for a prospective renter to be clear about what you are offering, particularly if you are not wanting a lifelong renter, who expects to stay at your property for oh the next 10, 20 years or the rest of their lives, someone who asks what seems like an unusual number of questions, particularly about things that you don’t know or don’t have much control over, could be an indication of someone with unrealistic expectations, or who wants such a perfect fit that you may begin to doubt they only want to stay one month, and suspect them of a secret mission to try to stay for 10 years.

Beware the prospective renter who does not demonstrate enough respect for your own needs, particularly if they are very reasonable ones such as following house rules, or asking to be paid first month rent, last month’s rent and security deposit as move-in costs.  I mention this because of  two recent visits by prospective renters, both of whom had the opportunity in advance of coming to read what I wrote on my website about payment and understand the move-in costs.  After showing them the house, and beginning to talk about payment, I was quite surprised to find both of them balking at paying more than just one month’s rent to move in.  Each of them wanted to stay for more than a month: 2-3 months for one, and the other about 6 months.  Yet each wanted to pay only for the first month, and one (who had previously argued that she had plenty of money in the bank to pay all 6 months’ rent that she sought)  insisted she could not even pay that 2 weeks in advance of move-in, but only at the very moment of move-in.  Such a stance at the very least shows a lack of respect for the landlord’s own needs, as well as a shocking degree of unfamiliarity with standard rental process, particularly coming from individuals well into middle-age who have been tenants elsewhere before.  There is also the suggestion of bullying or trying to exploit a property owner whom they may view as someone they “have over a barrel” from the results of the pandemic on rental property owners.  In fact one of these prospective renters came out and told me directly, as justification for her insistence on paying only one month rent in advance,  that she knew that “Airbnb hosts are having a hard time now, so…”

Nope!  You NEVER want to rent to anyone who gives any suggestion that they are playing you, or trying to exploit or take advantage of a hardship you or your industry is facing.

As well, I hope all landlords will know this — and if you don’t, you better watch the movie “Pacific Heights” which lays out the problem all so very devastatingly clearly — but you can NEVER let someone into your rental, until you have cash in the bank or in your hot little hand from them.  A check in hand is not good enough.  That’s what the foolish landlords in Pacific Heights had.  But the check was no good, and once the tenant got in, it took them months and huge expense to get him out again.
This means that a renter can pay by check, but they can’t get into your rental until you’ve cashed their check at their bank (which will verify that it’s cleared) or deposited it and verified that it’s actually cleared..which could take a couple weeks.  Gerbil

Beware the renter who reads your house rules and then asks that you make an exception for them.  They read that you don’t allow pets, but they have a cute little kitten who is very well behaved, or a tiny dog that never causes problems and is in its crate most of the time anyway, or a pet snake or pet rabbit or pet bird, whatever.  When you write up your house rules, make sure that those are actually the rules you want: and know why you are making that rule. Dont’ add rules without knowing why you have them.  And if you know why you have a rule, then you don’t’ just allow someone not to follow it, because there was a reason you had that rule.

So for instance, if you don’t want renters with dogs or cats, but are okay with other small animals such as rabbits or gerbils, say so in your rules.  But if you understand that people will ask for an inch and take a mile, and bring a gerbil which somehow ends up morphing into a Golden Retriever or German Shepherd dog, then don’t allow any exceptions.

Finally, I suggest that you get some referrals or documentation from the renter, demonstrating that things they have told you are actually true.  Eg if they say they are employed, get verification of that.  If they are a student, get verification of that.

All in all, when assessing a prospective renter, I suggest you look to see whether their whole presentation is coherent and all the parts of the story make sense when put together as a whole, and that as far as possible, you choose renters who have a clear job/project or set of responsibilities, or clear plan and/or goal, as opposed to a renter whose statements about themselves and their life or interests conflict with each other or who dont’ seem to have a clear trajectory.

People who are lost ships at sea do not make the best renters.  These are the “I’d like to rent for a week, or 10 years” kind of people, who don’t really know enough about their life, their plans, their situation, for you to know if they are a fit to what you’re offering.
Tarot reading 2

So these are some tips which I hope might go some way towards saving you from the difficult experience of a bad renter.  In sum, “listen to your gut” and follow your intuitive hit about the situation.  If in doubt, you might, if you are “woo-woo inclined”, do a Tarot Card reading or get an astrological chart drawn up on whether to rent to a specific person.  I suggest that you do not act out of fear or desperation when considering a renter.  It’s a far worse thing to end up with a really bad or nightmare renter, than to leave the rental empty for a time.