Screening Renters: Some Tips

This is an article with tips for screening potential guests and renters from all platforms, whether Airbnb, VRBO, Craigslist, direct bookings through your website, or any other platform, and it’s oriented to obtaining renters for short and medium length stays, meaning, NOT standard tenants.

The main theme I want to convey, is that screening is not a matter of “black and white” issues, meaning, things that are definitive and clear, but rather is a matter of “gut sense”, meaning, things that register intuitively as concerns, even if you can’t articulate exactly why you feel concerned.  This article is an attempt to help you turn vague “gut sense” feelings into articulable statements of concern, but the bottom line is that if you dont’ “feel” right about someone’s presentation, this is sufficient reason not to take that person.  Trust your gut.  There’s a lot of blather these days about “unconscious bias” which can undermine your own confidence in your intuition and your gut sense. Don’t let other’s “politically correct” ideologies interfere with your own innate wisdom.  There’s a difference between blind prejudice and informed gut sense and accurate intuition.

(1) The first tip, is to use everything in the prospective renter’s communication with you to screen them, not just the content of the communication. 

So, you want to look at things such as:

(a) how much or how little they share  — eg do they seem to share too much, or too little

Experience with renters will help you understand what is about the right amount of sharing.   A message of from one to three paragraphs is about right.  If someone sends you two pages describing themselves and their situation, this is oversharing, and you ought to tread carefully.   Sharing too much is a sign of poor boundaries and other problems resulting from poor boundaries could result by taking in such a person.
If they send only one sentence, you’re going to want to ask them to tell more about themselves.  Ideally, prospective renters should be able to tell you a little about themselves and their purpose for visiting your area, state that they have read your house rules, explain why they were interested in your listing, and ask any questions that they may have.
If it feels like “pulling teeth” to get a prospective renter to tell you about themselves, this is an indication that this could be a problematic renter.  People should not resent being asked to share about themselves or answer questions if they want to stay in someone’s private home.  If they prefer not to answer any questions, they can stay in a hotel, where this isn’t required.
Another thing to look at is, if they are a native English speaker,

(b) their grammar and capacity for professional communication.

Obviously if someone is not a native English speaker there could be some dificulties using English.  But if they are an adult who has lived in an English speaking country their whole life and they can’t write well in English that is a different story.  I don’t mean whether they had any typos or misspellings — we can all have typos or misspell a word —  but rather, look for indications that this is a person who actually can’t or won’t use English properly.  For instance, do they use abbreviations instead of typing out whole words, saying “I wd luv to stay ur house”?  People who don’t communicate in a professional way, and come across as overly informal, may not be mature enough to rent a space in your home, or may lack respect for you and your home: their insistence on informality in a setting where a more formal approach is appropriate, could demonstrate entitlement.  “The world revolves around me.”
As well, particularly if you have house rules or a house manual which requires guests be able to read and intelligent enough to assimilate what you present, in order to avoid creating problems, you may not want to rent to someone who literally can’t spell the word “to”, which I just experienced recently.  I got an inquiry from someone who said “I’m coming too your area for business.”  This wasn’t a typo, either, as I noted that in his Airbnb profile he had also written, “I love too travel and see new things.”
Dunces could be problem renters in many respects.   Maybe not, but then, all red flags are a “maybe.” Will someone who can’t spell the word “to” be able to read and assimilate your house rules?  If someone can’t spell the word “to”, is he really coming to this area for business?  What business hires someone who can’t spell a simple word like this?

With many of these issues, these are not “definite” signs of problem, but simply red flags, meaning, something doesn’t look good.  As you add up the “red flags” in the presentation, you will get a sense of what your “gut sense” about the situation is.

(c) A third thing to look for in the communication is the tone of the communication. 

Ideally, you want a prospective renter who is courteous, respectful, upbeat, positive.  Be alert for any indications of someone who is put off by questions you’ve asked them to answer, who has a negative outlook or is referring to negative situations.  Eg, I recently had a prospective renter reply to my ad, where I asked a certain question, by saying “Well, if you must know….”   That response shows lack of respect.  It treats the property owner as inappropriately intrusive, rather than appropriately cautious, regarding the questions asked of prospective renters.
Those who are offended by or show any reluctance to or resistance to any question you ask, are essentially conveying that they believe they have a right to your property, and that you don’t have a right to screen renters and protect yourself.  This is entitlement of a potentially quite dangerous kind.
You also want to be wary of those with a negative tone in their communication.  Yes, it could be quite possible that this is someone who’s had to deal with something negative in their life: but it could also be someone who attracts negative things in life with their negative outlook.
For instance, I just had an inquiry from someone presently living in a gorgeous town in my area, who is expressing a desire to move because of the bad air from wildfires in the state.  Well, the bad air from wildfires is diminishing rapidly, and unlikely to be around for more than another week or so.  So for a person to want to pull up and move due to a temporary situation that isn’t likely to last more than a week, doesn’t really make sense.  Something else is going on there.
And this gets into part two, which is exploring the content of what the prospective renter is communicating.

(2) What concerns are presented within the content of what the prospective renter is communicating?  

(a) The first thing to examine, is whether the individual’s story appears to be coherent, and makes sense.  

So for instance, it makes sense for a person to say that they are moving to your area, and need a place to stay for 2 weeks while they search for a permanent place to live.  It does not make sense for someone to say that they are moving to your area and need a place to stay for 6 to 8 months while they search for a place to live.

It makes sense for a person from out of state to say they are coming to your city for a few days for vacation or work.  It makes less sense for someone who lives in your city, or within 20 miles, to say that they want to book a stay of 2 weeks at your house “to relax.”  It may be the case that someone in your city legitimately wants a “retreat” at your place in their same city  (I have had more than one person do such a stay), but I encourage you asking more questions and getting more information to verify if you think this is true.

If someone is coming to your area to work in a city 30 miles away from you, does it make sense for them to book a stay in your city, rather than in that city 30 miles away where they will be working each day?  Sometimes prospective renters may make a mistake and not fully understand where they are booking, so it is important for you to suss out any potential problems you see in their plans, so as to pro-actively avoid situations where the guest has to cancel because they made a mistake.

Take a look and see if the various parts of the guests’ story and presentation make sense as a whole.  For instance, within the last few months, I had an Airbnb inquiry from someone who in her profile, touted herself as a highly successful entrepreneur, CEO of a company she’d founded, and name-dropped some celebrity names.  At the same time, she was seeking to book, not an entire place, but a room in my house, for exactly 30 days (big red flag: that is the amount of time which bestows tenancy rights) and asking for a big discount on that room to boot.  An online search of her name (she gave her full name in her message) turned up her “starring” in some poor quality/pointless  videos on YouTube.  The presentation as a whole screamed “scammer.”
Scammers aren’t always intelligent. This one seemed to want to impress with what I believe was a fiction about being CEO of a successful startup, but by asking for a discount, was showing signs that she wanted to find a place to squat that had a low entry bar in terms of the cost to get her heinie in the door.  An Airbnb booking will offer a lower cost entry than a standard rental, as the person only has to pay 1st month’s rent, no last month’s rent or security deposit, and also does not involve the standard reference and credit checks.

Also, use all the information that you have in the prospective guest’s profile, reviews, and previous stays, to get information to compare to what they are saying in their messages, and see if it all adds up.  For instance, I recently accepted a guest who said that he needed a place to stay in my area because he was “between housing.”  I get a lot of such stays: students who are between apartments is common.  However, in this case, further investigation would have revealed this guests’ statement was not quite true.

If I had looked further, and seen that this guest’s last 5 reviews over the last couple months were all recent and all in my area. Which indicated that this guest was not actually “between housing”.  In fact, a Google search of this guests’ full name turned up a GoFundMe page in which this guest was soliciting funds “to save me from being homeless.”

This brings up our next area of concern with content in the prospective guest messages:

(b) Avoid guests who are in a desperate situation.  

Many hosts and property owners make the mistake of conflating their business with charity.  I urge you most strongly, to NOT do charity with your property.  If you want to help those in difficult circumstances, donate to charity groups, or do volunteer work, but please do not ever provide your accomodations to those in desperate situations. This can be a recipe for disaster.
The primary difficulty with offering accomodations to those in desperate circumstances, pertains to the legal issues involved with renting property.  If the laws about renting property were not so favorable to those you rented it to, and if property owners retained more rights to their property at all times, this would be less of an issue.  But the fact is that you take considerable legal risks when you rent your property.
Even if you are not concerned with squatting, because you’re only accepting a person for a few days, taking in someone in a desperate situation can easily bring their “mess” into your home, and affect you and all your other guests.  I experienced this with the person who was on the verge of being homeless.  He sat in my kitchen for several hours, with no shirt and no shoes on, talking about his financial problems and other problems, TMI, TMI, spreading this problem energy all over my house.  He sat in my kitchen for several hours with no shirt on, scratching off a huge pile of scratch cards someone had given him, hoping to win a few dollars.  This scene was disturbing, and his demands on my other guests’ time and energy was upsetting and depressing, brought an overall negativity to my house.
Yes, people have hard situations and deserve compassion, but for my own health and that of my guests, I draw a distinct boundary around my own property and will not allow people to bring their desperate circumstances in here.  I can help them outside that line, but not within it.  I suggest you do the same. Boundaries and fences make good neighbors and help protect everyone’s mental health.

(c) Look at the photo provided by the guest, if the platform provides you this opportunity.  Use this as info to suss out with your intuition. 

In many if not all cases/platforms you will be able to see a photo of the guest if you ask for one.  Even on Airbnb, which hides photos before booking, you might be able to see photos of the guest if you ask the guest for their full name before they book, and then are able to look up the guest on Facebook or other social media, if they have such accounts.

There are some hosts who don’t understand how intuition works, or actually (rather shockingly) do not believe that there is such a thing as intuition.  This is quite surprising given that intuition is known to the psychological sciences and it is the primary psychological function (meaning, their strongest function) of a considerable number of “intuitives” in the US population.

It should go without saying that if you dont’ believe in intuition, then it’s your perogative to ignore it, but denying that it exists or is useful is sort of like denying that emotions exist or are useful.

Intuition is decidedly NOT the same thing as “unconscious bias”, which is the ignorant assertion made by some who think it’s their task to shame you into ignoring your inner wisdom and inner guidance.

Photos can be useful for several reasons.
First, it is a demonstration of the prospective renter’s good judgment or lack thereof, if they opt to present themselves in skimpy clothing, shirtless, holding two glasses of hard liquor in their hands, flashing gang signs, sticking out their tongue, or wearing pants that hang down to their knees.  None of these show an understanding of the importance of presenting oneself in a professional way, as one would for a job one was applying for.  Granted that some hosts may prefer guests who demonstrate that in some way or another, they are “rebellious souls.”  Generally, hosts who appreciate this in guests will give some clue about that in their own Airbnb profile or listing description.  If a host has not indicated that they have their listing in a nudist colony and thus prefer shirtless inquiries, or a predilection for tongue-out people with rainbow hair holding a glass of whiskey aloft, why would one assume that such a presentation would gain them points?

Second, the photo may present other “clues.” Is the guest in a photo with a dog or cat? Perhaps you should ask them if they intend to come to stay with a dog or cat, in spite of having not mentioned this.  Because some people will not bother to tell you that they intend to come with a “service animal”, and only surprise you at the last minute by showing up with a dog at your no-pets listing.

Does the photo show the person clearly, are they smiling, frowning…what does their expression and body posture tell you “intuitively”?
When a prospective renter has put a photo on an account that is solely for the purpose of seeking accomodations, as on Airbnb or other platforms for property rentals, it shows good judgment to use a photo of oneself that is face forward, smiling or looking pleasant.  PHotos taken from 50 ft away, or those showing the back of someone’s head or otherwise unrecognizable, don’t convey confidence that this is someone who feels obligated to be up front and honest with you.
A photo that shows someone looking angry or ill at ease might make one cautious.
Keep in mind that many people are “stiff” when photos are taken of them, but there’s a difference between that and scowling.
I have been able to detect a whiff of arrogance in some photos.

(d) The prospective renter’s name or lack thereof (if using a pseudonym) can possibly provide some information. 

Using a complete pseudonym is disrespectful, as it fails to show respect for the property owner’s need to know who will be staying at their home.
While keeping in mind that many people are given birth names by their parents that they may not like and which do not represent them well, others choose/change their names as adults, and the names they use can provide info about themselves.

(3) Because bad guests tend to be people who have a disrespectful or entitled attitude, one way of screening guests OUT, is to present YOURSELF as someone whom a prospective renter/guest with an entitled attitude would dislike! 

This approach takes a bit of thought and experience, and not all hosts will “get it”, but in a way, you actually want to DISCOURAGE a lot of people from booking.  This can be counterintuitive, because many hosts believe that hosts/property owners “have to” come across as welcoming and full of hospitality.

But there is a way of being both welcoming, and conveying that you are something of a “hard-ass”, meaning, you want to come across as somewhat “stict”.  Together with this, it can help to make the guest believe you’ll be able to monitor their behavior while they are at the listing, even if you will not actually be able to do this to the extent that you would like or would like them to believe.

It’s always better if you can actually monitor your property closely, eg, you live not far from your rental.  If you are not close to it, it would help if you could have someone who lives closer to it, help you check on it.  Because one thing that will certainly encourage guests to lie, is the belief that they won’t get caught: eg, they can lie about their intentions, arrive and break the rules and exceed your maximum occupancy, if they think there’s no one who will ever know.

If you can use security cameras that is helpful, but if not I strongly suggest you have someone who can check on what’s going on at your property, or you really will have a hard time getting guests/renters to follow the rules.  People really really take advantage when they think no one is watching!

(4) Finally, I suggest you come up with several questions that you ask all prospective renters.

You are not asking questions just because there are things you really need to know.  You are also asking questions because you want to test the guest and see how compliant they are about answering questions!  IN that regard, it almost doesn’t matter if you actually need to know the answers or not.  You want guests who reply fully and courteously,  even to questions that may seem “personal” such as where they are from, what they do for a living, what is the purpose of their trip to your area, how has the pandemic effected them, what attracted them to your listing, whether they have any allergies, sensitivities or special needs.

A guest who answers questions easily and fully is generally preferable to one who answers with very short replies or gives any indication that they resent being asked questions.   You want a person who seems very OPEN, because this is a good sign that such a person is HONEST, as opposed to a person who is likely to be hiding things…such as the fact that they don’t intend to follow your house rules!

You may also want to try to engage the prospective guest in some friendly chat, such as about things you may have in common.  Honest and truly friendly guests are more likely to be interested to chat with you than those who are hiding something from you!

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