Should I Call My Tenant’s Previous Landlords?
Applicants for your rental property completed their forms, agreed to a background checked and showed you recent pay stubs to verify their income. You've met with them and have a good feeling in your gut. It's decision time, right?
Well, not quite.
You have a few more questions to ask before you should sign a lease with these applicants. But the answers are only a phone call away. Obtain your applicant's permission, and then reach out to current and former landlords and interview them.
These people have, or had, a relationship with your applicant. Ask if the tenant pays or paid rent on time. Ask if they took care of the unit during their time there. Ask whether neighbors ever complained about the tenant.
How do I contact the prior landlords?
Applicants for your rental know that new landlords will want to know about past landlord relationships. Some tenants ask their landlords for a reference letter when applying to live in a new rental property. Others come to see your unit prepared to share former landlords' names, numbers and email addresses.
An applicant who balks at providing contact information for former landlords should raise a red flag. It may mean that the applicant has a poor record of paying rent on time or has broken a lease. Since it could simply mean that the applicant hasn't told his or her landlord about plans to move, ask the applicant why he or she is hesitating.
Your potential tenant's response to that question can also reveal information about the applicant. Do they stumble over a reply? Do they look away or change the subject? Do they tell you what a jerk their last landlord was? Or, do they immediately explain their hesitation?
Use your best judgment to evaluate an applicant's reluctance to give you contact information for their most recent landlord. Maybe there's a good explanation.
A Colorado landlord has gotten attention for stating he will not lease the apartment he owns to a supporter of President-elect Donald Trump. Imagine if a former tenant, who happened to be a Trump supporter, asked this owner for a reference. That tenant would surely fear a negative review.
If an applicant's reason seems plausible, ask them how you can reach their other former landlords. Insist on this, saying you can't make a rental decision without all the relevant background.
What should I ask the former landlords?
This is where things can get tricky. There are questions that, under the law, you may not ask. For instance, you can't ask someone for their age, race, religion, nationality, gender identification or how many children they have. In fact, concerns over what the landlord may legally ask have caused some real estate attorneys to advise landlords to skip this step.
There is also information you may not use to make a leasing decision, even if it's freely offered by a former landlord. For example, you can't decide against a tenant applicant because their former landlord said that they have a disability, that they are pregnant, or that they were arrested.
So, what can you ask? Former Chicago real estate agent Kay Cleaves offers a list of common questions that get to the heart of your concern: Is this applicant likely to make a good tenant?
- What dates did the tenant live in your unit?
- What rent rate did the tenant pay?
- Did the tenant pay all rent owed?
- Was rent paid late? If so, how often and how late were payments?
- Did you serve notices on them?
- Did you evict the tenant?
- Did you offer to renew the lease?
- Did you receive notice that the tenant is moving?
- Did the tenant violate the lease rules for your unit?
You don't have to ask all of these, but be sure to include the ones that are most important to you.
What if the old landlord refuses to answer?
It's a good idea to write down your questions ahead of time. If you aren't used to interviewing people, make a trial run with a friend or business partner. That exercise may make you feel a little silly, but interviewing is a skill that improves with practice.
The most difficult aspect of questioning someone is actually listening to the answers, instead of thinking ahead to the next question. So, when you call former landlords, pay careful attention to what they say and take notes to help you remember important details. Be polite, but don't be afraid to repeat a question if you didn't get an answer the first time you asked.
Be on the alert for comments that don't address your questions, and for comments that make you suspicious about who you are really talking to. There have been reports of tenant applicants getting friends to pretend they're a former landlord in order to receive positive reviews.
Some landlords will refuse to give references or answer questions about a former tenant. That's their right, and there's little that can be done to get them to talk. Just move on to the next former landlord until you've talked to as many as possible.
How do I use the information I get?
It is critical that you make your leasing decision based on reasons that do not discriminate against protected groups. So, you cannot consider things such as race, nationality or whether they have children.
Consider whether the information shared by former landlords is what you want in a tenant.
An applicant with a so-so credit history who nonetheless has a stable, well-paying job and positive reviews from several former landlords may be a good choice for your rental. On the other hand, an applicant whose landlords gave rave reviews but whose credit is poor, and who cannot provide income verification, may be a riskier bet for your rental property.
Interviews with former landlords, just like a completed rental application and a background report, verified employment and income, and other factors, are important parts of the tenant screening process. On their own, they may not tell you much; but, put together, they give you an overall picture of the applicant.
The experience of calling former landlords will also give you good experience for that day when another landlord calls you to ask about a tenant.