By Robert L. Cain
You have it in your hand, a rental application. Your applicants are excited. They said things like “We could live here forever!” and “This is the nicest place we’ve looked at,” and similar puffery to make you feel special. They truly made you feel special when they asked for an application, filled it out, and gave it back to you, saying, “We’re in a hurry and want to know right away.” After all, they had another place they were considering, but yours was absolutely the best. I bet they say that to all the landlords.
You took the rental application and put it in your file folder; you’ll look at it later. You are excited, too. It had been over a month that the unit had been vacant and the next mortgage payment was closing in like a hawk circling the field mouse.
Your applicants drove away in their mud-splattered car that leaked some exhaust around the edges with the sun-fried paint and cracked windshield. It took a couple of tries to get it going after they had herded their misbehaving children and stuffed the trashed McDonald’s bags back inside. “I’ve got a live one,” you say to yourself—well, mostly live.
Back home, you opened the file folder and got ready to check out the application. Lo and behold, where it asked for current landlord, the applicants wrote, Jim. Where there was a place for a phone number, it was blank. Where it asked for previous landlord, the applicants wrote, Amy. Where the phone number should have been, they wrote, “can’t remember.” For references, they listed one applicant’s mother and the other applicant’s sister. It said so right where it asked for the relationship to the applicant. At least there were phone numbers. Gee, I wonder what mom and sis will say.
In the employment section, where it asked for length of time on the job, there were blank spaces. For previous employer, same drill. Well, you did have phone numbers. At least they knew those. Of course, it was weekend, so there was no point in calling until Monday.
Now what do you do? You could reject the application out of hand because it wasn’t filled out completely. But you hadn’t had any applicants until them. Do you want to bother with them? Are they worth the trouble? After all, if they didn’t come prepared to and couldn’t even fill out the application completely or maybe even correctly, how might they be as tenants?
You decided to call them. Fortunately, it’s a cell phone number, so you got somebody right away. Of course, the reason there were no phone numbers is that they didn’t remember them and wouldn’t be able to look them up until they get home. How about length of time on the job? Oh, they kind of knew that. Three months. Five months. Previous employer? Oh, eight months. A year.
As you hung up the phone with assurances that they would call you as soon as they got home and found the phone numbers, your phone rang with someone else who wanted to look at the property. You said you would meet them in an hour, and they showed up on time.
They, too, filled out an application. Now what do you do? Do you tell them there’s someone ahead of them or do you just accept this one because it is completely filled out. You checked this time. Plus, they’ve worked at the same places for three and five years. Plus, they were driving a well-maintained car. Plus, their children are well-behaved.
There you sat on the horns of a dilemma. It was kind of painful. Do you owe it to the first applicant to check that application out first? These looked like better candidates, but is that fair?
Here’s how to avoid the problem in the beginning. You know those rental policies and standard you have and hand to applicants? Well, maybe you don’t have them, but if you did, on it would be words such as “we screen the completely filled-out applications we receive in the order we receive them. If your application is not completely filled out, we will screen the other completely filled-out applications first.”
Even without those words, looking at the application you receive to make sure it’s completely filled out is a vital first step. If it’s not completely filled out, hand it back to them. Of course they don’t remember the phone numbers, but that shouldn’t be your problem. Why are they looking for a new place to live without being prepared to fill out an application completely?
By failing to fill out an application fully, and by your not checking to see that it is, you put yourself in an awkward position. Don’t even think about saying yes unless everything is to your satisfaction. As rental owners and managers, we must be in charge. After all, it’s our property, our investment, and our income. If we don’t take care of it, who will?