Practiced at the Art of Deception
Kim McGrigg gives a tenant advice that all landlords might want to pay heed to. In a column published Sunday, May 15, 2011, in various newspapers across the country, Ms. McGrigg advises a tenant whose credit has “tanked” to avoid trying to rent from apartment complexes because of the “prescreening policies in place.” Instead, this tenant might not “try to rent from an individual who may not have the same prescreening policies” as those apartment complexes. That, of course, is code for private landlords who screen their tenants superficially or not at all and who might even rent on “gut feeling” because they have the magical power to determine the qualification of an applicant by simply speaking to him or her.
But even those landlords who don’t screen very well or often can do some things that will rid them of the bad ten ants who apply to rent. Too often rental owners don’t do the very things that are easiest and cost little or nothing when screening applicants. Real estate owners and managers can do four things to screen and eliminate applicants who are practiced at the art of deception. They cost little or no money and only a little time.
Professional bad tenants rely on fear and desperation. Landlords are afraid they will not get a vacancy filled and are desperate to get the mortgage paid this month. Bad tenants know that and use that knowledge to weasel their ways into rental properties. And they are practiced at the art of deception.
The four things we will discuss here are the rental application, verification, picture ID and meeting all adults.
The Rental Application
Every landlord who uses a rental application rather than a “give me the money and you get the keys,” needs to actually look at the application. I don’t mean after you get it back to the office and go to check references but immediately after the applicant hands it to you. You are looking for several things.
First, you are looking for empty places where writing ought to be. Most important are the following. Your applicants’ dates of birth and Social Security Numbers. Without those, your tenant-screening company can’t run a credit report. Second, you are looking to see what is in each of the fields your applicant was sup- posed to fill out.
What if in the field where your applicant was supposed to write his or her previous landlords’ names you find “Dick” and “Mary,” and in the spot where you should see those landlords’ phone numbers you see “don’t remember?”
Third, you are reading the application to see that you can actually make out what your applicant wrote. Not everyone’s handwriting is clear and legible. And sometimes, even if it is, he or she might have scratched out something and written the correct information directly above it, in tiny letters that run together. That is just as much of a problem as blank spaces and “don’t remembers.”
Some applicants will act as if it’s your fault that they gave you an incomplete application. You might hear such responses as “well, I don’t remember his phone number or when I lived there exactly. What can I do?” The first thing they can do is take the application back and fill it out to your satisfaction. You are in charge here, not them. You decide when an application is acceptable to you, not them. You are the one who decides who is an acceptable applicant, not them.
You can’t make that decision effectively or even realistically if you can’t check the information on the application.
That means if the application is not filled out to your satisfaction, hand it back to your applicant(s) and tell him, her or them that you cannot process the application until it is filled out completely, no blank spaces. As soon as you get the completely filled-out application back, you will process it, unless, of course, another application that is completely filled out comes in first. Then that application gets processed before the applicant who is standing in front of you.
There could be a number of legitimate reasons that an applicant leaves spaces on an application blank; there could also be a couple of illegitimate reasons. Possibly the applicant doesn’t want you to run credit—no Social Security Number or date of birth. Possibly, he or she doesn’t want you calling previous landlords, hence no landlord phone number of name. The reason is not your concern; the fact that the application is incomplete is.
This one is truly simple. If you can’t verify anything on the application, it is grounds for immediate rejection. Whether you reject or not depends on the answer you get from your applicant when you call with the question about the information you cannot verify. Possibly it is a legitimate mistake of his or her part with a phone number. Once you get the correct phone number, you may be able to verify the information.
One thing you will want to do is verify using the applicant’s Social Security Number. You can do what is known as a “Social Search” through a tenant screening company. The report shows every address ever associated with that Social Security Number. That report could show some interesting information about where your applicant has lived. Just imagine the fun you could have if the report shows your applicant living in the last few years at an address not listed on the application.
One interesting thing this report can show is if more than one person is using the Social Security Number. If you discover that is the case, your applicant has some explaining to do. Social Security Numbers are unique to the individual. More than one person cannot have the same number. If it were possible to give the same number to more than one person, how could each of those people pay taxes? How could each of those people collect Social Security at retirement? How could each of those people have his or her own credit report?
More interesting things about the Social Search is that it verifies that the Social Security Number is within the valid range, shows any other names the owner of the number has used, shows the date and state where the number was issued, and may provide names of previous employers.
The other obvious things to verify include employment and the ownership of the previous properties where your applicant has lived. Match the phone number of the employer listed on the application with that you find in the phone book. If they are different, your applicant has more explaining to do. Likewise with the phone number of the previous landlords.
One easy way to verify landlords’ phone numbers is to look up on county tax records who owns the property where your applicant lived. You will get an owner’s name and address. From there you can probably get a telephone number. Even if the owner’s phone is unlisted, often you can tell if the phone number’s prefix matches the area of town where the owner lives.
If the previous landlord was an apartment complex, that is a piece of cake. Apartment building phone numbers are in the phone book. Does that number match the one on the application?
Picture ID from All Adults Picture ID usually is a driver’s license. You need to see that or some other acceptable picture ID. If your applicant says he or she doesn’t have a driver’s license “with me,” how did he drive to see the property?
What you are looking for, other than the obvious that the picture looks somewhat like your applicant, is the address. Does the address on the driver’s license match that on the application? If it doesn’t, why not? Now turn the driver’s license over. Some states don’t issue a brand-new driver’s license when someone moves, but rather send a sticker that goes on the back of the license. If your state does that, check the address. Does that ad- dress appear on the application? If not, your applicant has some explaining to do.
Meet Every Adult Moving into the Property
Sometimes she is going to “take the ap- plication home and have my husband fill it out.” That’s fine as long as her husband comes back with the completed application and picture ID.
You need to physically meet every adult who will be occupying the property with one exception, a spouse who is deployed overseas in the military. In that case, the applicant should have sufficient evidence of his or her spouse’s military service. Obviously, you will want to know when the missing spouse will be returning so you can come over an welcome him or her back.
Common sense rules here. You will most likely want to use that when deciding if you need to meet the missing prospective tenant.
What can well happen if you don’t meet all adults when they move in is that you could go knocking on the unit’s door next month and someone answers wanting to know who you are? When asked the same question, the answer could be “I am the tenant.” Whether that is true or not is open to debate since you never met every adult who was moving in.
To ensure that your properties remain great places to live, we all need to do effective screening. The basics are just those four things we looked at. They are free except for the Social Search, which costs $5.00 or less.
Bad tenants are practiced at the art of deception. They have more than likely deceived several landlords in the past, landlords who rent on “gut feeling” and who can tell good or bad tenants just by talking to them. Amazing! The deceptions that these bad tenants have practiced have worked all too well in the past because or minimal or nonexistent screening.