Now Streaming// by TJ Kacir
Not more than a week ago in the community I live near, a tenant was found guilty of bludgeoning his landlord to death while he took a nap on the couch. www.startribune.com Horrific? Yes. Preventable? Maybe. This is an extreme example of a bad tenant, and while the details of why this horrible incident occurred and the precautions the landlord took before signing him are not clear, you are running the risk of signing a dangerous renter when you don’t do your homework first.
With the increase in local community college attendance in the hometown of the students, or the general decrease in our Country’s economic status, you can’t blame a landlord for filling up their rentals when money is on the table. An empty unit is a costly one. But, there are many free resources available to the renting community, and ways to get around paying for a background check that can help eliminate signing on a lemon.
Free options available for landlords
If your renter is from the area, many government centers offer search browsers/terminals that allow you to search county by county for civil records and criminal history… for free. Yes, you will have to go there, yes you will have to spend time searching county by county, but it is a start. There will probably be a limited number of terminals and even a time limit, but it is worth it.
In many states, it is common practice to require tenants to provide the names and numbers of previous landlords. It’s worth a try, but you likely are not going to get much information in regards to their real opinions of the renters. With privacy laws becoming a hotbed issue, many landlords are careful when picking their vernacular to explain past clients. What you could probably get is if he/she paid their rent on time OR info on their security deposit.
Did the Johnson’s dog wet on all of the carpet, chew holes in the wall, and ruin the baseboards in two thirds of the house? Yes. Will you be told that? No. If you had to pick between Barbie and Ken, whose last place was an apartment for 3 months where they often paid their rent a week late and received back only 10% of their security deposit; OR Jim and Sally, who had stayed in their last rental property for 5 years, paid their rent on time, and received back 80% of their security deposit, it paints a clear (free) picture about the renter. There is another free bonus found in calling past landlords… think of it this way, while a landlord might dance around the specifics of a bad renter, they will have no problem praising a good one.
How to get a free, qualified, accurate background check on a tenant
If you want to have someone else do the work or if the tenant is new to the state, on top of asking for previous landlord information—add an applicant fee to your rental property application. Now, use that fee to run a background check from an accredited researcher. If the tenants ask about the fee, be honest and tell them what it’s for. That might scare off the first wave of undesirables. Likely, the tenant won’t have anything to hide, and if nothing else allows for an opportunity to build a relationship with person/people that will be representing your property. But if nothing, you’re likely going to get court records, potential criminal backgrounds, and a place to provide public records you may not have been able to find on your own. Also, an understated fact you may be provided with is their credit score; which, could be a very good indicator of if they can pay their bills on time.
Ask for references!
There’s nothing illegal about it. Just like a job interview, ask for personal and professional references from your renters. I know this might sound silly, but you are almost always going to get an honest answer from the manager of the grocery store that he/she worked at for 7 years… the least you will find out is if he/she showed up to work on time. With students, the parents are often the ones they will use, and they are also the ones who are probably paying the bills. In other words, they are the ones you might want to get to know.
Document, document, and then document some more
The last step of preparation all landlords should follow is documentation. After interviewing city council members and local landlords in the area, it didn’t take me long to find a case where the “typical” landlord-renter argument had pushed both parties to take legal action. A landlord, who didn’t ask for references from the renter, and who didn’t ask for previous landlords, and most importantly did not perform a background check—was trying to evict the tenant. The only thing he DID do was take the word of a friend who was looking to help the potential occupant. The tenant was claiming the various damages to the property (bullet holes in the wall, stained carpet, malfunctioning appliances, etc.) were present when she rented the property, and even went to the city council to make her case. But just like other landlords, the council members had to be judicious with their language… certainly they could agree that the various problems existed in the house, but couldn’t distinguish WHEN they were made, which helped neither party. Luckily, the property manager had taken pictures of the residence with time stamped software.
Taking photos of your property and sitting down with the resident, requiring them to check off the condition of the property before the lease is signed, might be what saves you big money in repairs you shouldn’t be responsible for. Of course, being able to produce those pictures, the tenant finally admitted to doing the damages and was held liable for the repairs AND was still kicked out.
Game plan – in summary
Evicting a tenant is not a fun process; to avoid this uncomfortable, awkward, and time consuming process there are a few easy steps that would raise red flags about unsuitable guests. Government centers in larger cities should offer a county by county search for civil/criminal history. Make sure you can procure that information from the application, but also include: various references and previous landlords– just remember to take their feedback with privacy laws in mind. To take the next step, you could add an applicant fee and order a background check from an accurate background checker. Lastly, document EVERYTHING. Use pictures, checklists, and have the tenant write and out and sign what they perceive as damages before signing a lease.
Knowing the history of the people occupying your homes isn’t just a necessity, it’s just good logic. While it will not guarantee you don’t sign an axe murderer, it certainly limits your chances.
Categories: Tips for Tenants / Renters