Evaluating a rental applicant based on ex-landlord’s opinion

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Q: I have a policy of always talking to an applicant’s current landlord. But an applicant whom I’ll call Sue has asked me not to call her landlord. She is afraid that if the owner learns she is looking, he will terminate her tenancy. Sue says she’s leaving because this guy is a terrible landlord. I don’t want to make things worse for her — what if I call, he terminates, and I don’t end up renting to Sue? But I hesitate to not check it out — what if she’s putting me on? Any suggestions? –Weidon B.

A: You’re in a tricky spot. Many landlords will do just as Sue fears, apart from whether they are bad landlords or not. Upon learning that a tenant is about to leave, they’ll terminate, especially if the rental market is seasonal and they want to take advantage of a good window.

For example, many rentals turn over during the summer, especially before school starts. A landlord will have an easier time renting an apartment in July than in October, and certainly November or December. Learning in May that a tenant is looking elsewhere, a landlord might be tempted to terminate in order to have a vacancy in the summer.

Tenants may also fear a negative, unjustified reference, which is apparently Sue’s fear as well. Sue may have insisted on needed repairs and earned the landlord’s unfair ire.

As sympathetic as you may be to Sue’s situation, you should not relax your practices. You can’t ignore the possibility that the negative reference may in fact be justified — how do you know that it’s the landlord who is the problem, not Sue?

One way to handle this situation is to tell Sue that you won’t contact the landlord right away. Take her application, run a credit report, verify her employment, and most importantly, speak with at least one prior landlord. A landlord who no longer rents to Sue has no reason to say anything other than the truth (there’s no temptation to give a falsely glowing report of a bad tenant in order to help that tenant move out as soon as possible). Then, consider all that you’ve learned from multiple sources: If they all paint a picture of a good, stable tenant, you should proceed, but only if you are pretty sure you’ll extend an offer to Sue unless you learn something that justifies a rejection.

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Now, call the current landlord. You may not, however, be able to make confident conclusions based on his answers. Suppose he says, "Well, Sue was late with the rent at least half the time, she grouses about the pickiest things, and her neighbors complain about noise a lot." If this report is completely at odds with everything else you’ve learned about Sue (from past landlords and her bill-paying history on her credit report), you may be justified in concluding that this landlord has it in for Sue, and you may want to disregard his words.

On the other hand, you may be told, "I have nothing to say about Sue." This response may be the stock answer from someone who is overly worried about lawsuits from former tenants, which means you can’t rely on it one way or the other. And if you’re told, "Sue is a great tenant!" consider that the landlord is either being very cagy (giving a false positive in order to get rid of Sue) or may be telling the truth (but why did Sue describe him as terrible?).

Confused? Alas, there’s no formula for evaluating these conversations. The best you can do is to do a thorough screening and gather information from multiple sources. Applicants’ true colors will emerge the more you draw from independent quarters. In the end, you may have to simply remove the current landlord from the picture.

Q: We’ve been renting a house for two years, and we’re moving out at the end of the lease, disgusted. The landlord never fixed anything, ignored our requests, and even tried to raise the rent. Rentals are hard to come by here, and we want to make sure the next tenant doesn’t get stuck with these problems. What can we do to make that happen? –Randall J.

A: When it comes to screening, landlords have by far the most sophisticated system. They ask for detailed information in a rental application, call past landlords and employers, and consult a credit report. Many also perform some level of criminal background screening. If an applicant has been chronically late with the rent, left past rentals in shambles, or has a worrisome income-to-debt ratio, they’ll learn of it and can confidently reject applicants for those reasons.

Tenants have a much less developed set of tools that they can use to learn about the business practices of their would-be landlords. They can go to the local courthouse (or go online, in some places) to see whether this owner is a regular visitor in court. Frequent appearances as a defendant in small claims means tenants suing over deposits; going to court as a plaintiff may mean eviction cases. Either way, not a good sign.

Tenants can also visit the property on their own and try to speak with current residents (or the ones moving out) and ask what it’s like to live in this rental. Candid answers from people who have no reason to speak untruthfully are the best source of information. Applicants for your rental can take these steps on their own.

One additional avenue might prove useful. If the repair problems you speak of amounted to housing code or other legal violations, and if you reported these to the appropriate agencies, they will have a record of these reports. Or, if your town has a licensing program for landlords, it may have a complaint component — if you utilized it, again, there’s a public record.

Hopefully, people who apply to live in the house you’re leaving will take the time and energy that’s required to learn about the property. If they do — certainly if they speak with you — they will have their eyes opened. But you want something more — to "make sure" that the next set of residents doesn’t suffer as you did. Short of walking the sidewalk with a sign explaining why someone shouldn’t rent here, there’s not much you can do. You may want to avail yourself of the many "bad landlord" websites that aim to expose poor practices such as those you describe, but the value of these sites is open to doubt. No one checks the veracity of the tenants’ complaints, and many landlords will tell you that they are full of exaggerated, even false reports, written to get back at landlords who run tight ships.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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