Q: I own a rental house about 50 miles from where I currently live. The tenant vacated a few months ago and I had received barely any calls from rental prospects until a prospective tenant contacted me about a month ago.
I met him at the property with a blank lease form, but I forgot the rental application that also includes a section to fill out for credit. He seemed very nice and so did his family, so I felt comfortable renting the home to them.
I explained that I needed some basic information, which we used to complete the lease form, and we both signed the lease with the intent that he and his family would move in at the beginning of next month.
Later, I emailed him the rental application form to fill out so I can complete my tenant screening, but he has been very evasive. He will not give me any information about his job, his banking relationships or his credit cards. He won’t even give me his Social Security number or driver’s license number to allow me to verify that he is the person he says he is.
I phoned the place where he works to confirm that he worked there and was a regular full-time employee with benefits insurance, etc. The employer confirmed that but refused to give out his salary information. He phoned me after that and said that he didn’t want me contacting people without telling him first.
He basically tried to avoid the issue of the delay in sending me the completed rental application but did acknowledge that he had some credit problems, although he said he always pays his rent. The one thing he gave me is the phone number of his present landlord.
Anyway, he has now sent me the forms basically blank. I am just getting a real bad feeling about this guy, and would like to cancel the lease before he moves in. Can I do that? Can I be sued?
A: I am sorry to be so blunt, but it appears you have just been conned. You need to immediately contact a tenant-landlord legal expert in your area to review your lease and the tenant file. Of course, if the tenant misses a single rent payment, that will be your best grounds under which to seek an eviction based on a breach of the lease.
Your tenant’s failure to provide adequate information isn’t likely a breach of the lease, but your rental agreement may contain language that any false or inaccurate information could be grounds to terminate the lease. But you need to have an attorney review the paperwork and see if that might work.
Otherwise, you just need to hope that your gut feeling was basically correct that this is a good person and that he and his family may have had some difficult times recently but they do prioritize their rent payments and will take good care of your rental home.
And I certainly can understand how this can happen. First, the unit had been sitting there with no calls and you were beginning to get nervous. Then you get a call from someone who seems perfect. You drive out to meet him, but you made a mistake and didn’t have the right form. That wasn’t his fault. I am sure he had all the right answers to your questions but just didn’t have the detailed information handy.
It has happened to almost everyone who has been a landlord or property manager for a long time. It is human nature to want to trust that the prospective applicant is a model tenant and will "stay and pay" and treat the property "as if it was his own." And most times that is exactly what happens.
So while I certainly hope your new tenant pans out in all respects, let’s try to learn some warning signs that could be a red flag or pre-tenancy indication of an increased chance of future trouble.
There were certainly many warning signs that you probably see clearly now after the fact.
One tactic I have heard of lately is that a prospect will refuse to provide personal information because he is worried about identity theft. While there may be some legitimacy to this concern, you can’t let a prospective tenant move into your rental property without knowing beyond a doubt the identity of the tenant and all other occupants. If you don’t know, you will certainly face a much more difficult time trying to get them back out if you ever have to take legal action.
I would also question whether the call you made to verify employment was really to the prospect’s employer and not a friend or family member posing as the employer. It really has never been tough to pull off, but today with caller ID it is very easy for the friend or family member to answer the phone "XYZ Company" for every incoming call that is not from a number that he or she recognizes.
Besides, a friend or family member needs to do this only for a day or two after the applicant has given you his employment information, as he knows when you will be calling. Even the whole bit about calling you and being upset that you called his employer sounds fishy.
This is also true for the call you made to the "current landlord." I call this the "six-pack referral" because many prospective tenants who are being evicted or are skipping out on their current landlord know they will not be able to get a good reference so they have to be creative.
And one possible way to solve their problem is to find a friend who will accept a bribe (like a six-pack of their favorite beverage) to pose as their landlord.
If you properly explained your tenant-screening process, then the prospect not only knows but expects that you will be calling to verify virtually all of the information on the rental application, as well as running a credit check. Many landlords also run a criminal background check, including a check of the sex offender registry.
A comprehensive tenant-screening service will almost certainly pick up and report information that, if you carefully review it, may be inconsistent with what you may have been told by the individuals listed by the rental prospect — who potentially may be posing as a previous employer or landlord.
So when you ask for the contact information for the employer and current landlord — be sure to independently verify their identities.
If you have time before the scheduled move-in, which you did in this instance, you can also write a letter and mail it to the employer and landlord. A fake phone call is easy to deny, but very few prospects (or their cohorts in crime) will be willing to send false information through the mail!
Also, the prospect gave you his email address, but everyone has an email address and can get access to email at a public library in many cities. The same is true with the private postal box companies. You need a physical street address, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to even go by the property if you are really in doubt and hand-deliver the rental application form.
Your situation also illustrates one of the best reasons to personally manage your investment properties if they are very close by. Your rental property is 50 miles from your home, so that is within my usual guidelines of a "one-hour drive" unless there is a lot of traffic.
Of course, there is another concern and that is you may not be suited to be a landlord if you are "too nice." It is sad that "too nice" is a problem, but you need to be "fair, firm and friendly," as my dear friend, the late rental housing educator and icon Dorothy Gourley Shaw, would always say.
The more experienced landlords, property managers and tenant readers of this column could probably add several more "red flags" that they see in your story. But I think the point has been made that you need to be thorough in your prospective tenant screening procedures while treating all applicants fairly and in compliance with fair housing laws.