Applicant Screening During the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Robert L. Cain, Copyright 2020 Cain Publications, Inc.

You would think that no one is looking to move right now what with the coronavirus issue, but people are.  A RentCafe study in February (of course before all the “shelter in Place” edicts began) found that 59 percent of the people surveyed said they would move “as soon as I find an apartment.”

Figure that number has decreased, but people may still look for a new place to live. To fill the vacancies we have, we need to think about a couple of things: marketing and screening criteria. To avoid contracting the coronavirus, marketing has to include how prospective tenants see a property online.  After that our screening has to take into consideration not only whether that person will be able to pay the rent now but also in a couple of weeks or a month.

First, we’ll look at here the tremendous opportunity we have to step up our marketing to set us apart from other rental owners and managers. Effective ways to get people’s attention involve presenting the property online not only with photos but with a 360 video walk-through with voice-over descriptions available. Show everything. People want a home office now, so if your unit has facilities for one, say so. They also want to have a place to work out at home, say so if your unit has something appropriate.

It’s important to do a complete showing, not just a couple of rooms (assuming that the unit is more than a couple of rooms).  In addition, post your rental requirements and standards along with the property information sheet you give your prospective tenants.

Unqualified people often will eliminate themselves if your rental standards and information sheet are worded appropriately.  One important item is the requirement that an applicant must have current verifiable income that amounts to at least three times the rent (or whatever your current demographics are), and that income must be in an industry that is not expected to close down and a job that is stable.

It is better to have no tenant than a tenant who can’t pay the rent.  While in many places you can’t evict anyone for non-payment of rent right now, you certainly don’t have to rent to someone whose income is questionable.

People want a home that is clean and “virus-free.”  Be careful here. Yes, you cleaned the place or had it cleaned and probably disinfected, but never even consider claiming that it is completely disinfected.  Should tenants become ill with the coronavirus, they could claim that they were assured that the unit was virus-free before moving in, and they got it from your property. Claiming to be virus-free is just asking to pay huge attorney’s fees.

Any prospective tenant you would be willing to rent to will want to physically see the unit before committing to renting.  We have a couple of options here.  One is to meet the party at the property, open the door, stand back, and let them do their own tour.  The other option is to have a lockbox on the door and you give the prospect the code. In this case, to protect yourself you must have fully pre-qualified the applicant with appropriate picture ID and verification of employment and income. Either way you do it, make sure to leave all the information they need to make an informed decision inside the unit along with an application form, as well as the application form online that they can submit there.

Make it easy to see the unit online and to communicate with you.  If anything becomes a hassle, figure they will go on to the next property even though yours is perfect for them. Just make sure they are perfect for you.  That involves careful screening.

Much of the screening is already done if marketing tells prospective tenants who is acceptable and the condition of the property shows that the landlord is businesslike and values his or her investment.  But there’s still lots to check.

It begins with the Primary Four requirements of every applicant, no exceptions EVER:

  1. Application must be completely filled out
  2. Must be able to verify income
  3. Must be able to verify all information on the application
  4. Must meet and see picture ID from every adult who will live in the property

But there’s more.  What you would normally do may not be enough to qualify an applicant.

What type job does the applicant have?  In this market, some jobs are simply too unstable for a landlord to take a chance on.  Restaurant and retail employees are a prime example.  If they haven’t been laid off already, chances are they soon will be. Yes, you can and should reject on the basis of the type of occupation someone has. 

Mortgage underwriters, for example, always look at the probability of continued income before they approve a loan, so there’s nothing wrong with your being concerned with the same thing. Make your applicant prove job stability in whatever way he or she is able.

What are the occupations that are least likely to be laid off?  Those that involves little interpersonal contact or is considered essential are at the top of the list. Construction workers of all kinds, landscapers, all the trades such as plumbers, electricians, and truck drivers all figure to be stable. First responders and the medical profession most likely have stable jobs, too. Good bets are also people who can work and/or are working from home.  Of course if the company they work for is about to go out of business, that is an important consideration.

But there’s more. Why is your applicant moving? It could be for any number of reasons that won’t affect their ability to pay the rent, that being a primary concern in this market. Of course the usual screening criteria apply, too.  Just verify everything as you normally would.  Why did they leave their previous rentals? Are all the owners names and contact information true?  Check county tax records for owners’ names and addresses. 

People move for reasons that have nothing to do with unstable job situations and incomes. And people move because their jobs are unstable or gone.  It’s just up to us to verify they will be good, rent-paying tenants who accurately and completely fill out the rental application.

Written for Zip Reports where they provide applicant screening services.

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