Guide to Being a Landlord #3: Checking Prospective Tenants' References

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Michael Drouillard explains what to look for and how to spot red flags in rental references, in part three of our series for first-time landlords

Landlording in Canada Kit by Michael Drouillard, published by and reprinted here courtesy of Self-Counsel Press. To download the full e-book or for more information, click here.

Last time, we looked at creating a rental advertisement and whether to rent your unit furnished or unfurnished. Once you have done that and found a would-be tenant, you need to make sure their references are good before you go ahead.

Employment Reference

You will receive income verification by asking for the applicant’s latest pay stub or income tax Notice of Assessment (if self-employed). If you have reason to question the accuracy of the occupation information, consider calling the applicant’s employer. But be discreet and tactful and make sure you have the applicant’s verbal or written permission first. Calling the tenant’s employer could cause embarrassment to the tenant, and might be considered intrusive.

The phone number or extension you’ve been given by the applicant might be that of a friend or colleague at the company. When you call the number provided, ask to speak to human resources personnel or the supervisor. The employer can only confirm what’s stated on the application form: the applicant’s position, income, and length of employment. If the applicant works on a contract basis, confirm when the contract expires and whether or not there are plans to renew.

Landlord Reference

Years ago, when accessing a renter’s credit history wasn’t easy, checking the landlord reference was a must. But now it is less important. If you check a landlord reference, be aware of the following pitfalls.

  1. Really bad tenants almost always provide false landlord references. They often use a friend who is coached to sound convincing. Google the phone numbers provided by the applicants, and perform reverse telephone searches as well. If the “landlord” sounds suspicious, consider trying to expose the fraud with trick questions. For instance, if your applicant stated he or she lived in their current home for one year, ask the current landlord, “I understand my applicant lived in your rental for three years. Is this correct?” If the reference tells you it is, you could be speaking to an impersonator.
  2. The current landlord might say the applicant is a great tenant, just to facilitate getting rid of that tenant. Or the landlord might be intimidated by the tenant and reluctant to say anything negative.This means that the previous (not current) landlord is often a more reliable source of information. However, the previous landlord’s contact information isn’t always available. If your applicant lived at his or her current address for a year or longer, odds are your applicant won’t remember the previous landlord’s phone number (or name for that matter).
  3. Many landlords do not inspect their rental property regularly. If the tenant has a repair request, the landlord will arrange for a tradesperson without personally visiting the property. The only thing such a landlord can confirm is that the tenant is paying the rent on time. Paying the rent on time is a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your tenant is good. After all, tenants that use rental properties for marijuana grow operations may pay their rent on time, but once they move, they leave the landlord with a $10,000 bill for municipal fines and repairs.

The current or previous landlord has no obligation to speak to you, so keep your questions to a minimum. Your questions should be pointed and regard specific issues. Ask questions like these:

  • The tenant says he or she lived ___ years in your property. Is this correct?
  • Does the tenant take good care of the property?
  • Does the tenant owe you any back rent?
  • Has the tenant ever paid rent late? If so, how many times?
  • Have you received any complaints about the tenant from neighbours?
  • Would you rent to the tenant again?
  • Did the tenant leave the suite clean and free of damage when he or she moved out?

Once you’ve covered all these bases and are satisfied with the answers, you can be confident in moving forward with your chosen tenant.

Next time: Ensuring your rental unit adheres to fire regulations before it is occupied


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