Tenant check: Why it pays to be a picky landlord
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Not all landlords leave tenant-choosing to letting agents – Richard Burton prefers to meet candidates himself before contracts are signed. And needless to say, not all applicants are as appealing as they appear on paper...
Choosing a tenant is a little like hiring staff. Only harder. Partly because of the consequences of getting it wrong.
For a start, tenants don’t have monthly appraisals, probation periods and, if they become really problematic, they can’t have their passes cancelled and be escorted out by security with their stuff in a cardboard box.
True, they both come with references, but tenants don’t turn up expecting to do psychometric tests, be cross-examined on every line of their CV and go away hoping they’ve made the second round.
Pity though. I’d love to ask: “... and what exactly would you bring to the flat?” Or if I was looking for a long-term let: “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” Or if I was one of those seriously pretentious corporates, it may even be: “If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be – and how would you protect the carpet from spillages?”
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Either way, there is one common denominator: we tend to know within seconds of meeting someone whether they’re the right fit, whether they feel right.
Psychologists call it thin-slicing – gut reaction to the rest of us – a cognitive reflex that makes us cross the road for one stranger and fall in love at first sight with the next. But there’s a second phenomenon known as confirmation bias; something in our need to not just trust but reinforce our instincts.
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It means we find excuses for their indiscretions if we like them, and fault in everything else if we don’t. Listen to a football crowd and you’ll see what I mean. A fair tackle or blatant foul? Depends which strip they’re wearing.
And it’s why some letting agents advise nervous landlords to meet potential tenants, either in their office or, preferably, at the property. The way they open and close a freezer door can be as telling as whether they took their shoes off.
It’s good advice, and nine times out of 10 it holds true. But too many years in newsrooms taught me that what people say doesn’t always represent reality.
I didn’t directly ask a twentysomething single career girl if she was clear this was a one-person let. I just assumed she understood the contract she signed. When she moved in and I popped by later with the inventory, I found the boyfriend’s suitcase in the hall.
She excused it by trying to say she had offered to do his washing. I told her the ‘white goods’ I’d supplied didn’t constitute a laundrette - and told him to go and find one.
Another, a single bloke in a company car insisted he was a non-smoker and when I asked what it was he tossed away and ground with his heel when he got out of the car? He admitted he liked the occasional one... but only did it outside.
Oh, and when I came close to point out how the appliances worked, I did that to get a whiff. Nicotine lingers on clothes if you smoke a lot.
And the grey-flannelled mystery man who’d stepped from the cover of a 50s paperback novel to assure me he was “relishing the peace and quiet” of the place. But forgetting he’d lamented to a chatty assistant over a cup of lettings office coffee he was hoping a place of his own “would help in the custody battle”.
But it works both ways.
Take the rough diamond in the sharp suit introduced by the letting agent as “a bit of a charmer, this one”. A loveable rogue sort who agreed to meet sometime laterzz between “work, gym and pub”.
I chose the pub and, before I’d even agreed, he announced he’d already ordered a 50-inch TV for himself and his “kids on access days”. When I suggested that was a little premature, he smiled at me as if I was the barmaid he’d just made blush and replied “what am I like, eh?”
So this is where the empirical kicks in. Confirmation bias needs help to regroup. He was immaculately groomed, he would check his hair in the polish of his car, so maybe he would be as fastidiously house-proud as a seaside landlady.
His references told me nothing other than he paid on time and could afford the rent. But two LinkedIn messages found me talking to someone who recalled a go-getter who began work on the hands-free as soon as he got in the car, had excellent client relations and the tidiest desk.
Even so, I blagged the name of the management company of a previous flat and rang them direct. A charmer, yes. Cheeky, yes. But “kept the place as if it was his own”.
So in he went, along with the 50-inch screen and the kids on access days.
The couple before him; sweet, smart and starting out, had been model tenants but did what so many do and underestimate – or ignore – the clause that insists you leave it as you found it. A cracked hob and a wipe-down didn’t cut it and it was a week, a lot of bleach and carpet-vac before it was ready to re-advertise.
What did Prince Charming do? Splashed the cash on the sort of cleaning firm that sanitises operating theatres. When he handed over the keys I walked in imagining fields of lavender.
The one after him was an easier call. Ten minutes in a café with this polite, personable number cruncher was enough to convince me he was fit for purpose. Again, hardly a word from him, totally accommodating when we did need to pop round, but his idea of cleaning was akin to tidying his room at home.
Insisting on meeting a prospective tenant does have its drawbacks, as any letting agent will tell you, one in four viewings are often no-shows. I’ve twice driven 20 minutes and taken a call from the agent to say he/she had rung to say they’d changed their mind.
Chartered surveyor David Porter, director of Knight Property Management, which operates in Hertford and Ware, has a good response to this. Having done everything to ensure the appointment is fixed and agreed, he takes one more step.
“If we haven’t heard anything from the viewer, we’ll call them around half an hour before the allotted time, or at least before driving to the property,” he says.
“Often their phone will go to voicemail, so we’ll leave them a message asking them to call us back if they’re still coming. If we don’t hear anything, then we don’t go – simple.”
He admits that, while “it’s not a fool-proof system, it does work 95 per cent of the time”.
I’m usually upfront with people on all this. Not very English, but I do like to ask pertinent questions. Not always to great effect though.
One dry-witted medical student I met with an agent asked pointedly why and I said it’s purely about trust. He replied: “A journalist and an estate agent are asking a doctor about trust? Go on. This should be interesting.”
Sometimes it’s easier just to hand over the keys.