Property Management for Investors: Lessons in Tenant Screening

March 1st, 2015 by
tenant screening faqs

How I Became My Own Property Manager

I never intended to manage my own investment properties–I sort of fell into that role as a bootstrapping investor and learned the hard way. Unlike the mature markets in Fairfax and Arlington Counties, the market I invested in (in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley) doesn’t yet offer cost-effective residential property management for small investors like me. So, I had to plunge in and learn by trial and error. From becoming a social media tenant sleuth to learning how to sniff out good contractors, every bit of wisdom I gleaned cost me time and money. And along the way, I learned some pretty expensive lessons. I think a few of those lessons are worth sharing with other investors and would-be landlords.

Like a lot of people new to real estate investing, I got my foot in the door by using a combination of home equity loan and savings to purchase several tiny income properties at a time when prices seemed to be rebounding after the lows of 2009 and 2010. My goal was to net some income each month and (hopefully) to see some appreciation in a burgeoning market, over five or six years of ownership.

I joined a real estate investors’ networking group and sought out the best advice I could get. “Don’t lose money each month” was what it boiled down to. And what was the surest way to lose money? Bad (as in nonpaying and/or destructive) tenants.

The Tenant Problems Begin

I had a little problem, however. The houses I had purchased came with tenants (and leases that had more than six months left on them). While I felt a bit nervous about my rough-around-the-edges tenants, I figured I could manage them if I just stayed on top of things. And maybe I’d even end up with a good tenant or two. It could happen, right?

Wrong. From the beginning, I had problems with all my tenants. Problems collecting rent and problems with maintenance. Problems with town ordinance violations and problems with neighbors who didn’t care for my tenants’ habits. The best of the lot were the elderly couple who moved out in the middle of the night the week after I bought the house. They took a couple of major appliances with them and disappeared without a trace. But they did vacuum before leaving, at least. Which was very thoughtful of them.

Screening Tenants

So, I set out to find me some new tenants. I wrote an ad for Craigslist, uploaded some pictures of the cute little Cape Cod house, and clicked Publish. I figured before I even took an application I’d do whatever initial screening I could. I’m a journalist, after all–and I know my way around digital research.

About five minutes went by before the first eager inquiries started rolling in. I cracked my knuckles and started right in on the Facebook sleuthing–which my teenaged daughter informed me was more appropriately named Facebook-stalking. But hey, after the great midnight appliance heist, one couldn’t be too careful, I told her. I was only performing my due diligence as a responsible landlord and investor.

First up: Delilah Shuttleworth (not her real name). She was a hardworking young mom, she informed me–just making it on her own due to her positive outlook while looking out for her darling toddler, who was the joy and light of her life. She had included a couple of photos with her inquiry, which backed up that persona. The head shot looked like it might have come straight out of the annual church directory. Awwwww. And another one pushing her chubby little two-year-old on a swing. Sweet. Oh, and she wished me a “blessed day” in her closing.

Using Social Media for Initial Tenant Screening

On to Facebook. There was Delilah in the profile pic–but with a ferocious animal print ensemble rather than the Peter Pan collar I’d seen in her email. Plenty of photo albums available for public viewing. And, lo and behold, nearly all of them show her downing shots (or unconscious). And right at the top of her profile is a request for money for the incarcerated boyfriend. (It even came associated with an app called JPay. The smarter way to pay inmates.) One friend commented that she’d maybe make a donation to the cause if Delilah would pay her back from last Friday night. Delightful Delilah had snarled back at her with a string of four-letter words that’d make a sailor blush.

Three hours later, I’d completed Facebook research on all Craigslist responders whose emails provided last names. And I’d determined that they were quite a fun-loving, free-spirited, photo-sharing bunch–but alas, not exactly tenant material.

The Tenant Problems I Never Anticipated

I’d subsequently learn a number of tricks in ad copywriting to keep me from even having to do that up-front Facebook detective work. Asking for a work email, mentioning online payment policies, requiring a preliminary application to be considered for a showing, indicating that a broker would be in touch to take application fees, etc. Those measures helped me at least to filter applicants for minimally stable jobs, up-to-date financial practices (such as having a checking account), and incomes. And subsequent credit checks (using the application fees) helped further refine the list, of course.

What were the debacles and time-sucking inconveniences my screens didn’t help me uncover? A history, in one case, of creating “lawsuit traps” and suing people. A drug addiction. A hoarding problem. An employer who went out of business the week after the lease was signed.

What a Professional Property Manager Offers

Would a professional property manager have been able to spot and avoid these problems? Maybe not all of them. But in placing tenants on my own I’ve come to realize one important thing: As a landlord, even when I tell myself I’m keeping emotional distance, I am still too close to the situation to maintain objectivity. I am proud to be providing renters with affordable housing, and I truly want to place tenants who seem to satisfy my criteria.

But it’s more than pride in placing tenants. There’s plenty of fear in this landlord job too. I fear seeing one of my houses sit empty, because of the drain to my bank account (and thus my ability to do things like meet all my own bills, plan vacations with my kids, or grow my primary business). Finally, I have little time for the extra care an empty house requires of me.

No, I’m not objective about my properties–or the tenants who want to live in them. How could I possibly be?

I am emotionally involved in my own properties–no matter how many screening techniques I learn or how much wisdom (and healthy skepticism) I gain. If my market had offered me an experienced property manager specializing in single family homes, I have no doubt that I’d have been better off hiring someone to bear that responsibility (and maintain that unblinking eye to the bottom line).

A property manager with years of insight into tenant issues, applicant red flags, and local employers could have avoided many of the traps I fell into in my push to keep my houses from sitting vacant.

Not to mention saving me hours of time being horrified yet strangely fascinated by applicants’ lives on Facebook.

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