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Vetting tenants and finding the ideal tenant

How to find the ideal tenant?

A landlord’s ideal tenant should be: well presented, non smoking, professional, courteous, accommodating, reliable;  pay the rent on time, never bother the landlord, never complain;  never have noisy parties, never sublet, never bother the neighbour and are generally no trouble whatsoever to the landlord and above all, a tenant needs to be honest. Renting out property is all about trust, so an honest tenant is what a landlord should look for more than anything. It helps a landlord to sleep easier at night and I can’t emphasise how finding good tenants is so important to the overall success of your rental business. Some words of advice are if you rely on you letting agent to do the tenant referencing-take care!

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What is the number one quality of an ideal tenant?

Of course, other qualities are important, but I prize honesty above all else. Without getting into the realms of social philosophy, honesty cuts across social and financial divides.  I know landlords who have let to well presented tenants, those following respected professions,  lawyers and doctors, only to find that at the end of the tenancy the tenant has done a ‘runner’ leaving their rental property looking like a bomb has hit it.  Vetting a tenant along with the tenant reference is one of the ten steps to letting.

It’s not to say intelligence doesn’t help, or more importantly some common sense. A landlord needs to work alongside a tenant, if for instance something goes wrong with a boiler. In times of emergency it’s always beneficial if a tenant has the intelligence to describe what has happened and to act practically.  Landlords also need to be aware that from February 1st they are now required to carry out a Right To Rent Checks to ensure that the tenants are not illegal immigrants.

One of the things that there is much debate about with landlords is should they let to tenants with pets.  The advantage is that pet owning tenants will often stay much longer simply because of the difficulty in finding alternative rental accommodation.  However, a landlord needs to weigh this against the potential extra wear and cleaning costs at the end of a tenancy.

How does a landlord spot an honest tenant?

There used to be a school of thought amongst landlords that said,

“I can tell if a person’s honest, so paying for tenant references is just a waste of money.”

This sentiment is risky. There are some very plausible tenants who make a profession out of ‘scamming’ unsuspecting landlords.  These tenants appear polite, well turned out, well educated and with good jobs.  Unfortunately, once in a rental property, these same tenants can make a landlord’s life hell. It’s worth making a general assessment of a tenants attitude, whether they look you in the eyes, do the seem friendly and poilite, but don’t use this as your only guide. Landlord’s do not possess extra-sensory powers and nobody can see through to a persons soul, so get real and make all the possible checks.

Some landlords have used social media such as Facebook to check their tenants.

How to avoid getting ‘tenants from hell’

There are five steps that landlords can take to vet a prospective tenant.  The first three are essential.  The others landlords may wish to undertake depending on a landlord’s time and resources.  They are as follows:

Credit reference your tenant

Tenant referencing agencies are also used by letting agents.   Tenant referencing agents carry out checks on the prospective tenant’s credit worthiness and authenticate the tenant’s personal details.  These agencies normally offer various levels of service.  Landlords should at least opt for the basic package which will check the following:

  • Electoral roll to verify the tenants current and previous address
  • County Court Judgements (CCJ), bankruptcy and any court based voluntary financial arrangements to ascertain whether the tenant has any poor credit history
  • An affordability check to ensure that the tenant can afford the rent on their stated earnings
  • Validate the bank address and sort code given by status to ensure it is legitimate
  • Check the submitted details against any relevant stored data

This type of financial check on tenants is available online for between £12-25 and once the enquiry form is submitted by  a landlord, the results of the credit check can be e-mailed back immediately.

The most important information to come out of these credit checks is whether the prospective tenant has a County Court Judgement (CCJ).  If they have a County Court Judgement (CCJ) it is bad news as it means that in the past a creditor has had to take the tenant to court because of non payment of debts.  Often landlords will find that individuals are serial debtors and have a number of County Court Judgements (CCJ)’s against them.  The general rule for landlords is ‘don’t touch these tenants with a barge pole’ as 99% of them will be ‘bad news’. The other essential outcome from this is that it should verify the address of the tenant.  This should help a landlord to confirm the tenants’ details and any story the tenant has volunteered, giving the landlord a chance to assess the tenants’ honesty.

Often the reference agency will provide a score of the tenants’ suitability for landlords.  This score comes with a suggested course of action for a landlord.  For instance anything above a score of 1000 would suggest that the tenants are a low risk to a landlord.  Between 1000-750 the tenant may represent a moderate risk of default.  Below 750 might be associated with a warning about the suitability of the tenant and advising the landlord strongly not to let to the prospective tenant.  Reasons why a prospective tenant generates a low score are the tenant has:

  • never borrowed money or used a credit card
  • no fixed address and/or not listed on the electoral role
  • lived at current address less than 6 months lived abroad and then returned
  • worked for less than 6 months
  • been or is a student or somebody with a job with low earnings
  • a history of debts, late payments or Count Court Judgements (CCJs)

These credit referencing scores and reports are useful supplementary guidance but I would caution landlords about interpreting them too literally.  There are some categories of tenant where this system is inappropriate.  For instance student tenants will score very badly because these tenants have a limited credit history and/or they move address frequently.  In these cases where it is hard to verify the credit background of the landlords’ prospective tenant or they have a low score, landlords could consider using a guarantor if they are still keen to take the tenant on.  Don’t use tenant referencing in isolation; instead landlords should consider it with other sources of information to help them to build up a picture of their prospective tenants risk profile.

Finally, the tenant verification process should involve an identification (ID) check. identification (ID)  fraud is becoming an increasing problem for landlords.  Landlords should therefore verify that their prospective tenants are who they say they are.  Landlords should get the tenant to show some identification (ID) with a photo such as a passport or European style driving licence so that the landlord can see the tenants’ name and an identifying picture.

Get a employers reference from  a tenant

This should simply confirm to landlords the employment status of the tenant.  Is the tenant employed where they say they are?  Importantly is the prospective tenant on a full time contract or is their temporary contract just about to finish? Therefore casting doubt on the tenants’ ability to pay the rent in the future.  It should also give the landlord their salary details; which is useful in assessing the tenant’s ability to pay.

Landlords can calculate the tenants’ affordability of the rent in respect to their income by multiplying the monthly rent by 30.  This gives landlords an indication of the minimum salary that would typically support this level of rent.  For example, a monthly rent of £1000 multiplied by 30 equals £30,000.  If the prospective tenants’ salary is £20,000, then the landlord should start to question how the tenant is going to afford the rent without sub-letting or receiving benefits.  Whilst the outcome of this shouldn’t be taken as ‘gospel’, again it gives a useful guide to landlords.

Get a tenant’s bank references

A tenants’s bank references are likely to be the most difficult and time consuming to obtain by landlords.  In order to get one, the landlord will first need written authorisation from their prospective tenant to allow the bank to respond.  The bank will then charge the landlord a fee for their services; which at best is likely to be very vague. The bank will probably respond with non-committal wording such as “we see no reason why the tenant will not be able the meet the rent”.  This is hardly a thumping endorsement and probably means the tenant has no money in their account.  The proviso being that if the bank gives the prospective tenant a huge overdraft; in theory the tenant could pay rent for a few months. Given all the effort and time involved and that the enquiry is only about a prospective tenant, my advice to landlords would be, don’t bother.

My top tenant referencing tip

Instead of chasing after a tenant’s bank references, a much better solution is for a landlord to simply get their prospective tenant to let them have their last 6 months bank statements.  Sounds intrusive – well not really, as the landlord you are only trying to establish that the tenant can afford to pay the rent that they say they can afford.  These bank statements provide an invaluable insight for landlords into the financial position of your prospective tenant.  Is the tenant paid what they say they are?  What are the tenants’ regular out-goings, will the tenant be able to make their rent payments.  Does the tenant have any worrying habits, such as a gambling problem, which could ultimately cause the tenant to default on their rental payments.  If the prospective tenant refuses, then maybe the tenant has something to hide. Most good tenants won’t even question it.  All this information helps landlords to build that risk profile I talked about earlier.

Get their a reference from their previous landlord

When a applicant is currently living in rented accommodation it is useful to obtain a reference from their existing landlord.  I would suggest asking the landlord:

  • How long has the applicant for the tenancy been a tenant of the current landlord?
  • What is / was the rent paid to the current landlord?
  • Was the rent paid in full and on time each month to the current landlord?
  • Were there any periods where the rent was in arrears?
  • Is the rent currently in arrears with the current landlord?
  • Has the applicant for the tenancy cared properly for the investment property and its’ contents?
  • Would the current landlord accept the applicant for the tenancy as a tenant again?

An existing landlord’s reference is one reference that can be easily falsified by the prospective tenant.  The tenant need only give a friend’s details, and a landlord could easily be reading a glowing reference sent by the tenant themselves. If a landlord is suspicious, phone the proposed landlord, a short conversation should enable you to sniff out any fishy goings on.

Another thing to be wary of any references sent by a tenant’s existing landlord are the ‘I want to get them out of my property’ reference. If the tenant is bad, then their existing landlord might be desperate to get rid of them. It might be a misleading reference will solve the problem.  Make a judgement on what is said by their existing landlord, but my advice is to only use this as a check to go alongside the other checks I’m listing .

On the same topic I would draw landlords attention to the dilemma faced by many letting agents in seeking references.  I recently had a letter requesting a reference for a tenant of mine.  The wording of this request was so vague that effectively it was all but meaningless.  A letting agent on a ‘finders fee’ is primarily concerned with getting a tenant, and therefore is not always wanting to find problems with any prospective tenant.

Finally, there are an increasing number of prospective tenants who were previously home-owners having elected to sell their property & rent.  In their situation a landlord’s reference will not be possible.  In this situation a landlord should request copies of their last 6 months mortgage statements as evidence that the prospective tenant was not behind with their mortgage payments.  If the tenant refuses, then again, maybe they are trying to hide something about their perilous financial situation.

A tenant’s personal reference

If a reference from an existing landlord is sometimes a bit tenuous or corrupted, then a personal reference provided by the tenant really isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.  An old school friend may have known them for twenty years and thinks he’s an “utterly decent chap” but really, don’t even bother with this.

Risk profile of the tenant

Ultimately, in deciding whether to take on a tenant, landlords must ask themselves the question ‘how risk adverse am I?’  This needs to be considered against the commercial requirement to get a paying tenant.  If landlords receive positive results from the first three types of check; it is reasonable to say that these tenants represent a fair risk to most landlords.  Landlords should remember to use the research results to cross check against information that about them to verify their honesty levels.  If landlords are ever tempted to go just for the ‘honest face’; research undertaken by the Residential Landlords Association shows that where no tenant checks are undertaken; landlords are 7 times as likely to end up taking court proceedings. In short – landlords should make sure they do it.

Landlords using a tenant guarantor

Sometimes, the tenant vetting process throws up results that are less than conclusive to a prospective landlord.  Does the tenant struggle on the affordability test?  In which case; if a landlord likes the look of the tenant then they could always consider using a guarantor.  A tenant guarantor is simply an individual, often a close relative that undertakes to assume the financial liabilities of the tenant including  the event that the tenant stops paying rent.  Where a guarantor enters into a tenancy agreement he or she normally agrees to meet the full obligations under the tenancy agreement on the tenant’s behalf. This may include rent arrears, damage to the property, or other liabilities and obligations to a landlord arising from the tenant’s failure to comply with the lease covenants. The guarantor is contractually bound to accept these legal liabilities of the tenant and will be sued if they don’t comply.  The guarantor would usually need to be a home-owner with steady long-term employment if they are to satisfy the requirements of a good credit score to become a guarantor.  It is possible to download a set of tenancy gaurantor forms from the website.

The use of a guarantor is particularly common for:

  • Student tenants
  • Tenants on low pay
  • Tenants with a chequered employment history

Once the tenant has found an individual who is prepared to act in this way; the prospective guarantor should be then subject to the same credit check that the tenant undertook.  Assuming that they ‘check out’, then landlords should try to meet the guarantor in person early on in the process to explain exactly what is entailed. Once a prospective guarantor understands the process, and they are still prepared to proceed, then the landlord will need to get them to sign a Deed of Agreement. It is worth pointing out to the prospective guarantor that it has to be a Deed to be enforceable under contract law. It’s always a good idea for a landlord to get the Guarantor to sign a copy of the tenancy agreement to prove that they were aware of what they were signing up to.

I also prefer the guarantor to be a homeowner.  This has several advantages.  Firstly, especially if a prospective tenant guarantor has lived there some time then the chances are that even if the tenant ‘does a bunk’, they won’t, and you will be able to contact them.  Secondly, the fact that the guarantor is a homeowner means that it is likely that they have some  financial collateral, therefore if the landlord does take action to reclaim their money they have assets which the landlord can claim against.

Landlords can check that the guarantor owns their own property by doing a search on the Website at the Land Registry .  The search costs £2 to execute.

It’s worth reiterating the point that in a situation where the tenant has limited financial resources, the evidence points to the fact that landlords have a much higher chance of reclaiming any debts from the guarantor than from the tenant.

The ideal tenant guarantor

A letting agent friend told me about the ideal guarantor.  His name is ‘Big Mike’.  He is 6ft 5’, tattoos and a body builder.  Nobody messes with ‘Big Mike’.  On the face of it as a landlord your initial thoughts are that you don’t want any dealings with this guy as a prospective guarantor.  However, ‘Big Mike’ is actually the landlord’s best friend and this is why.  For instance the tenant stops paying rent.  The landlord sends the tenant a letter with a copy to ‘Big Mike’.  Still no rent, so the landlord reluctantly goes to ‘Big Mike’ for the money as guarantor.  Now ‘Big Mike’ isn’t happy that he is suddenly in a situation where he as the guarantor has to cough up the rent for the tenant.  If you as a landlord started calling on the tenant, even sending a fax to their work place this would constitute a legally actionable case of harassment.  However, ‘Big Mike’ as the guarantor is unconstrained by such flimsy bits of legislation is able to exert the appropriate level of ‘encouragement’.  Low and behold the tenant suddenly finds the ‘readies’ and the tenancy is back on track.

Despite all these potential horror stories, landlords should remember most prospective tenants are perfectly decent law-abiding people. The majority will occupy a property, pay the rent and leave the place at the end of the tenancy, much as they found it.  It’s a landlord’s job to filter out the small minority of ‘scammers’ and ‘bad eggs’. Send those along to a landlord who is less prepared and less organised than you.

More stuff on vetting and referencing your tenant:

Vetting tenants more advice for landlords

Preparing a property inventory



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