How to Screen a Tenant: The “Cloud” of Tenants You Want to Avoid

By: Donald Shelton

While there is always more to learn, years of comparing background checks of prospects to the results we’ve had after they became tenants have taught me a few things of value to share. The entire subject of how to screen tenants is more than can be covered in a single post, so this is one of a series.

Just in case you haven’t realized it yet, in every town there is a “cloud” of deadbeat tenants floating about, waiting to find an unwary landlord to take advantage of. They’re more like a dust cloud than a rain cloud; dirt hanging in the air, just waiting to find a place to settle. This cloud of deadbeats isn’t easy to spot, because you’ll be dealing with them one at a time, and individually they are very good at appearing normal; looking like the kind of folks you’d want to rent to. The truth is, though, they move from landlord to landlord, usually every few months, victimizing each along the way. After a while, they have burned enough bridges with enough landlords that they start having a hard time finding new ones to victimize. When you are a new landlord, especially, they will find you quickly, figuring you won’t be wise to them. If you are a desperate landlord, or look desperate (free first month’s rent!), they will find you quickly, figuring your desperation will blind you to their history.

They create an illusion of rental activity that isn’t really there; because they are looking for a new place every few months, they represent a larger percentage of the potential renters at any given moment than they should. They love the free first month’s rent deals (so don’t do them!), figuring it this way; sure, they have to come up with a deposit, but they get the free month. Then, they may pay a month or two, but very shortly they are a half-month behind, offering every excuse imaginable, and offering promises of payment they are only pretending (even to themselves) will be fulfilled. One of their favorite games is to keep you constantly teased; they’ll pay you two weeks of rent every three weeks, slowly getting further and further behind. Because there is still some money coming in, it keeps you hoping (fooling yourself) that they will catch up. Before you know it, they are more than a month behind. Finally, you have had enough and file to evict – but they know the drill. They know you have to give notice a certain number of days before you can file, then there will be some time before the court date, then the court will give them more time to move out. Finally, you are left with court costs, damages (they never leave the units in ready-to-rent condition; they knew they weren’t going to be there long so why act responsible), and realize they lived in your place four or five months, but only paid for two or three. Meanwhile, they are off to the next landlord, because they used the time in your place to start looking for the next one.

There are variations on this, of course; sometimes they actually pay for a few months before bailing on you so they can claim they’re a good tenant just going through a hard time hoping you’ll give them more time, and the excuses will vary, but it’s really all the same. After being victim of a few of these, curiosity (and a desire to enforce judgments obtained against them), caused me to begin documenting the migratory patterns of deadbeat tenants. After observing dozens of them, over a period of years, there are a few things that can be discerned:

1) Deadbeats almost always don’t move far when they skip on you. Some of them insist on staying even in the same subdivision (sometimes for school district reasons). I followed one all around a neighborhood – every few months moving to another house – just by asking the mailman occasionally where she had moved to.

2) Deadbeats will vehemently declare they had to move because you wouldn’t fix anything, or there were bad neighbors (or it was a “bad” neighborhood). They make this up as a cover, to convince the next landlord/victim, but also they do it to a point where they convince themselves that such a lie is the truth in order to feel better about themselves and what they are doing. This extreme rationalization can seem bizarre to the outside observer, but once internalized, the deadbeat will defend it to the end. Often the deadbeat will set you up for this by making a false maintenance claim before they skip. We had one couple keep claiming problems with the electrical system; we tested and tested and there was nothing wrong. Their complaints were vague, and could never be demonstrated when we were there. Then they skipped and their defense in court was, of course, the landlord wouldn’t fix anything. And they believed it, fiercely. Even stranger, one deadbeat called us and said his refrigerator was keeping things too cold. We told him to try turning it down and to call us if that didn’t work (trying not to laugh out loud). A few days later he skipped out; first thing we did was open the refrigerator and saw that it was turned all the way to the coldest setting. His defense in court – landlord wouldn’t fix the refrigerator.

3) Deadbeats get smarter. They learn to have their mail forwarded to post office boxes or not at all. They learn to get utilities turned on in someone else’s name. They learn to get leases in someone else’s name. They have to get smarter to keep dodging their old landlords while fooling new ones.

4) Deadbeats prefer to rent houses if they can; houses tend to be owned by smaller, more trusting landlords. And, the landlord isn’t as likely to be checking on them in a house. They will change the locks (almost always) so the landlord can’t get in to inspect. The landlord is less likely to realize they have unauthorized occupants (usually with a long history of civil and criminal cases), in a house. In addition, if they’re going to cheat anyway, why not do it to live in something nicer than an apartment.

5) Deadbeats, despite getting smarter at cheating as they go along, are in a downward spiral. Some we have managed to follow for years and the pattern is usually the same; they rent houses, jumping from house to house until they can no longer afford it, then they start jumping to apartment complexes desperate to meet vacancy rate goals. The final two phases are they start writing bad checks or similar forged instruments, and they start going underground – tricking people into fronting for them on leases (by this point they have become experienced con artists). Eventually most of them do some jail time for the bad checks or drugs. At some point they will skip town because things have just gotten too hot for them, but usually they only skip to the next town or county, even when it has reached the point there are warrants out for them. This is a process that can take several years, but we have seen it repeatedly.

So how do you spot these deadbeats? One way is to check the eviction record (something that doesn’t show up in criminal background checks and credit scores). See How to Screen a Tenant: the one credit check for renters you must do.


Category: Property Management, Tenant Screening

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