THE APPLICATION PROCESS
The application process is arguably one of the most important parts of the landlord/tenant relationship. It is here that you are investigating your prospective resident for approval. The information you glean from this process will be the main factor in your making the determination to rent a significantly valuable asset to a perfect stranger for a period of at least a year in most instances, and the application will have ramifications after the applicant is approved and moved into the unit. We see so many mistakes made in the process, and these mistakes usually manifest themselves into problems later on in the tenancy after it is too late. Once the application is approved and the lease is executed by all parties, the real problems begin. This back to basics article will examine some of the techniques, tips and trick used by successful property managers to properly navigate the application process waters.
Providing the Applicant With a Sample Lease
To avoid any misunderstanding or to forestall a claim by approved applicants that they have changed their minds because they did not agree with the lease terms, we recommend all applicants are provided with a sample of the lease early in the application process, and an information sheet detailing all the charges that will be due and payable in the event of approval. This information sheet should leave nothing out. All charges, deposits, and fees should be clearly listed. In order to hold or bind an approved applicant to signing a lease, the least you must do is make sure they know and understand exactly what they are getting into. The sample lease does not have to be the actual lease they will sign, but a sample that represents the lease all your residents sign. The monetary terms can be on the information sheet.
The Application Form
There are literally thousands of different applications in use in Florida. Each company it seems has created its own preferred application to suit its needs, and often we see problems in the application form itself. If your application form is defective or insufficient in some way, it needs to be fixed. This takes examining your form carefully and seeing if it suits your needs and achieves your desired goals.
The Application Form Layout: The application should be easy to fill out. Too many fill-in-the-blank forms are created where it is nearly impossible to properly fill out each section legibly. Not only is such an application hard to read, but this opens the door up for an applicant to conveniently leave something out or intentionally make something so hard to read that you cannot adequately and accurately process the application. This is often no mistake on the part of an applicant who has a problem in his past or current rental history. Take your own application and pretend you are the applicant, and fill out each and every section. Was it easy? Hard? How was your handwriting? You will probably find parts of the application that need to be made larger or longer so it is easy to fill out completely and read. We are all getting older, so larger spaces never hurt.
All adults fill out and sign their own application: We strongly recommend that each adult who will be residing in your unit fills out his or her own application and pays the required fee. Since we always recommend that all adult occupants are lease signers, with some limited exceptions, this means both John and Mary complete individual applications, regardless of the fact that they may be married. Using one application is a lazy shortcut and can result in a messy, confusing application. While it is legal in most places in Florida to charge two single people each a certain fee for processing the application and a married couple less, we recommend you avoid this and charge each person the same to process the application regardless for marriage status. If you were in a municipality that decided to make single status a protected class, charging a lesser amount to a married couple would constitute discrimination against single persons.
Confirm who is filling out the Application: Here is the picture. The applicant comes in, sits down in your comfortable chair, and you give her a clipboard and the application. She carefully and neatly provides his name, Social Security number, driver’s license number, present address, and former address information, and all the other questions are answered and spaces neatly filled out. You send the application off to your screening company, and within minutes you have an approval. The applicant passes with flying colors. A few days later she fills out and executes a lease and moves in. Three months later, you receive a call from someone who stated that his identity was stolen, and coincidentally the person who stole it is your resident who you approved. What happened here? You probably failed to look at the identification and just looked at the application. Maybe the applicant told you she couldn’t find his driver’s license that day or brought the wrong pocket book or wallet, so you let your guard down. Oh YOU would never let this happen. Yes you would! It happens all the time, and we see it.
Is everything filled out?
We are amazed to see how many approved applications are not completely filled out, with questions not answered and spaces left blank. This absolute sloppiness on the part of the property manager allows an applicant who would have otherwise been denied to slip through the cracks. If an applicant were to fail to answer a simple “yes or no question”, did he lie on their application? Probably not. Suppose that question pertained to a criminal background; the applicant was approved and moved in. You later find out that your screening company missed a serious felony, and now you want the person removed from the property. Can he be removed because he lied on their application? No, because he really did not lie. He just conveniently forgot to answer a question, and you failed to catch it.
Asking the right questions on the Application
The Eviction Question: Almost every application asks the following question: “Have you ever been evicted?” The applicant usually answers “no”, and many screening companies will not catch this anyway, especially if the eviction has been recently filed. So the applicant is approved and moves in. You then get a call from a neighboring property or an “anonymous” call informing you that your resident was evicted from their property. You decide to check out the public records, and sure enough, you find 3 evictions filed on the person. The key word here is “filed”. Most people who have evictions filed against them move out before actually getting formally “evicted”. Does this constitute a lie on the application? Possibly not. You see, your question is wrong. Ask the following question instead: “Have you ever had an eviction filed against you, or have you ever been asked to leave by a current or former manager?” As you can see, this question encompasses far more scenarios.
The Criminal Background Question: The other most common question that is often framed incorrectly pertains to the applicant’s criminal background. The question usually is as follows: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” The applicant answers “no” and is approved through your screening process, and 2 months later you find out that your resident was arrested 3 times for trafficking cocaine, a felony, but each time “adjudication was withheld”. What does this mean? Did he commit the crime? Of course. Do you want this person living on your property? No, but did he lie? No. The problem here is that your question only asks about “convictions”. Many people are arrested, and for whatever reason, be it good lawyers, first time offenses, cooperating with police or some “deal”, they receive “adjudication withheld”, “adjudication deferred” or “nolle process”. This happens all the time. In an overburdened legal system many people who are arrested are placed into diversion programs or probation type programs rather than jail, even for serious felonies. You must rephrase your application question to something closer to: “Have you or any occupants ever been convicted of a felony or had adjudication withheld or deferred for a felony offense?” As you can see, this question will pertain to far more of your applicants and you can then question them further and make a decision based upon your criteria. Remember, your criteria is just as important as your application form and must work for your needs as well.
The Bankruptcy Question: Renting to a person who has filed bankruptcy in the past is certainly legal and not necessarily dangerous. While a person who has filed bankruptcy in the past may file again, if the bankruptcy was fully discharged, the chances are relatively low. A person who has had all their debts discharged in bankruptcy may actually be a lower risk, since if the bankruptcy was recent, that person most likely has little debt. The question though should be asked nonetheless. If your screening reveals a pattern of bankruptcy filing and dismissals, this may indicate the applicant has used bankruptcy filing and dismissal as a way to stall an eviction, foreclosure or other collection activity. It is important to see if the bankruptcy was dismissed or discharged. Dismissal means that for some reason the bankruptcy was stopped or not pursued any further, while discharge means that the applicant’s listed debts in the bankruptcy petition have likely been permanently wiped out. If an applicant is currently in an open bankruptcy case, we strongly recommend that you do not approve the application, as you may be pulled into the bankruptcy through a conversion or dismissal and subsequent refiling.
Checking Past and Current Managers
Often you are unable to find any credit problems possibly due to an applicant’s lack of credit history, or possibly he has good credit but has current or past problems with managers. There seems to be a growing and troubling trend for property managers to want only to look at a credit report or screening report, and not delve into the applicant’s rental history by calling present or prior managers. The idea that someone with poor credit will make for a poor resident is a complete fallacy. Many residents have horrendous credit histories but make exemplary residents. Some applicants with good credit may be nightmarish residents in other regards. What is more important in our opinion is the information that you get from the current or past manager. The problem is that some managers, either by company policy or for fear of getting in some sort of trouble with privacy issues, are reluctant to tell the truth to you or to give any information out whatsoever. Many property managers (hopefully none reading this article) have given a glowing recommendation to an inquiring manager only to hasten the resident’s departure from their own rental or apartment community. Another classic move is for the applicant to make the phone number of their current or past manager difficult to read so you try to call, but then give up as the number is wrong. This then slips through the cracks and you end up forgoing a proper check of the current or prior manager.
A classic trick by an applicant who is having a problem with her current manager is to provide a phone number on the application that is not that of her real manager, but to a friend or even herself. You then call the number and identify yourself as a property manager with XYZ Property Management Company. The fake manager is ready for the call and proceeds to say wonderful things about your applicant. This trick is played on property managers all the time. If the applicant gives a private property owner as her current manager, take the time to check the public records and see who in fact owns the place where the applicant is living. Really confirm to whom you are talking, even if it means calling the number given on the application from someone else’s cell phone and asking innocuous questions, such as, “Do you have any rentals available?”, or “Do you accept pets?” If the call is placed to a fake manager, you will fake them out and trick them at his or her own game, as the response will most likely be, “Rentals? We have no rentals, you have the wrong number.” Property managers who fail to verify current or prior managers are sure to have problems.
The “foreclosure story” is extremely common right now. The applicants either tell you that the owner of the home where they were living was foreclosed upon, and they had to move, or the applicants actually owned a home which was foreclosed upon. In both cases, you then really will have a tough time verifying their rental history, or you will believe them that they were former homeowners. It is amazing how the “foreclosure story” is easily sold to a property manager. For some reason, property managers feel sympathetic or sorry for applicants when they hear the “foreclosure story”. Use the public records to your advantage, and dig around. If you can’t figure out how to do it, ask your attorney, because your attorney will know how to do it. Again, don’t let your guard down.
Taking a Good Faith or Holding Deposit
Most applications provide for some sort of good faith or holding deposit to be paid by the applicant, such deposit to be refunded if the applicant is not approved or to be applied to the security deposit if approved. Many applicants simply change their minds and want their money back. Whether or not you should return the money is the stuff of an entirely different article, but ALWAYS make sure that if you return the deposit money to the applicant, whether their payment was by check or money order, that the payment has in fact cleared the bank. Many people do not realize that a stop payment order can be placed on money orders, similar to a check and applicants who are told they will forfeit money will often quickly stop payment on a check or even a money order. In the meantime, you may have a change of heart and end up sending them a check which they take and cash, only for you to find out the payment they gave you has been dishonored. Have we seen it? You bet.
How Long Will it Take to Approve an Applicant?
You need to set a time frame in which to approve or deny an applicant. Just as you do not want them to keep you hanging when deciding to sign a lease, you cannot keep applicants hanging too long, or they can change their minds. Applicants can change their minds at any time before they are in fact approved. Some applications even give applicants 72 hours to change their minds, and while this is not the law but simply something that is placed in an application, it is nonetheless legally binding. If you are dealing with a condo or homeowners association situation when association approval is required, you need to make this real clear to applicants that there may be delays, and set some timeframes.
Once Approved, When is the Lease Signed?
Your application and your Application Approval Letter should clearly give a deadline to the applicant as to lease signing. Whether this period is 3 days or 2 weeks, it depends on your own policy, but you do not want a situation when an applicant is approved and then continues to stall coming in to sign the lease agreement, while you are turning away prospective renters for the unit. The Application Approval Letter should clearly indicate that the applicant is approved and provide a firm deadline for lease signing. After that, it is fair game for you to rent the unit to someone else if the approved applicant has failed to execute a lease. Up until the time the approved applicant or resident takes possession, keep close track of inquiries for the unit, as you may need to be able to prove your were damaged in the event the approved applicant fails to take possession. Do not assume just because the applicant is approved and/or the lease is signed, the deal will actually happen.
The applications you are presumably holding in your office in a filing cabinet represent a virtual treasure trove of information that can be used by someone who wishes to engage in identity theft or use the information to obtain credit cards in the applicant’s name. It is absolutely crucial that you guard these applications and create a plan and procedure under which you will keep them out of the reach of any unauthorized persons, including other staff members. While we all like advertising, having your company’s name on the front page of the newspaper because 50 people had their identities stolen, or credit card fraud was committed due to applications taken out of your insecure or unlocked filing cabinet, is not effective advertising in our opinion.
Are You all Set?
Take a look at your application and your procedures and see if there is any room for improvement. Remember that this is the beginning of a long relationship, and you want to get it correct from the start. If you have a question about your application, feel free to give us a call.
- The Curable Noncompliance Examined PART 1
- THE CURABLE NONCOMPLIANCE EXAMINED PART 2
- THE WRIT OF POSSESSION – WHAT IT IS
- THE WRIT OF POSSESSION AND THE FULL UNIT
- WORK ORDER COMPANY POLICY AND THE LAW