If you live in a great location and the price is right, you may get a flood of inquiries shortly after your listing goes live. For most of us, inquiries come in more slowly. Fast or slow, not every inquiry you get will be from a serious applicant who would be an acceptable tenant. Some people send “boilerplate” inquiries (“Unit still available?” “We’re very interested in your beautiful home”) without really reading the listing. Listings on classified ad sites such as Craigslist are also a prime target for scammers.
Read every inquiry carefully. NEVER send your personal details (full name, address, phone number) until you feel confident that the inquiry is serious and legitimate. Once you feel that confidence, try to set up a phone or Skype conversation with the prospective tenant “so I can answer your questions and make sure that our place will be right for you.” Take your time: Even if your flight is in a couple of days and you’re anxious to find a tenant, do your due diligence. You’ll be glad you did.
By the way, refer to the original inquiry in your response. People often send out several inquiries at one time. Let them know which home is yours by including the listing number with a detail or two that refers to the home or its location: “Thanks for asking about renting our 2+ bedroom Parker Street home (listing #61110).”
Weed out the junk
We get a fair number of what we call “junk” inquiries, especially from Craigslist posts: A family of four for our 1-bedroom condo; brokers fishing for new properties to handle; and occasionally, scammers looking to make a quick buck. We drop obvious spam (“Hello, my name is Bernard…”) into our junk mail folder and, if it’s appropriate, notify the web site manager. As long as nothing else about the inquiry seems odd, we send a brief, polite “thanks but no thanks” to the others.
Set up a Conversation
If an inquiry seems serious and the tenant seems suitable, respond in a way that encourages a person-to-person conversation by phone or Skype. The back-and-forth of asking and answering questions helps people decide whether your place is right for them and lets you pick up clues that can increase your confidence or indicate possible trouble ahead.
We ask for phone numbers in our listings, “So we can call to answer your questions and tell your more about our home.” Not everyone is comfortable sending a phone number right away, however, and commission-based sites such as Airbnb will not allow you to exchange phone numbers until a booking is made, so you may need to conduct the initial “conversations” by email. Most commission-based sites give you a day or two after booking to change your mind.
Tips for a Helpful Person-to-Person Conversation
Do a little planning. Think about what you know from the initial email exchange(s) and jot down your questions: “Will it just be you and your husband/wife/friend?” “How old are your children?” “Where do you live now?” “What brings you to…?”
Listen, listen, and listen some more. You can learn a lot from the questions people ask and the way they answer (or don’t answer) your questions. Careful listening helps you spot inconsistencies and information gaps. It also helps you understand what the person really wants to know. “How far is it from your place to the beach?” may mean, “How long does it take to get from your place to the beach?” “Is the area lively?” could mean, “Is it noisy?” or “Are there cafes, bars, and restaurants nearby?”
Leave a little silence. It’s amazing how much more information people offer when you leave space in the conversation. Instead of jumping right in when the other party stops talking, leave 5-10 seconds before you respond. If that feels uncomfortable, use neutral words and sounds (“uh-uh” “I see”) to encourage the person to keep talking. You might be surprised by the information they volunteer, such as the fact that their 17-year-old niece and a few of her friends will be coming to stay while they’re renting your home.
Encourage questions. Say, “I’m sure you have some questions for us” or “What would you like to know about our home?” People commonly want to confirm the amount of the rent (which they may conveniently have forgotten) and when it needs to be paid; what the rent does and does not include; the amount of the security deposit; and whether there are other charges, such as a cleaning fee. They may ask about the layout of the house, the number of stairs, the size of the TV, wireless internet access, where they can park their car, how far it is to shopping, and more – whatever they want to know before making a commitment.
Clarify important information. Make sure prospective tenants clearly understand the rental dates and maximum number of people, that this is a short-term rental for a specific, limited period of time, and other important details.
Offer helpful information. Once you know a little about the people and why they’re coming to your area, mention a few things that might “sell” them on the home: the great park two blocks away, proximity to the wedding or conference they plan to attend, the peace and quiet that’s perfect for working on their novel.
Offer to show the home. The only thing more useful than a phone or Skype conversation is an in-person meeting. That’s only possible if people already live in or are visiting the area. Otherwise, offer to show the home to a friend or relative who knows what they are looking for. You can learn a lot about people by the company they keep.
Agree on what happens next. The prospective tenant might want time to think before making a decision or may be ready to sign on the dotted line. You might feel confident that they will be good tenants or you may need to find a polite way to discourage them. Often, you or they will need more information before making a commitment. Before ending the conversation, confirm who will do what, and when.
Tips for a helpful email conversation
If you can communicate with a prospective tenant only by email, think of the email exchange as a conversation. Answer questions accurately and ask for the information you need before accepting the person as a tenant.
Watch the tone. Email can come across as rude, abrupt, or even demanding. Keep your messages polite and friendly. Write in complete sentences, and use “tone” words such as “please,” and “thank you,” and “we would appreciate.” NEVER USE ALL CAPS, which, as you can see, comes across as shouting.
Answer questions clearly, accurately, and concisely. People ask about things that are important to them, so try to answer their questions fully. “Yes, the rent includes hi-speed wireless Internet, and we have a full-size washer and dryer.” “We are a 20-30 minute drive from the university, depending on the time of day.”
Clarify misunderstandings and confirm key details. “Just to clarify: The earliest you would be able to move in would be late in the afternoon on August 31, and you would have to leave by 10 a.m. on September 30.” “We are not right in the city center, but there’s an express bus that runs every 15 minutes.” “The security deposit is fully refundable if there is no damage.”
Offer information about the home and area. Once you have a sense of what people are looking for, mention a few things that might “sell” them on your home: easy freeway access, a supermarket right down the street, summer camps nearby.
Agree on what happens next. The prospective tenant might want time to think before making a decision or may be ready to sign on the dotted line. You might feel confident that they will be good tenants or you may need to find a polite way to discourage them. Often, you or they will need more information before making a commitment. Agree on who will do what, and when.
Keep it legal!The law says you must treat all applicants equally. That means you may not ask about, consider, or base a decision to accept tenants on a person’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, or disability. In many places, it is illegal to reject people with children. Also, you cannot ask whether a person has been arrested, and in some places, you cannot reject tenants because they have been convicted of a crime.
Questions not to ask include:
“What church do you attend / What religion are you?”
“Where were you (or your parents) born / Where are you (or your parents) from?”
“Are you Hispanic (black, Chinese, Japanese, Indian….)?”
“What language did you speak when you were a kid?”
“Do you have any disabilities (health problems, addictions…)?”
“Are you gay?”
“Have you ever been arrested?”
Rental experts emphasize the importance of carefully screening tenants, no matter how friendly and responsible they seem. When people will be staying in your own home, you want to feel confident not only that they will pay the rent, but that they will take care of your property, maintain a good relationship with your neighbors, and leave when the rental period is up.
If the prospective tenants want to rent your place and you think they’d be fine, do some research to confirm your initial impressions. Here’s what we generally do.
Ask for details. We don’t run credit checks because tenants pay us in advance. Instead, we look for confirmation that that they are who they say they are and will take good care of our home. We rely on a check of their current address and place of employment, copies of driver’s licenses or passports, at least two or three references – and on our gut instincts, which have proven to be quite valid.
Check references. Even though no one is going to give you a “reference” who has negative things to say, checking references, especially those of current or former landlords, can be very helpful. Try to talk with references by phone, and listen carefully – the tone of voice or awkward pauses may indicate that someone isn’t saying everything they’re thinking. Leave moments of silence. References sometimes fill empty space with valuable tidbits, such as the fact that the tenants had a tendency to complain a lot.
Do a web search. See what you can find on the Internet and on social networking sites to confirm – or contradict – what people have told you. If the applicants have used your rental site before, see whether their names pop up in the comments section. Web sites frequently make mistakes, so query the applicant about serious discrepancies or anything that seems troublesome.
Watch for Red Flags
As you screen the prospective tenants, keep your antennae tuned for the following:
Reluctance to provide personal information. You might assume that if people won’t give you certain information, they have something to hide. That might or might not be true. Find out why. Maybe they don’t want you to contact a landlord because there’s an unresolved problem that wasn’t their fault. But make it a policy to turn down applicants who refuse to provide key information that relates to their ability to be a suitable tenant.
Nitpicking. A certain attention to detail is important for any transaction to work. But beware of people who keep questioning the amount of rent, the rental terms, the furnishings, or the amenities. They are unlikely to be satisfied, no matter what changes you offer. Find a polite way to turn them down.
Unwillingness to pay a deposit and the rent before arrival. It is common practice for short-term rental owners to require a substantial security deposit – refundable if there is no damage – and for all or part of the rent to be paid ahead of time. People who don’t want to do that or who keep badgering you to lower the rent might be financially insecure, or they might still be playing the field, looking for a better deal.
A strong sense that the people are not trustworthy. In the end, trust your intuition: if you sense that something seems off-kilter, something probably is. Ignoring that red flag can lead to a hot of headaches, and worse. Probe gently for more information, and if the feeling persists, find a good reason to turn the person down. Remain polite and base your rejection on objective criteria.
What’s Next: Drawing up exchange and rental agreements