I was fortunate to have the best tenants on the planet for a while. I loved them. (Still do.) But as time went on their family grew and with the birth of their third child it became clear they would be leaving. I was pretty aggressive in trying to find creative ways to keep them around. They were already paying substantially below the market rate and I had made multiple improvements and upgrades to the property with their cooperation.
But we reached a point where I knew they had already checked out emotionally and I had to let them go. They were actively preparing to relocate to their hometown 3,000 miles away. I needed them to understand that they were welcome to stay with the old agreement, but it was predicated on them remaining for the long haul. They confirmed that they would be moving on. After that I gave them three months notice that the rent would increase by ten percent – still well below market. That was the push they needed to make a firm decision and they left the day the rent would have increased. We’re still in touch. I miss them.
Whenever old tenants leave I take the opportunity to do a fresh round of improvements. The garage door was ancient and needed to be replaced. The new door is an extra thick steel unit that’s well insulated and properly sealed from the weather.
The kitchen cabinets got an upgrade. I went over the numbers and realized that if I wanted to keep the project within a cash budget I was going to have to make some trade-offs. I could replace all the old stuff with inexpensive lower quality items, or I could replace some things with better quality units and wait to upgrade others in the future. I went with quality. There’s a huge difference between particleboard and melamine cabinets vs. solid wood. I chose solid maple with a factory finish in white. Fashions come and go. Durability outlasts any trend. The all white kitchen is a bit dull, but the new occupants can add their personal touches with curtains, art, table linens, and so on.
The vintage stove had character and I had a fondness for it. But it was old enough that it might devolve and pose a health and safety hazard in the future. That concerned me as a landlord. It also had multiple pilot lights that burned 24/7 and gave off heat and steady fumes. After I super insulated the house and replaced all the windows that little bit of gas built up in a noticeable way that worried me. The next door neighbors were renovating a family cottage and adopted the old stove. Ironically I bought the house from them so it was actually their grandma’s old stove. The new unit is a high quality stove that’s identical to the one I installed in my own home. It wasn’t cheap.
As I was renovating the house I was also searching for new tenants. This is a tricky business riddled with “unknown unknowns.” If a landlord selects the wrong people there’s a potential train wreck of unpaid rent, damaged property, hard feelings from the neighbors, and legal action. So I took my time and let things play out over a few months. I invited everyone I knew to enjoy the house while it was vacant hoping they, or perhaps people they knew, might be interested in living there. I spoke with all the neighbors and asked them to spread the word. There were dinners and lunches and long talks with all sorts of folks. Christmas came and went. But nothing solid appeared.
Reluctantly, I placed an ad on Craigslist and braced myself for the onslaught of strangers. There are laws about what a landlord can and can’t do in the way of screening potential tenants and I’m scrupulous about not violating any of them. But landlords absolutely must filter out people who are fundamentally unqualified. So I have a standard set of questions.
- Can you provide documents to prove your income for the last 24 months?
- Will you agree to a credit and background check?
- Do you have references from past landlords?
It’s best to rent to the very first applicant who qualifies so there’s no illegal cherry picking. I’ve learned over the years that merely asking for these things induces many people to voluntarily opt out.
There was an exceptionally beautiful woman (tall, slender, high cheekbones, impeccable clothes) who came to look at the place. She was obviously underwhelmed by the property. It was too low brow for her tastes. But it’s a tight market with limited availability. I know the type. She was never going to be happy with the house and would have endless needs I was never going to be able to fulfill. I asked her the three questions. She waved her hand dismissively. “My soon-to-be ex husband is paying. Money’s not a problem.” So I walked her through the situation. If her ex is paying I’ll need to see his documentation… She raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow, ignored the comment, poked around a little, and left. She self-selected out.
There were three young guys who pulled up in a pimped out Mercedes. The door opened and a plume of purple smoke escaped. They were very excited about the large half acre garden and garage workshop. I asked them the three questions. They offered to pay in cash – a whole year in advance. I politely declined and asked for official documentation and regular rent checks instead. They self-selected out.
Perhaps the most intriguing couple to inquire about the property had many pets, each with official papers describing their medical necessity. There was the low insulin detection dog, the emotional support pig, and so on. I actually kinda liked them in spite of their peculiarities, but they dragged their feet when I asked the three questions. They self-selected out.
This process went on for weeks as dozens of people passed through. A handful of folks did present some paperwork, but the numbers didn’t add up. I actually sat down with a few applicants and asked them to do a budget. What’s your car payment? Truck payment? Vehicle insurance? Student loan(s)? Credit card payments? Child support from a previous relationship? I could see how they never actually did the math on what they could or couldn’t afford. I didn’t have to reject them. They saw for themselves how this would end in tears.
As I was beginning to despair the perfect couple boomeranged back. We had talked casually a month earlier, but I never heard back from them. They had been recommended by a neighbor and I had liked them. I chatted with the neighbor again and decided to reach out one more time. They submitted their documents and lo and behold they had solid incomes in bulletproof occupations (which came in handy soon enough,) great credit, and no debt of any kind. Sold! We signed a lease and they moved in moments before the Covid-19 drama began.