The landlord game

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The latest applicant for a lease – let’s call him Mr. X – insisted I would not regret renting to him and his wife.

I very much wanted to rent to someone. The four-bedroom, two-bathroom mid-century modern he had just toured is the most expensive of the three houses I own. It had been vacant for two months, putting a considerable dent in my income.

Job loss, bankruptcies, piles of debt and the Great Recession created millions of foreclosed houses to be snapped up and potential tenants to fill them. Sounds like a slam dunk, right?

By the time Mr. and Mrs. X came along, a handful of people had filled out the seven-page application for a lease and agreed to let me run background checks on them. They included:

-A couple with six children who had racked up three evictions in 10 years and whose current landlord, asked if he’d rent to them again, said “Hell no;”

-A man whose application listed one year in prison for a drug offense that actually was two-and-a-half years for aggravated assault and being a felon in possession of a weapon, along with the drug charge;

-A guy who arrived in a Porsche and made lots of money, but had refused to pay a doctor’s bill until ordered to by a court;

-A couple with $125,000 in school and car loans and a history of uncollected debts who gave me a disconnected phone number for their current landlord;

-A couple who casually mentioned that occasionally, on weekends when they would be out of town, they would allow bridal parties of six to eight women use the house.

Other applicants had jobs that paid so little they would spend half of their monthly incomes on rent and utilities.

It’s hard asking people to bare their histories and submit to scrutiny, especially when the resulting judgment is, “not good enough.” They might be especially galled if they knew that not even I, the house’s owner, would qualify to rent it.

My income, cobbled together from rents and earnings as a pet sitter, isn’t high enough and fluctuates. The job market ejected me years ago. The lump sum of cash (from selling a life insurance policy I owned) that enabled me to buy foreclosed houses and fix them up was gone. I have no pension, no spouse and very little savings.

So I have to be picky about who I trust with the literal keys to my current and future financial security.

That didn’t prevent me from taking on tenants who had been in prison for stealing cars or who had declared bankruptcy. But they told me about these events upfront. There were no unpleasant surprises in their background reports. The former car thief had matured and reformed. The job loss and cancer that caused the other tenant’s bankruptcy had not been avoidable. They had good jobs and enthusiastic references from their landlords. I approved their applications.

Mr. X and his wife claimed a yearly income of $300,000 from her pension  and his business in Africa, but provided not a single document to verify this. No bank statement, list of pension benefits or tax return.

As it happened, Mr. X. was Nigerian. I tried not to think about the emails in which Nigerian strangers had assured me they were rich enough to pay me back for the little bit of financial help they needed immediately due to the unfortunate predicament they found themselves in through no fault of their own. Then I reviewed Mr. X’s background report. It revealed prison time for having failed to declare $1 million in income.

Several weeks after I turned down their application for a lease, Mr. X emailed me. Not to worry, they’d found a place, and if he’d been in my shoes, he wouldn’t have approved his application, either.

 

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