Landlord References

An older couple came into our office today. They'd left a home they owned in Chicago, because the neighborhood was getting rough.  They wanted to be near their grandchildren, in Madison. So, they moved to Wisconsin, and rented an apartment in Madison.  But they're older, and their 2nd floor unit made it hard to get in and out.  The trouble begins when they try to find another place to live. 

Read on for tips for both tenants and landlords!

The management company wouldn't rent them the vacant ground floor unit, so they started to look elsewhere for apartments that would meet their needs. When they put in their applications to other rental units, they consistently got denied, because of references that their current landlord was giving them. The prospective landlords told them over and over, that it was because of a number of inaccurate claims that their current landlord was making, such as: traffic (only their three grandkids come visit, not even every day), propping the exterior door (a door which, due to some "repairs" that the landlord had made, couldn't even lock), among others.

Unfortunately for these tenants, there isn't much they can do. Apparently, this landlord, despite having plenty of evidence that these folks are great tenants (they pay their rent on time, every month; they're sweet and quiet), chooses not to disclose that to the places where they are applying. While tenants can always sue landlords in Civil Court for slander or libel, usually that's not an effective choice in the fast-pace rental market.  So what can they do?

Step 1. Try to work it out. There are a bunch of laws on the books, but sometimes they don't really help, and this is often one of those times. Pro Negotiation Tips are on a previous blog post.

Step 2. Write a letter to prospective landlords, to include with your application.  This is a good idea because it allows the prospective landlord to choose how to approach your current/past landlord, rather than being immediately put off by the landlord's critique of the tenants.  Likewise, if a tenant stands there and says a whole list of excuses, it sounds like they're being defensive, because they are - they're trying to defend themselves.  Tenants can be more nuanced in a letter, though. The whole idea of the letter should be to:

  • Say what the problem is. In our example, traffic and the door being propped open were the main issues. 
  • Say why that's not a concern for the prospective landlord. These tenants said that since the landlord didn't live on the premises, and since there were multiple units in the building, it was hard to know which visitors belonged to which unit. Furthermore, since they were new to the city, their only visitors were their small family.
  • Explain why you'll be a great tenant. In our example, the tenants paid their rent on time every month, with a steady income from their retirement benefits. If someone had the capacity to pay a higher security deposit, they could offer that, or try to get a co-signer if they've had a troubled past.
  • Give the landlord a way to verify your side of the story. For these tenants, I recommended work supervisors who had known them for a long time, and church pastors that they had been connected to back in Chicago. That way, if the prospective landlord needs verification, they have a way to get it from a different source.
  • Check out these sample letters!  (Please note that all letters are downloadable, and you can change them to fit your situation more exactly. All the words inside [brackets] are things that you should make sure to change. If you can't print out an individual letter each time you're applying to an apartment, then you should make it out to "To Whom It May Concern," with no landlord address).

Step 3. Apply to smaller places. You're more likely to get to talk to someone who has the capacity to make decisions about exceptions to the application criteria, where in some bigger apartment complexes, they have to run exceptions by their corporate office.


PSA to Landlords: Dear Awesome Landlords (and I know you're awesome because you've read this far in this blog post), references can be tough, right?  Some tips to make sure that you're getting all you can out of them:

  • Current Landlords Always Will Be Biased, even if they don't show it: If a landlord is really interested in getting rid of a tenant, then the easiest way for them to do that is to make it easy for that tenant to find new housing. And if a landlord has a tenant who consistently pays the rent on time, and isn't any trouble, the landlord is likely to want them to stay, right? The current landlord's goals in giving references will always be in conflict with the tenant's actual history. So, it's important to take all references with a grain of salt.
  • Find other ways to get good information about prospective tenants: Ask for work and personal references.
  • Perfection can be overrated: It can be easy to decide to take tenants that have never done anything wrong - perfect credit, perfect work history, etc. And frankly, in some rental markets in Wisconsin, that might even be an option. However. Tenants that have never had anything go wrong (lost job, illness, etc) don't give any indication about whether they value the obligations of the renter over other things. (For example: family was living on dad's income, dad lost job, they paid car payment and not rent when push came to shove) So, look carefully at someone's credit - they have lots of medical bills but nothing from a landlord? They're low income but steadily working on a payment plan? That might show that they are prioritizing their obligations as a renter over their other debts, and that's something to take seriously.