As a landlord, should you provide tenants references for your past tenants?
At one time or another, it’s the one call that every property manager in the East Bay receives – and makes. Sometimes with a little, or a lot of, dread.
This is the reference call. It’s a chance to check out prospective tenants from the businesses that know them best: their previous landlords. But giving and getting references is a tricky undertaking, and not just for property managers.
Most rental agreements include a section where prospective tenants list references. That can include their employers, friends, as well as previous landlords. And typically, there is a waiver allowing the property manager to call these references.
But it does get tricky. Here’s some guidance:
Let’s start with the facts first and then get into that tricky stuff.
Here is what’s stated on the standard rental application from the Apartment Owners Association of California Apartment: “Applicant represents that all information given on this application is true and correct. Applicant hereby authorizes verification of all references and facts, including but not limited to current and previous landlords …”
So, property managers can make the call. But what about getting the call? What should you say when a rental agent in Oakland calls you and asks about a tenant who lived in your Alameda apartment 18 months ago?
It’s useful, we think necessary, to think about the difference between tenant references and employment references. Many employers no longer give references instead just opting to confirm that someone did work for them during a certain time period. The reason: fear of being sued if they somehow say the wrong thing. (Honesty isn’t always appreciated.) But work is often subjective, making good or bad performance more open to interpretation.
Make Your Records Great
Tenancy is more black and white – so keep it that way.
So stick to the facts. And make sure you can document what you say. That’s why keeping good records – or having a trusted partner do it – is so important. If the tenants paid their rent on time every month, your records should say that. If they trashed the unit and forfeited the deposit, this is a good reminder of the need to take pictures and log them accordingly.
Giving a false bad reference – or one that isn’t backed up properly – opens the gate for a potential lawsuit based on slander. Cases are few, but they happen. Don’t think they can’t happen to you.
Similarly, giving a false good reference – in the hopes that a problem tenant becomes some other property manager’s problem – is also grounds for litigation based on misrepresentation.
Again, this litigation is rare, but why take the risk?
Legally, landlords are under no obligation to give references.
But if you think about all of the property managers in the East Bay as being part of a community, there is a shared commitment to helping each other out. An easy way to do that – to be part of the virtuous circle – is to give references when asked. Again, stick to what you know – and what is written down and can be proved if it’s called into question.
The reality is that the next day it could be you asking for a reference, and you want the same courtesy — and information — from the property manager on the other end of the phone.
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