Finding Tenants Who Aren't Serial Killers
May 29, 2013 3:57 PM   Subscribe

You're an employed person in Philadelphia. You don't have a proclivity towards ripping copper pipes out of the wall. You dislike college dorm room replacements apartment complexes like this and you are looking for an apartment. Where did you look?

Mr. Kitty and I are trying to find tenants for our first foray into rental property. (Yes, we are fully aware of/in compliance with tenant laws/rental laws in our area). We are lukewarm on posting on Craigslist. We would prefer not to have to pay a Realtor fee/1st month rent to have a real estate agent list our rental property, but will if you know a great one. We are near a university - however recalling our own college days - are not quite enthusiastic about advertising through the university directly.

If you were looking for an apartment, where did you look? Are there any out of the box places we aren't thinking of?

Bonus Lightening Round Questions:

What were your deal breakers for renting an apartment?

Even though we are a "Mom & Pop" rental team - What would assure you that we are professional/legal/not flaky?

Thanks for any advice you can give.
posted by Suffocating Kitty to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I rented twice through Philadelphia Apartment Co. I think they handled showing and the lease, then passed everything off to the landlord. I mostly went through them for convenience; I could schedule showings by e-mail.

Bonus answers: Dinginess was the big deal-killer for me. Fresh paint BEFORE showing. Quick responses to e-mail are a great sign. Way too many people only deal with stuff over the phone.

Most people I know look on Craigslist. Linking to another site from there is fine, as long as the original property is available. (Many many bait-and-switch postings.) The best postings sound like they're from a "mom & pop" rental team, and have good photos, and maybe even a video walkthrough. Information on walkability/bikeability/public transportation access is a plus. And be honest with the neighborhood; just about anyone knows that 5th and Cecil B Moore isn't "Northern Liberties", for example.
posted by supercres at 4:14 PM on May 29, 2013

When I went to grad school, there was a listing service run by the university that was specifically for grad students. I'd look at the university to see if there's an option to list apartments for grad students, postdocs, and faculty. You are generally taking a much smaller risk with those groups than with undergrads.
posted by Betelgeuse at 4:15 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

put ads up in places frequented by graduate types/mature students. Like labs at the engineering/science departments. Also ask anyone you work with if they know of anyone looking for a nice apartment. Also, if you want to rent to a quality person who isn't going to trash the place, you have to maintain the place. I never minded out of date stuff like appliances and counters as long as it worked and wasn't full of grime from the previous tenant. Lots of little stuff speaks to quality, doors not sticking, cabinet fronts and drawers fitting well, sinks not dripping and so on. And the big one for me was not having trashy, loud neighbors and renting in a house meant i had good separation from the other inhabitants for coming and going.
posted by bartonlong at 4:20 PM on May 29, 2013

I just signed a lease for an apartment that was on craigslist as a building that didn't rent to undergraduate students, smokers, or pet owners. I went to see the apartment and then completed a detailed application that included my place of work, last 3 residences, and references for each. The landlord then sort-of interviewed me and talked with me for almost an hour about what I do, the hours I keep, and just my living/noise/company when I turned in the application. I think some people would have been turned off by his pickiness, but I appreciated it. He really took the time to know his residents and took the time to find quality tenants. I like knowing that the people in my building will also be nonsmokers and not crazy party noisy people.

I was a little leery of craigslist at first, but I've only had good experiences there (with the exception of obviously scammy emails that I ignore). I think craigslist is the norm now, but you can specify that you don't rent to undergrads/smokers/whoever in your ad and specify that you will require references and proof of income, and a detailed application. You should also mention in your ad that you are local landlords and are available quickly for repairs. That is something that will be a plus for a responsible tenant, and may scare away noisy serial killer-types, as they would be afraid you could check up on them. Good luck!
posted by shortyJBot at 4:32 PM on May 29, 2013

UPenn does indeed have method for grad students to find housing, but if I recall correctly, it is easily accessible by undergrads. Also: grad students aren't necessarily great tenants either.

Here is Penn's apartment listing site.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:44 PM on May 29, 2013

Nthing shortyJbot. BoyfriendFish and I are landlords, or at least we became so when we decided to combine lives under the same roof.

We first went through a rental agent, which failed miserably. People were not passing credit checks, personal references were sketch...and then we realized that the rental agent probably wasn't looking at the level of scrutiny we expected (especially since we were paying them!) So, we took matters into our own hands. Although we found our tenants on Craigslist, we interviewed them for at least an hour when they came for a tour.

We are in Boston, which is very student heavy, so we specifically said 'no students' in our ad. We asked about everything - references, pets, paint, maintenance, credit, job history, smoking, all of it, and then checked everything when it came time for paperwork and reference/credit checks. We even introduced our now current tenants to some of our trustee members. I think to go through all of that, there is no way you could be anything other than a respectful tenant who pays their rent a day early, and we have just that.

Being a landlord is a total two way street - in order to have good tenants, you need to be a good, respectful landlord. We even offered to give them some furniture and other housing goods too, which went over really well (we were going to toss it anyways, because who needs TWO pasta strainers and TWO sets of the same bar stools when the counter can only fit 2?!) We are proactive in keeping the place as if we were living there - that means regular smoke alarm testing, lighting maintenance, floor resurfacing yearly, and one offs such as fixing a gasket on the fridge before they needed to ask. Don't get me wrong, we are NOT constantly over there, but we definitely keep the place maintained. Oh, and send a welcome card and bottle of wine once they move in. They loved that too. :)

Good luck!
posted by floweredfish at 4:58 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Honestly, every apartment that I've rented in Philly or the Philly area has been through Craigslist. People do put up fliers in the grad student areas in the college where I work, and that seems to be fairly effective. If either of you has a local college/uni alum tie, you could reach out through the alumni network; I often see posts on LinkedIn/Facebook from alums with local apartments that are up for rent.

Things I have liked about ads: photos that actually show most of the actual apartment in decent light, not a series of "half bathroom floor/half door," or "kitchen sink, skewed and blurry." Transparency about utilities and projected utilities cost. Definitely mention that you are a local landlord! Honest mention about proximity to trains/buses/CVS/restaurants. Please do not add every neighborhood keyword into the ad, like GRADUATE HOSPITAL SOCIETY HILL NOLIBS QUEENS VILLAGE because I would think Oh, a perfect match! and then it would be five miles away and I would be sad.

Mom and Pop rental team: honestly given the terrible apartment I sublet in a big mostly-student complex in Philadelphia, I would take that as a plus. (Though the family business we rent from now has been nothing but neglectful, so there's that.) You might want to think about your timeframe for responding to problems and have a list of solid contractors at the ready.

Our next rental is from another family business with a very small rental building, and the application process was like shortyJBot said-- just a conversation about who we are, what we do, no smoking, no pets, what the people in the building are like, etc. I don't think we filled out an actual application, but we did tell them how long we had been with our respective previous landlords. They are awesome people and the conversation was so much fun that I'm excited to get to know them more. It's not as tough a market here as it is in certain areas of the city though, as there are far fewer undergrads (more graduate students and younger couples/roommates.)

Good luck!
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:04 PM on May 29, 2013

Oh and if at all possible, please try to schedule showings and phone calls for normal after business hours, not 5:00 on a weekday, or only early in the morning/late at night calls accepted.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:05 PM on May 29, 2013

Both times I rented in Philadelphia I went through craigslist. Both times I ended up with iffy-at-best landlord relationships, despite being a near-ideal tenant.
posted by 256 at 5:08 PM on May 29, 2013

I have rental properties in a Texas college town with houses blocks from campus. The only two methods of advertisement worth doing (or that are at least more than adequate) are putting up a sign in the yard and a craigslist ad with plenty of pictures.

Weed out the wankers by actually checking their references. Ask about holes in tenancy. If they don't have a rental history, a parent signs the lease. To attract non-students, or at least high-end students, make the place nice from the street and on the inside. That's it.

Free-floating tip: Set your deposit or pet deposit or something higher than you're willing to actually take. If they're tenants you think you want and they're waffling, throw your real price out there. You get a tenant, they get an awesome landlord.

Followup tip: Be an awesome landlord. Know the local law. Follow it.
posted by cmoj at 5:18 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Everyone so far has good advice. The only thing I would add is be professional in your communication. Use punctuation and capital letters if you do email. Don't text. If you leave a message, say your name, number, and remind the person about what you're calling about ("your interest in the apartment at xxx.") No hidden lease weirdness -- if you mean no pets, say so in the ad. If I am over 25, have a decent credit score, and am employed, don't ask for a parent to cosign.

Maybe I've just had bad experiences as a renter, but professional behavior is the biggest flag that you're not just a mom n pop, you're a good landlord duo.
posted by blnkfrnk at 7:01 PM on May 29, 2013

> What were your deal breakers for renting an apartment? Even though we are a "Mom & Pop" rental team - What would assure you that we are professional/legal/not flaky?

I always found apartments through the real estate classifieds in Philly Weekly, but I moved out of my last apartment over six years ago, and Craigslist hadn't quite fully came into its own in Philly as a trusted place to look for apartment rentals. Private owners with rental properties list directly. I have rarely known of a renter who saw properties through a realtor, or property owners who listed through a realtor. The exception is new transplants to the area whose employer paid relocation fees and hooked them up with a realtor -- who typically had overpriced properties and fed the renters alarmist stories about living in the city, I must say.

My last landlord was a brand-new landlord. He was so busy making sure that he didn't fall prey to a tenant horror-story that he came off as a paranoid n00b. In addition to asking for way too much irrelevant personal info on my rental application (you do not need the make/model/license plate of my car for unregulated street parking in South Philly), he required a credit/background check but made me shell out for the cost of it. That's not a typical fee around here, and COME ON, it's the landlord's cost of doing business if they deem it necessary on top of asking for employment/salary info and references and so forth; it's really not a cost that's my responsibility. Unsurprisingly, he didn't want to take responsibility for his own negligence in property upkeep and repairs, either, and was uncooperative and petulant about my security deposit despite my leaving the place in better shape than I got it. Ugh.

I always preferred to rent from private owners than apartment management companies in general, though. I found that private owners were more reasonably invested in regards to keeping up the property. (Protip: Snow shoveling is technically your obligation as property owner; it's your homeowners' insurance that takes the hit if someone falls. Not a dealbreaker to do it myself as a tenant, but I really, truly appreciated it as a show of good faith when the landlord just had it taken care of.)

As for not being flaky, just don't be flaky. Don't verbally promise the apartment to someone then call back a few before the appointment to sign the lease saying that you might have to rent it to your cousin instead. (True story.) Return calls from tenants ASAP. Make sure that there's a backup number of someone to call in case of a maintenance emergency and consider retaining a jack-of-all-trades to dispatch for maintenance issues. Treat a non-working refrigerator, stove, heat, or hot water heater as a maintenance emergency. Don't ever let yourself into the apartment without notice. Don't be crankypants about the tenants' general housekeeping (dust, clutter, untidiness) unless they are causing a real-life, serious filth/vermin issue.

It's tacky to misrepresent the location, like the place I saw near 10th and Tasker that was listed as "Italian Market." Also, personally, I was kinda turned off by ads that said "no students" even though I was not a student and certainly didn't want a horde of noisy undergrads as upstairs or downstairs neighbors. Because there are lots of kinds of students, and the quiet and hardworking rule-follower type people will take you at your word and not apply.
posted by desuetude at 12:01 AM on May 30, 2013

I'm not a tenant (anymore), but I do rent out one unit (though not in Philly). I've had an awesome series of tenants.

I'd be cautious about saying "no students" or making similar generalizations that others have suggested in your ad; it may be getting close to violating fair housing laws. And sets a bad tone.

Craigslist is the name of the game for renting. Put up great pictures, especially the first one. A little "staging" - at least some pics on the wall and rugs on the floor - helps a lot. Use a good camera with a wide angle lens (at least 28mm), not your phone. No flash. I never found brokers/realtors to be very useful, unless you're going to be out of the area and need someone to manage while you're gone.

I use to check credit and general reliability and find it to be useful, though there are plenty of mistakes in the "permanent record". I ask applicants to pay the fee.

The biggest hassle in my experience renting is that you offer the place to an applicant and they back our and you have to go to others or even start over again, losing time and rent. An "earnest money" deposit discourages that and are common in my area, but you should check what's legal and customary in Philly.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 5:35 AM on May 30, 2013

Best answer: I rent out the cabin adjacent to my house, so getting the right tenant is critical to me.

I've had some poor experiences advertising on Craigslist (creepy people seem to outnumber decent people by a healthy margin) but I've done quite well to look on the CL page of people looking for housing. I can screen easily this way, and no one knows my place is for rent unless I choose to tell them. Most postings on there are really just poorly written rants against their current housing arrangements ("Looking for a cool pad, no looser landlord who want's a credit check or a backrgound check") but a few stand out as being really good possibilities. They have perfect grammar and punctuation, they're well written, and they're fairly clear about who they are.

In every case, the person posted that they were actually looking for something fairly different from what I have to offer, but there was a something about their ad that made me contact them anyway: "place for a garden," "unique space," something that I could offer that seemed important to them. And also in all cases they made the ad about how they would be great tenants, and not a laundry list of features they do and don't want in a landlord.
posted by Capri at 6:48 AM on May 30, 2013

Best answer: I used to be a landlord, with a multi-family house I lived in. Part of having good tenants is setting expectations from the start. I wrote my own application. I asked for previous landlord & employer, and verified both. Given that these would be my neighbors, and living in my house/investment, I asked questions like
- Do you recycle?
- Why would you be a good neighbor?
- Who will be living in the apartment?
- How many cars do you have?

I screened people over the phone by telling them my expectations and disclaimers
- I have a teenager, and I live on the 2nd floor. We have big rugs and try to be quiet, but we make some noise.
- No loud noise/ music before 8 a.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. weekends, after 9 p.m. weekdays, 11 p.m. weekends.
- No guns on premises (This is because when cleaning up after some tenants, I found lots of ammunition. I had a teenage son, and did not want guns in my home.)
- Because I had nice wood floors and beautiful woodwork, I required tenants to have rugs, and they were not allowed to put holes in the woodwork (Seriously, there are curtain rods. No, you don't need another set of hardware 1/2 inch away.)
- I was very clear that the rent is due on the 1st of the month. No BS. Late rent = daily fine. I have a mortgage to pay.
- I talked to tenants about my expectations that they be settled, stable, good neighbors. Occasional parties were fine. I had some student tenants who were really fun, and good neighbors. I think talking to them about the fact that I lived there, and my expectations, drove off anybody whose lifestyle was incompatible. It also gave me the opportunity to get a sense of who they are.

I posted my ads on Craigslist with several pictures, and a good description. I rented to young women quite successfully. In my experience, as well as a friend's, just young men were terrible tenants, leaving apartments dirty, and being flaky on rent. I would not say No young males in an ad, because it's illegally sexist and age-ist, but I would make sure any tenant has a reliable history. I also did my best to be a good landlord, making sure things worked, being cognizant of their needs, sharing baked goods once in a while.

Great tenants included a young couple with kids. The Dad was handy, and would just fix stuff, not even asking me for reimbursement. The Mom had a small home daycare that was no hassle. Not many landlors would allow that, but it was really no problem. A group of 3 young women, mostly students - over 7 years, 1 would move out and they'd get a new roomie, and the final 3 didn't even know the original 3. 7 years of unbroken tenancy was really nice.

IF you allow cats, talk to them about where the litterbox goes, and it shouldn't go on a wood floor - cats pee outside the box. I had tenants bring in a dog that damaged some floors, and another dog that I agreed to wrecked the front door being freaked out at the mail carrier, etc. There's a reason for No Pets, unfortunately.
posted by theora55 at 8:11 AM on May 30, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the advice. I guess I will have to adjust my mindset when it comes to using Craigslist. I appreciate Theora55's hint of going through the "looking for" adverts.

Mr. Kitty and I have a thorough application put together and have already spruced the place up in preparation for renters (new paint, new sinks/toilet seats (because eww), put a new deck on the 3rd floor balcony, etc) so all of those tips are taken care of.

We will probably shy away from listing "no students" since I would hate to run into any accusations of discrimination. (Philly is notorious for being heavily tenant friendly in legal disputes)

I've marked some best answers here - thank you again for the advice.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 6:54 PM on May 30, 2013

Position your place appropriately. Don't overlook marketing to staff in places such as a private university library as your ideal tenant pool. If your place works for them, they'll recommend their jewel of an apartment to the right person when they leave (after three or more years) and you'll never be without perfect tenants.

I've learned that what I care about is perfectly prompt payment of the rent (daily penalties for late payment written into the lease), following the rules (I write my own pretty detailed list), cleanliness and care of the property, a nice, quiet, orderly, responsible type of person who has lived on their own previously. I require references--including how did you hear about this place--and I charge less than market in order to have the tenant I want. Young library staff are perfect tenants--I've never had a bad one. I learned this the hard way after some horrendous experiences with tenants from Craig's list and other advertising. It is better for me to have the apartment vacant for months than to have the wrong tenant.

The trick is to have such a desirable property (by virtue of location, character, price) that you can choose perfect tenant--and the applicants find you. You minimize turnover, upkeep and damage expense and have a more serene life.
posted by Anitanola at 6:03 PM on June 1, 2013

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