Rental filter: How worried do I need to be?
December 30, 2014 9:57 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a place to live, and I have some anxiety about the rental history portion of my rental applications. I broke the lease for my last place -- for cause -- after living there for 13 years. The management company was worse than shady, and I am worried about them being called as a reference. How worried do I need to be, and how do I best approach this? The long story is within; you may skip to the TLDR if you'd like.

My partner and I bought a house a year ago, but we're splitting up and I'm moving out. The prospect of filling out rental applications is causing me some stress because of how the last rental ended.

Before moving into the house we owned, I rented a house for 13 years, and I basically took care of the place for the absentee owner. About four years before I moved out, some stuff in her life came up and she decided to hire a property management company to "manage" the property. It was a deadbeat company, and they did no managing.

Here's the progression of events:

The house had had an intermittent problem with rats getting into the crawlspace where the HVAC ductwork is. The owner, when she managed the property, was good about sending out an exterminator when I called her. I did my best to seal off all possible points of entry (the unsealed vents on on the roof, the open spaces in the HVAC unit -- also on the roof -- etc.) but the rats were still getting in to the HVAC ductwork somehow, and occasionally into the house itself.

After the management company took over (and the owner asked not to be contacted about house stuff) I finally noticed a little pile of insulation next to the front door one day and realized that there was a hole in the siding, above the carport and invisible from the ground. I put in a work request, asking them to patch the fist-sized hole on the exterior of the house.

Eight months later, I was still asking them, and rats were still periodically getting in. Sometimes they simply didn't respond to my emails/phone calls. Sometimes they promised that "Mike" was going to come out and take a look. It always turned out that "Mike" was on vacation, or had something come up or whatever, and no Mike ever appeared.) I have 20 pages of emails, over eight months, asking them to stop the rats from getting into my house, which they never did. I finally managed to patch the hole myself, after several attempts, and just let it go out of sheer exhaustion when my patch seemed to work.

Fast forward about a year to the house-buying. When we closed on the house, I emailed the company asking them if they would be willing to let me out of the lease, since I had been there for 13 years and had done pretty much all of the maintenance. Their response was that they wouldn't even talk to me about ending the lease unless I paid them a $500 lease reassignment fee, and that if I didn't, I would be responsible for the rent through the remainder of the lease term (10 months).

I responded that my lease specified a $250 reassignment fee, so I offered to pay them that and to also secure a new tenant on my own. They stated that they had raised the fee since I'd signed my lease (!), and again refused to have any further conversations about it until I gave them a check for $500.

That didn't seem right to me, so I contacted a lawyer to help negotiate with them, again offering to find a new tenant to take over the lease. (The lawyer didn't get very far with them and the owner of the management company actually ended up sort of threatening my lawyer's law partner, saying that they saw each other at business and social events all the time and it would be a shame if others in the community knew what a shady practice he was running [?!].)

I was advertising and showing the house to prospective tenants this whole time. The management company, though also required to make a good-faith effort to find new tenants, did not. While my lawyer was trying to reach an agreement with them about finding a new tenant, in what may seem like an implausible coincidence, a rat again made its way into the ceiling.

The magic of having a lawyer is that this time they DID contact an exterminator when I called them, and he came out later the same day. He screened off the hole in the siding and put a trap in the attic crawlspace. When he lifted the access panel to the crawlspace, and literal SHOWER of rat shit fell down into the hallway.

No more than 10 minutes after the exterminator left, the trap snapped and caught the rat -- but it didn't die. For the next two hours, it squealed and dragged the trap back and forth in the crawlspace. I tried calling the exterminator several times, but he didn't answer. It was now past 5:00 (and it was a Friday), and the management company wasn't answering its phone either. (They do not share an emergency number, but instead say that they regularly check their voicemail.)

By 6:00 that evening, neither the exterminator nor the management company had called back. The rat was still in the very slow process of dying. We had recently gotten the keys to the new house (though the gas/electricity were not yet turned on), so we packed up a mattress, the cats, and some camping gear, and went and stayed there. The exterminator finally called later that night -- from the airport. He was about to get on a plane for a week's vacation. I asked if he had anyone else he could send out to remove the dying/dead rat. Alas and surprise, he was a one-man operation!

I started having asthma attacks later that night because of the exposure to the rat shit. We stayed in the new house that weekend. On Monday, I decided that fighting the management company's bogus $500 fee (which contradicted my lease terms) was ludicrous given their historic inattention to the rat problem. The previous year, I'd spent 8 months trying to get them to fix an actual hole in the house that was allowing rats to enter, and they did nothing. Though they'd sent out an exterminator this time, he was on his way out of town, and then they didn't return my calls over the weekend. I have asthma, and the exposure to rat feces triggered it (and put me on a two-week course of steroids).

Based on history and past practice, I had no reason to believe they would deal with it any better this second time; my health had already been affected. So, with the assent of my lawyer, I broke the lease under California's "implied warrant of habitability." My lawyer communicated this to them. The owner of the management company again insulted my lawyer, and accused me of just trying to get out of the lease because we'd bought a house. (I don't know if he thought I'd introduced a stunt rat, or what, but he still wouldn't acknowledge the rat problem.) I sent them a pro-rated check for that month's rent.

Anyway! Here I am. I lived in my last rental for 13 years, and I took good care of the place, but the management company didn't -- pretty much to the point of statutory violations. In addition, when they sent back the itemization of costs they deducted from my $1,000 deposit, they included a $200 "estimate" for cleaning the house (I paid a cleaning service $250 before I moved out), and an "estimated" fee of $300 for re-sodding the lawn. (I took very good care of the lawn; this was mid-November, and lawns here die back in the winter.) On that itemization, they also included the $500 reassignment fee that was contradicted by my lease, and the remainder of the rent for that month (again, I'd pro-rated). In the end, not only did they not return any of my deposit (which I didn't expect), they said I owed them the $500 + remaining rent, despite my having terminated the lease due to their ignoring the rat problem for as long as they did. I did not pay.

TLDR: Rental applications ask for info on your last rental. I lived in that house for 13 years, and I took good care of it. I am obviously concerned, however, about this shady management company being contacted by a prospective landlord. I strongly feel that I was in the right, but that's not the story they're going to tell. They may also claim that I owe them money, which is bogus.

How do I best deal with this? I don't want to come off as sounding too defensive, but I also don't want them to paint me in a bad light, because I am a very good tenant.

Please help?
posted by mudpuppie to Law & Government (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: One other bit of context: My actual issue here is anxiety about the application process, not whether how I dealt with the management company was right/wrong. I'm looking for possible ways to address the question on the application, because having such a plan will help me manage my anxiety. Thanks.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:04 AM on December 30, 2014

Every landlord will be different, but for what it's worth, earlier this year I left an apartment after a months-long fiasco which culminated in the landlord being forced by the HOA to replace the flooring. Needless to say, I wasn't getting a sunny reference from that place. I was worried like you. I told the story to my current landlord, he laughed, said "yeah, landlords can be real assholes!" and I got the place without any further ado. The key thing is probably the 13 years of solid rental history.
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:09 AM on December 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I live in California, and while I own now, I used to rent. None of my landlords ever called my references or past landlords. What they were interested in was my cash flow, credit, and whether I had a steady job.

Obviously, YMMV, but I've never had prospective landlords go over my rental history and references with the same fine-tooth comb that prospective employers do. This might be different in a very tight rental market, however.

What I would do in your position is to put down your past landlord on your application, and if asked, tell the future landlord what you told us. If you seem to be getting rejected right out of the gate (no chance to explain) then note your past landlord/management company and attach a note or documentation of what happened.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:10 AM on December 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm a landlord (though NYL obv). What I care about is income and no evictions. Every landlord has slightly different criteria, but you should be fine. If you do find a place and have trouble, just move on and find another place that would be happy to have you.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:12 AM on December 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Would it be possible to list your previous landlord (not the management company) on applications? It sounds like she would provide a good reference.
posted by bluloo at 10:15 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

13 years is what any prospective landlord will look at. Your prospective landlord will be happy to have you. Your future [I'm confident} landlord is well aware of the management company that you formerly did business with.

How do I best deal with this?

By saying I paid rent consistantly for 13 years.

You are, with your record, frankly, a dream tenant. Were I you I might be tempted to use your history to negotiate a lower price for your rent.
posted by vapidave at 10:20 AM on December 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

Also, keep in mind that your most recent residential reference will be your mortgage company. Rental applications are sometimes not super-clear about this, but a mortgage company reference is basically the same as a rental/property manager reference, because potential landlords are going to be more worried about your payment history than anything else.

If your most recent residential reference (mortgage company) says that you paid your mortgage on time for the last year, that will help a lot. They probably will check with your prior landlord as well, because most landlords want residential references going back for 2-5 years, but, again, it's mostly going to be "did mudpuppie pay rent on time?". If you're concerned about extenuating circumstances you can always write up a short letter stating that although you had some property maintenance challenges with the property manager, you paid your rent on time for 13 years. You don't need to go into all those details-- they're not really relevant. Your payment history is the primary thing, and it doesn't sound like that's an issue.
posted by Kpele at 10:29 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unless you're renting in a VERY competitive area like San Francisco, Seattle or Manhattan, I doubt this will even come up.

Most folks will run a credit check. Yours will be sterling. You will get the place.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:40 AM on December 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Although I consider myself an excellent tenant, we have had a few hiccups (including breaking a lease to move cross-country). I've rented two apartments in a competitive area (San Francisco) and this has not been a problem in the slightest. I think they were more concerned with credit check and proof of income.
posted by radioamy at 10:46 AM on December 30, 2014

My sympathy for your anxiety over this issue. This pushes all my anxiety buttons! High stakes and no idea if I'm doing the best thing to resolve the situation. Usually my hack is to think about what I can do about it but if I'm not what that is, I get caught in an anxiety loop about how to move forward.

The bottom line is there is not much you can do at this point. 13 years in a place is a good recommendation on it's own. If you have any better relations with the original landlord, it might be worth asking them to be a reference. Your husband could also be a reference.

Don't get caught up in the worst case scenario at this point, you haven't been denied yet. I agree with other posters that you should be fine. If you have problems down the line, you have options! You certainly have shown a great deal of perseverance , patience and intelligence in dealing with the rental company.
posted by Gor-ella at 11:17 AM on December 30, 2014

You will be fine. As others have mentioned, you have an excellent payment history, probably have great credit, and as a homeowner will be considered a very safe bet.

If the actual owner is willing to give you a reference, that is great, but not necessary. I would definitely recommend that you not give them the wall of text you gave here though - simply because people don't like to hear about drama. A 13 year history with a place should speak for itself, so I would just list the owner as the contact, but not list her contact info. References can be your mortgage company, perhaps any roommates you had, or maybe the ex if it is amicable. If they ask for her info, mention that you always paid rent on time, but at the end the property management company was confused about the fee, you paid according to what was required by the lease, and the matter was closed. Keep your explanation as short and neutral as possible; you probably don't need to mention the infestation at all.

And absolute worst case scenario, you can always offer to pay a bit more at signing (for example, pay first & last months at signing, rather than just the first). Another thing you can do is get a letter from HR demonstrating how long you have worked there and your salary (I brought my offer letter straight out of college when looking for my first place to demonstrate steady income, and it went over very well). Really though, I think you'll actually be sought as a tenant.
posted by susanvance at 12:01 PM on December 30, 2014

I want to stress this because you seem so nervous and anxious: do NOT subject your prospective landlords to the wall of text you wrote here. To you it may seem like a reasonable explanation of your rental history, to them it's "If we rent to this person we can expect 20 pages of emails, frequent service requests, lawyers, health issues, and nonstop drama." Just say that you rented for 13 years and then bought a house. Chances are extremely slim that they'll call your former management company, and even slimmer that the company will trash you.
posted by acidic at 12:51 PM on December 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hi. I am not a landlord, but I do spend time housing clients who have rather spotty rental history. I want to agree with other posters that under no circumstances include the wall of text or even significant details of the story. I have several clients who have similar stories that they feel strongly about. These are the ones that are the biggest challenge to house, because landlords are leery of these kinds of interactions.

List your previous landlord and that you were there for 13 years. The property management company is not going to want to borrow trouble by talking about what a terrible tenant you were because of rat complaints. The biggest concern is whether they have reported the sum they say you owe them. Even so, once in thirteen years, with no eviction, is not going to be the killer you may think it is.
posted by corb at 4:31 PM on December 30, 2014

I agree with people who suggest that less information is best--just say you've rented A SINGLE RESIDENCE for 13 years prior to spending the last two in the house you own. I'm sorry about your break-up and hope this is a reasonable suggestion, but you can list your former partner for confirmation about your reliability as a "tenant". I did this when I moved out of my parents' house after law school and had no local rental history. No-one called my parents (what were they going to say?), but my income stability and lack of eviction history was sufficient for me to get a rental application approved. I think you'll be fine--try not to worry. I also second listing the owner of the house, rather than the management company for the house were you lived prior. The fact that for 13 years your landlord/management company renewed your lease is very very good.

I am a landlord--my last tenants were fucking horrors and I was so glad to be rid of them, but they paid their rent on time and did not annoy my neighbors. When I was called as reference for them, the latter bit of that was all I said "Yes, they were never late with rent and I never had a complaint from the neighbors or building management." When my rental agent calls prior landlords, he asks "Did you have problems collecting rent?" "Were there complaints from neighbors?". We get information about evictions and amounts owing from court records, because everything else is tenants lying/being confused/telling half the story and prior landlords lying/being confused/telling half the story. Also, my agent knows damn well which management companies are shady and tell stories about prior tenants.
posted by crush-onastick at 4:52 PM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unless you're renting in a VERY competitive area like San Francisco, Seattle or Manhattan, I doubt this will even come up.

I have a tiresome, hard to explain rental history that makes me sound like a liar where i had two criminally bad landlords all the time i probably should have taken to court... then i crashed with my girlfriend, and lived in her new house after she moved for a year without being on the lease.

I'm in seattle, and the first good place i found the landlord looked everything over, called my most recent landlord(where i wasn't on the lease), and asked me to pay a slightly larger deposit. this was on a place people were like beating down the door to get in to, too.

I think even in ridiculous places, you'll find people willing to be reasonable and honor first come first serve unless you're like unemployed.

And seriously seconding the 13 years being a great reference thing.
posted by emptythought at 6:32 PM on December 30, 2014

I've just been through a very similar experience (nowhere near where you are, though). I had owned houses for 12 or so years, so had no recent rental history. Here, agents almost all use TICA to check on tenants' history and, because I didn't have a 'rental ledger' a lot of agents were wary of me. I ended up writing and submitting with the application for where I am now a kind of 'cover letter' with brief details explaining my housing history and my employment history (including contact details for how all that could be verified), which was very well received and I was offered the place within a few hours of applying, even though there were ten or so other applicants.

Agents really only care if you are going to pay the rent and look after the place - giving them an easily-digestible version of your housing history will give them lots of confidence. My experience is that agents love people that have owned homes, because they are more likely to be house-proud.

As others have said, don't even bring up the dramas with the management company. Put yourself in their shoes - if you have a bunch of potential tenants to choose from, why would you pick the one that has a drama-filled history?
posted by dg at 7:00 PM on December 30, 2014

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