Tag Archives: Reference Check

How To Spot a Red Flag During Interview

So here we go again.  First respondee to the room ad, following the Paul scenario, was another English guy who sounded normal on the phone and, despite the fact his name was distinctly Italian, he was born and bred in the area and had a crop of red hair.   I thought he must be the worst identity thief in history, until he produced his photo I.D. confirming his name.

Call me paranoid or just smarting from the last experience, I launched into interrogation mode.  From his answers I gathered that:

1)      He has a fiancée who, in turn, has her own children.  Red Flag #1: why isn’t going to live with her then and isn’t that a lot of responsibility when you’re only 24?

2)      Mum will pay deposit and a month up front.  Red Flag #2: Why does mum want you out of her house so badly that she’s willing to pay when I’m only asking for deposit and a week up front?  She also sounded a bit desperate on the phone.

3)      Dates on the Tenant Information Form.  Red Flag #3: Lots of crossings out and too much time trying to work out dates and where he lived.

4)      Work.  There was a Supervisor’s name, no company and his job title was Ground Worker.  Red Flag #4: I interpret this to be the equivalent of a modern day chain gang rebranded as Community Service.

5)      He was 25 minutes late to the viewing and hadn’t bothered to call or text to let me know.  Red Flag #5: Demonstrates no consideration or awareness

Landlords, learn from this!

Take this as a lesson to all HMO Landlords: when the red flags start flying on points (1) and (2), if you can’t get satisfactory answers, leave the interview.  Often I’m so determined to find something “right” about someone or any nugget of information that will add credibility to the Tenant Information Form that I’ll ignore the frantic waving of red material as I have an unhealthy belief that the majority of people are honest and not pre-programmed to pull an entire wool sack over my eyes.

It was only once it had been confirmed that the deceitful little sausage had just come out of prison and was another well known character round town, that I gave up and withdrew the offer of the room on the basis that he had marked “No” to the question about a criminal record. Depending on his conviction and sentence, renting him a self contained unit wouldn’t be a problem, but putting him in a shared house with established tenants just wouldn’t be fair on them.  In our parting phone call he finally admitted to being known to the police for a variety of offences but said he’d grown up and wanted to show everyone he could behave.

By 9am this morning he’d left a voicemail and sent a text begging me to reconsider the offer of the room:

“I have been in trouble with the police in the past when I was a teenager, but I’m not violent. This room was an answer to my prayers and again I implore you to reconsider.  I’m an amiable guy and the other housemates would get on with me.  I wouldn’t often be there as my work can sometimes take me quite far afield – Bognor Regis, for example.”

Chequered Flag

Chequered Flag

Final red flag (or perhaps I should call it the chequered flag): begging for a room once your short and previous history has been uncovered is simply undignified.  Also, Bognor Regis is quite commutable from our town, but when you’ve been banged up in HMP Lewes for a while I suppose it could feel quite far afield.

Note: This is NOT a blog post intended to be biased against offenders, but with data protection preventing landlords from knowing about previous convictions, they are putting the other HMO tenants and the landlords and managers at risk.  Offenders straight out of prison should seek temporary accommodation via Supported Housing or the YMCA to build up tenant references, credibility and allow enough time for the police to forget their name.

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HMO Landlady vs The Homeless Shelter

This week threw up an interesting case: I met a young girl called Kirstie at our local homeless charity. She had been accepted on a 12 week “back to work” programme helping out in the shop and organising the meals for the Drop In Centre. The support workers had asked me to meet her with a view to letting her a room but decided to be slightly economical with the truth – “lovely girl”, “good worker”, “just needs a chance” whilst looking shiftily over my shoulder.

Regular readers will know that in the past I’ve taken just about anyone on providing they can string a sentence together and aren’t displaying any obvious signs of substance abuse. However, after my narrow scrape last time, I’ve decided to be a bit more cautious as I’m letting the room on behalf of another landlord. On meeting her she came across as a scrap of girl, vulnerable, bewildered and happy to let everyone else talk for her. When I asked about references they all nodded and said “No problem. Her Social Worker, Foster Carers and Probation Officers can all give her a reference”. I bet they bl**dy well could – anything to get her off their case list as she’d just turned 19 and I guess was about to be unceremoniously evicted from the care system that has been supporting her.

During the interview it was difficult to get a measure of HER. I wanted to see her personality, see if she really did want to turn her back on her apparently violent past and was genuinely fed up of the chaotic lives of the friends she’d surrounded herself with, but I just couldn’t find a way in especially as it felt like I had the entire homeless population of the South Coast breathing down my neck, quick to block my intrusive questioning.

For the next 24 hours I pondered, wrestled with my conscience to rescue and give this little girl a clean bed in a safe environment versus using my experienced loaf and knowing deep in my gut that, by the end of the weekend, she’d have invited her mates around to see how well she’d done, they’d all decide it was warmer than their gaffs and I’d have a riot on my hands. Presumptuous on my part, yes, but I’ve been here before – several times.

Time for facts: I banded her name around my existing tenants who all knew her as a feisty little thing when drunk and the family was infamous locally; Mum was an addict, step dad and dad both died from drug addiction followed shortly after by her brother, another brother was in prison and the other teenage brother in B&B accommodation until the state had no legal duty to look after him. OK, so they knew her worst side – there HAD to be a good one. I contacted the local PC who Kirstie said she had a good relationship with (never a good sign if you’re that young and know your local Bobby well). “Put it this way” he said “Last time we had to arrest her it took four officers just to get her into the van. Funnily enough I’m just going through her ASBO and typing up a possession report – I’m really not sure you’re brave enough for this one”.

The following day I went back to the shelter and met with her and the support worker who possesses the Christian belief that everyone has a good side and they just need a chance (which I agree with, by the way). With coffee in hand they finally revealed to me what I’d already found out and I explained that I couldn’t risk putting her in a shared house with four other working tenants. Immediately, their defensive hackles rose and they prepared for attack. “Look” I said “I’ve housed some people you may just know:

Adam – kids taken taken into care and subsequently adopted after he failed to maintain contact, ran off to marry a Thai girl who loved him very much over the internet. Last heard of in the Bangkok Hilton suffering gangrene having trafficked drugs

Pascal – reportedly ex-French Foreign Legion, alcoholic with a knife wielding girlfriend in constant tow. Asked me to marry him during the eviction process.

Jeremy – took a drugs overdose, was stripped and robbed of his belongings and I found him 2 hours away from death. The b***ard never did thank me

Jenny – two kids taken away from her, several suicide attempts, part time prostitute and caused the police to kick every door in the house off its hinges.

Alex – serial shoplifter and drug user and last seen under the “Have You Seen This Person?” column in our local paper

Finally Tom – binge alcoholic and Andrew – trying to make it after a life in foster care. Both still with me, but not without their issues.”

“Oh, you housed THEM?! I guess you do know what you’re talking about then” and they graciously, but reluctantly backed down.

“Yes, just because you give these people good references based on their ability to turn up to the shelter remember you haven’t seen them at 1am on a Saturday night.” We calmed down and I explained that the trouble with finding their customers accommodation is not the lack of deposit or first month’s rent (that can be achieved through various council/charity run schemes) but the lack of CREDIBILITY. They turn up, have a well practised story to hand, cause chaos with other tenants and move on, unable to deal with the responsibility of holding down a job, paying rent on time and being considerate to fellow housemates. Because, for some, it’s boring, conventional and tedious and it’s much more fun having a piss up on the beach and appearing at whichever charity is dishing out the hot meal that day.

Now, I was still open to persuasion so explained to Kirstie that I, and any landlord she comes across, will want references and credibility. “As landlords we have a responsibility to the other tenants in the house. We need to know that you’re reliable and trustworthy which can be demonstrated through your turning up to work (paid or voluntary) every day. We also want to know that you’re a good tenant who is able to respect other people and the need to be quiet at certain times of the day as well as paying your rent regularly. The problem is, you don’t have any of these which is why landlords who are advertising rooms are turning you away. I can show you how to build up those references and how to go about securing a room – are you interested?”

While she was thinking about it, I showed her the local YMCA information. It’s sheltered accommodation with a 24 hour watch, £8 a week top up from benefits and you can only get a bed by being referred through your Social Worker. If she could do some time there, get a reference from the Manager then she’s half way to proving she would be a good tenant; the other half would be to turn up and complete her 12 week back to work programme and get a reference from them too. I’ve offered the possibility of a room which may be coming up later in the year if she can gather her references together. Will she pick up the gauntlet and prove everyone wrong or will it just be too much like hard work? She didn’t looked convinced.

Afterwards I spent a bit of time with the support workers and their customers talking about the legal implications of giving someone unreliable a tenancy. We’re not all heartless carpet baggers, just fed up of having to deal with anti-social behaviour at 2 o’clock on a weekend morning. This interaction has awoken my ideal of Supported Living which you can read about here. Idealistic? Probably, but my waking hours are spent working out a viable, self sufficient plan to create something which is a combination of a Tracy Beaker style home (drama about a children’s home aka The Dumping Ground) and The Good Life – supporting vulnerable/displaced adults to become independent within a safe community. Anyone got a spare £250K and feeling philanthropic?

Next Post: Besieged by tenants’ disgruntled girlfriends – why don’t they learn from “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”?!

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I’ve Been Had – Again

I’ve just finished writing an article for Property 118 (www.property118.com) which will hopefully be published under Recent Guest Columns in the next couple of days, entitled “I Should Have Known Better”.  In short it’s a sorry tale of me, cowboy builders and taking my eye off the ball – albeit for valid reasons.

And This Is What Happened

The reason I’ve linked specifically to this article is to show the photos of the damage caused by some hairy looking blokes calling themselves Roofers and offering to rebuild my chimney on my ex-HMO which I now call home.  Whilst they were there, my second chimney was “unacceptably dangerous” and would have to pulled down.  Whilst I thought that would be the end of it, it now appears that the ceiling stains on my landing are due to willful damage to the flashing on my gully and a, frankly, crap job of taking off the “dangerous” chimney stack.  My regular builder who was sadly unavailable before Christmas due to a nervous breakdown, made me climb the second lot of scaffolding this week to personally inspect the work that had been done and here are the results:  (possibly dull, but a good lesson if you’re too scared to get up a scaffold – and I was!  However, I was in my dog walking trousers which have a hole in the bottom so that may have cheered him up as I descended).  BTW, he assures me that I hadn’t driven him to lose his grip on reality.

And It’s Not The First Time

The last time I felt this daft was when I offered “Tony” a room – he was to be the first tenant in a new HMO and, quite frankly, I was desperate to get the cash in.  On the face of it he was a model tenant, buying bin bags and cleaning products, fussing around and welcoming the other new tenants and helping to get the house settled.  Within a month, he’d borrowed Mark’s car keys, broken into everyone’s room to steal anything of value and made off with a car full of CDs, tellies, computer equipment but not the microwave.  It was only when talking to the police that I realised I’d made a stupid mistake – I didn’t have a tenant information form for him!  Turns out that, not only was he not called “Tony”, but he made his living trawling the south coast ripping people off.  To his credit, his rent was at least up to date.

So, I’m left with a couple of damp patches, an even greater fear of heights and having paid for the same work twice and want to report the little/big blighters to Trading Standards – except I’ve lost their business card.

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Peace and Goodwill to All Men?! Christmas HMO Style!

Happy New Year to you all!  Isn’t it great to start a new year with a fresh perspective? Antisocial behaviour was fairly low from the HMOs for the first time in 5 years although busy with tenant changeovers.

Tom’s Christmas

Tom’s calls on Christmas Day to his family members went unanswered (what DID he do to upset them so much?) so he took to the pub.  I’d suggested Church may have been a good place for him to go soul searching and connect with his inner spiritual self, but he said he’d had enough of “peeling bleedin’ potatoes for the homeless on Christmas Day.  They eat better than me!”.  I meant to go to a Church, any Church and mix with normal people for a coffee and mince pie or, failing that, cadge a free dinner from the Sally Army.

He invited a friend back to the room who, in turn, bought another friend.  Whilst I doubt they sat around and drinking a cup of tea whilst exchanging Christmas presents he did say they just had a “couple of cans”.  Tom then went to the loo and came back to find that the friend of the friend had stolen all the cash out of his wallet and done a runner.  The actual friend hadn’t run quite so quickly so Tom managed to wrestle him to the ground and interrogate him in the only way that a 17 stone long lost relative of Phil Mitchell (Eastenders) could.  It was all the money he had in the world until his JSA was due in the new year.

According to the story, whilst Tom was delivering justice with one hand he called the police with the other explaining to them that if they didn’t get there soon, they’d be investigating a homicide.  Luckily, Silviu (the trafficked Romanian Border Guard) used his well honed skills to separate them and avoid Tom spending the rest of Christmas in a custody suite.  If only his mum had called back…….

New Tenants

I had a couple of short notice changeovers: Lewis suddenly fell in love and pretty much moved out in the same week.  It’s odd as I swear not two months ago, he was regailing us with stories of his sexual prowess with a couple of girls he’d met over a bag of chips on his way home after a night out.  His replacement (a friend of his) more than makes up for him, has recently split from a girlfriend and seems raring to embark on his single life.  I just hope the bed in the room is up to it!!

Jason moved upstairs to Steve’s old room which has been painted and had a £250 new carpet spent on it.  I spent a fruitful Christmas Eve in the carpet shop discussing which carpet would hide a coffee stain the best – enlightening yet thoroughly dull for the kids.  I wish I’d take a photo of it before Jason moved his c**p in this weekend.

Jason has recommended a friend to take his room (which needs a huge refurb).  I’m not sure about him, but Jason assures me he’s a “good lad” and will sort out any problems.  I reminded him that he’d sworn to me Steve never smoked drugs but I’m not going to hold it against him.  I’ll keep an eye out and, when I asked for next of kin details, explained that he’d been fostered out I felt all Christmassy/Goodwill to all men, etc. and decided to give him a chance.  Got a feeling that it might just bite me on the bum in the next few months……………!

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Church Helps the Homeless – Or Does It?!

Up until this week I considered myself to a Christian although not one that feels the necessity to polish one’s halo in public.  This is what changed:

The local churches have got together to set up a night shelter for the street homeless from November through to February.  They appealed for volunteers and invited us along to a training session advertised as being delivered by Shelter.  I mentioned the project to Nadine, one of my tenants, who jumped at the chance to extend her existing volunteer work with the homeless and off we went to sit in a cold church hall.

The meeting opened with a prayer and the bloke doing the training kept referring to his audience as “brothers and sisters” and went on for an hour and a half about his work setting up night shelters around the country with “God’s will” (turns out he wasn’t from Shelter at all!).  He answered direct questions like “should we say a prayer with them before they go to sleep?” and “what happens when they turn violent?” in the true manner of a politician.  By this time, Nadine and I were rolling our eyes and desperately trying not to giggle.  She answered the questions, correctly, about how to manage conflict and I just muttered that it may help if he stopped making the homeless sound like aliens waiting to rape and pillage our little town.

The fact of the matter is this: there are only 15/20 truly street homeless in our town (not including sofa surfers or families who the day centres also serve) and Nadine has been helping in two Church day centres for 5 years and knows most visitors by name.  She doesn’t look for anything from this life except knowing she’s helping others less fortunate; she doesn’t lust after fast cars, fast men, new clothes or handbags.  She’s always on the lookout to rescue unwanted animals and people.  Having worked extensively with the mentally ill, she handled babysitting my three children brilliantly and had them wrapped around her finger with her extensive knowledge of Eastenders and ability to get down on the floor to play games.  Got the picture?  Nadine genuinely cares and carries out her voluntary work in the name of a big heart and compassion for her fellow human being.

I wanted to do the night shift so I could not only get some experience for my project but also to watch those that I’ve had to evict in the past wake up in horror in the middle of the night to see my face!

We filled out our forms and availability and handed them in to the Project Co-ordinator.  Nadine explained that, because she doesn’t belong to a congregation at a particular church, she couldn’t fill in that information.  Do you know what he said?  “In that case, we can’t have you on board.  We can only have people who belong to a church”.  Despite my protestations and the personal references of people from the Sally Army and her Church volunteer group, he was absolutely adamant that she couldn’t be part of the project.

Nadine was devastated and hurt, I was angry and embarrassed.  She’d come up with good questions such as “will you let them in if they have a dog?” and has more experience in her little toe than all those do-gooder Christians who manage to ignore the subject of homelessness for most of the year.  I’m guessing it’s an opportunity for them to build their next step towards heaven.  So, to the homeless of our town – if you want to be patronised and gawped at, go along to your local church.  Be alcohol and drug free, behave yourselves, brush your teeth before bed and don’t forget to thank the kind ladies and gentlemen as you depart in the morning for their hospitality for they will thank God that they never have to experience your way of life.

 

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HMOs – Seems Everyone’s At It!

Not so long ago, as an HMO Landlady I was looked upon as the poor relation in landlord terms.  I would attend meetings and be one of the only HMO landlords NOT housing students and my peers would sniff disdainfully or snigger as I defended my market.  How the world is a-changing…  (well, my world – I think the actual world has enough on its plate).

This week I was asked to advise a landlord who was hoping to rent to students but has changed market due to an oversupply of accommodation and our town’s university cheekily about to charge the same annual fees as Oxford and Cambridge – talk about delusions of adequacy.  I was flattered that he’d asked me to help give him some tips and advise the layout – no one’s normally interested when I wax lyrical about HMOs.  He told me he was going to place the ad online only to attract working people and to presumably deter anyone not suitable from seeing the ad in print as they wrap the newspaper around their bottle of vodka.  He’s going to do just fine as he’d already decided on a comprehensive referencing technique and drawn up room contracts – it took me 2 years to get to that stage!

Then, I was asked by a letting agent to look at a six bedroomed house that he’d been asked to tenant.  OK house, OK rooms but with a prevailing smell of damp, unfinished bathrooms, but all the fire regs were in place and the landlord wanted £400pm PLUS bills.  Now, bearing in mind my most expensive room is £100pw incl all bills for a huge room, that’s steep.  He also revealed that the landlord was trying to raise £2.5 million to buy more HMOs.

The next call came from someone wanting to give out my number to a family member who wants to get into HMOs for their yield.  In the five years I’ve been operating HMOs not ONE landlord has ever thought it was a good idea to let property this way and advised me to jump ship in favour of students.  (Not my market of choice due to their lack of domestic skills – even my own children manage to clear up after themselves).  They didn’t understand that, buying at the height of the property boom in 2007 meant I HAD to do HMOs otherwise the buildings couldn’t pay.

The Effect

So, for five years I’ve been paddling away, becoming accustomed to the sneers, riding the storms with the help of my landlord association saying “Well, what did you expect?” and having many moments of wanting to winch myself to safety to hold down a normal job.  Judging by the number of ads in the paper this week, lots of landlords are riding the Room Letting wave – but will they stick with it?

I put an ad in the paper this week and only received two calls: one from a bloke who, asked where he’s living now, said “On the street” and it took every ounce of will to tell him I couldn’t help and hang up.  For the next half hour I was going to call him back but my head took over to remind me how many time I’ve been proverbally shafted by the homeless over the years.

The next respondee was Ashley: he told me his ex-girlfriend was having an affair and managed to get him sectioned based on false evidence of depression and self harm with a supporting testimonial from his mum.  He has now been released and is being housed in a B&B at a cost to Housing Benefit of £140pw plus a top up of £40pw and an £18pw service charge.  Perhaps I could throw in a bowl of cornflakes and a cuppa every morning and charge £198pw!  To summise: plausible story, the first I’ve ever heard involving sectioning and, as I’ve said before I’m a sucker for a sob story.  Unfortunately, he failed my referencing test – he couldn’t look me in the eye without jumping from one leg to another.

So, once the reality of HMO landlording has worn down even the sharks, the bottom feeders such as myself will still be going strong…………….!!

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Tenant Referencing – HMO Style

Every time I hear the words “reference checking” it implies mounds of boring paperwork which will never give you a true picture of your prospective tenant, only an overview if things aren’t quite right on paper.  I’ve been prompted to write about this subject after a friend of mine asked me to let out her 3 bedroom property for her (for a fee!).  The responsibility is huge and it forced me to look at my current tenant check process bearing in mind her tenants are hopefully going to be far more upmarket than mine.

My Tenant Check Process

I tend to reference check on the following basis:

1. Can the tenant complete the Tenant Information Particulars form legibly?  i.e. can write own name that I can read

2. Does the tenant have someone to call “Next of Kin”?  Surprisingly sad when there is absolutely nobody the tenant can name who would want to accept a body or bad news

3. Call employer to check the tenant turned up for work this week and hasn’t so far displayed signs of drug abuse or a violent disposition

4. Does the tenant have a bank account?  A fairly good sign if so.

5. Previous landlord – to be honest, tenant could give the mobile number of his mate and I wouldn’t be any the wiser but more believable if I don’t understand what the landlord is saying

6. Gut reaction – this is a well honed technique from my Bed and Breakfast days.  It hasn’t let me down and I’ve taken on people my gut told me I shouldn’t but they’ve provided me with the best stories!

7. Can they stand up to my version of the Spanish Inquisition?  If they can hold eye contact, answer questions without hopping from one foot to another and don’t snigger when I tell them the rules of the house I know that we can communicate at the very least.

A Tale of Two Tenant Checks

Here is a tale of what happens when the above process was applied a few months ago:

Two people, oddly enough both named Steve called me, desperate for accommodation.  Steve number 1 jumped through all my paperwork hoops, Spanish inquisition techniques and (I thought the impossible) a letter of rent guarantee.  He turned up, bang on time, with a deposit, completed paperwork and 4 weeks rent – he is my hero and may just have enabled me to pay the mortgages next week.  Later turned out to be my pain, see Steve Messes Up.  Gut told me “no” based on him telling me he was an ex-gambler but I wanted to help and his actions told me he really wanted this.

Half an hour later I went to meet Steve number 2.  His paperwork was incomplete and had only managed his name, his work reference was abysmal (didn’t turn up to work in a hotel and nicked money, but the manager very sweetly invited me for coffee) and there was something just not right.  He’d been referred to me by another tenant who met him through AA (Alcoholics Anonymous, not roadside assistance) but was scant on where he’d been for the last few months claiming the pub he lived and worked in had burnt down – presumably taking the forensic evidence with it.

Decided to take Tom (one of my larger lads who had nothing better to do that afternoon) as I had my young son with me and felt Steve may decide to hit me when he found out I wasn’t going to let him in.  I told him what I’d found out and, before you could say “you ain’t going in that front door, you scoundrel” he ran off down the road as fast as his legs would carry him!!!!  That really is a first.

Reminder

I have a constant reminder of that day as I ruined my wheel trim (the silver disc that covers the nuts?) as I hit the pavement at speed because I didn’t want to be late for the appointment.  Every time I look at that wheel I remember him and the importance of reference checking.  Happy times.

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