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Don’t consider a tenant without knowing everything about them

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When looking for a tenant, you simply can’t judge a book by its cover.

There a strong case for using letting agents if you want to rent out your property. But there’s an equally strong case for doing it on your own, and earning the fee an agent would earn if they did it on your behalf.

You must be cautious during every step of the process, however. My own experience of letting out my house in Westdene, Joburg, is that when looking
for a tenant, you simply can’t judge a book by its cover.

The fun part is loading flattering pictures of your space online on free ad posts. And there’s a definite buzz when you see responses coming in from people who like what you are offering. But now begins the real work.

The reality is that if you’re going to be your own agent, you need to acquire the fact-finding skills of a seasoned agent, who is quick to surmise whether or not the applicant is a serious contender. So in between showing off your space, you need to subtly establish:
  • where the applicant is living;
  • why they’re moving out;
  • if they’ll be living alone or with someone;
  • if they have pets;
  • whether they smoke;
  • where they work and what they do and
  • how much money they are earning (which should be at least two thirds more than the rent).

I’ve needed some skill sharpening in this department in the past because I’m easily charmed and persuaded, and I’ve often found myself driving away
from an hour of pleasant chatter with none of the answers to these questions answered, only to discover later that the chat was just that, with no intention
by the applicant to follow up.

People’s circumstances and lifestyles are hugely varied, so you also need to have some idea of who you’re looking for: a student, single professional,
couple or family? Still, you cannot guarantee how tenants will behave once in your property. I once had a family unit – grandmother, couple and two children – who seemed a perfect fit, but unbeknown to me they then moved in five dogs, three cats and a leguaan that lived in a glass enclosure on the kitchen shelf.

When the family moved out, my garden was a dust bowl, and it took well over a month to nurture it back to acceptable.

Suffice to say, your lease should tightly cover as many bases as possible, including any maintenance requirements (the garden and gutters), number
of pets allowed, length of stay for visitors, and small but important details, like how many nails may be driven into the wall. Once you have found someone who seems a good fit and who is interested in applying, your inquiries have to – of necessity – become even more prying. Enter the credit check.

I found the best online credit check is TPN Credit Bureau, which specialises in property rentals and charges R95 for occasional checks (cross-checking with
TPN, TU, Experian and CPA) and scores the applicant on rent affordability, credit payment record, and whether there are any debt reviews, defaults, notices, disputes or judgments in place.

Other documents required are the last three months of bank statements, which show incomings and outgoings – important to determine whether the applicant is receiving enough to cover rental – and a copy of their identity document.

Were the process as clear cut as credit and banking checks, however, finding a tenant would be easy. The reality is that most, including myself possibly, have a less-than-pristine credit rating, so the next part of the process should be a more human endeavour.

In the case of my latest tenant, I called her current landlord and also a creditor she pays monthly to verify that she is a good payer, which holds more water to my mind.

Time will tell, however, whether you have a good tenant. If it turns out you don’t, it’s important to act swiftly.

Greg Vermaak, senior partner of Vermaak & Partners and a prominent name in the field of evictions in Joburg, offers this advice: “If you end up with a ‘bandit’ tenant, don’t waste months on having letters written and seeking help from the Rental Housing Tribunal, which is effective if both parties are honestly trying to resolve an issue, but not in cases where the tenant is just playing for time. Rather see a lawyer and seek a motion to evict as soon as possible. Just get the legal process going because it can take months.”

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