Screening College Student Renters in an Uncertain Market

Uncertainties around college campus openings this fall will likely have a marked impact on the state’s sizable college rental market.

By Eric Weld, MassLandlords, Inc.

It’s difficult to say what the college student rental market will look like come September. The uncertainty of the upcoming academic year, due to the coronavirus pandemic and response, will put more importance on screening college students. It will also emphasize the need for strong qualifying processes for landlords in this college-rich state.

For Massachusetts landlords, who provide housing for tens of thousands of college students in a normal year, this summer, and especially fall, will likely look different from prior years.

Few colleges have yet announced what teaching format they will have in place throughout the next academic year. (Several have said they will announce their fall plans in July.) Some schools might invite students back to campus in September but plan to send them home at Thanksgiving break. Others, such as Boston University, are planning for nearly empty campuses and offering strictly remote classes. Depending on any coronavirus surges during the year, colleges could end up repeating the sudden campus closures that took place this spring.

An Unclear Picture

These uncertainties are sure to muddle the picture for college student renters and landlords. It’s a sizable market in Massachusetts, the top-ranked state for education, according to USNews. The state is home to 114 four-year colleges and universities – one for every three communities on average. In Boston, more than half of all rentals operate with leases running parallel to the academic calendar, September 1 to August 31, in order to accommodate student renters.

As a percentage of college student renters opt not to travel to the Bay State this year, others, who would normally leave the state for college, will remain. Some may be looking for housing. Added to that number will be students who were planning to travel abroad for the year, as most colleges have announced cancellations of study-abroad programs for 2020–21.

The overall effect will likely be a dip in the college rental market. That will mean more housing options for students, as well as non-students seeking housing in college rental neighborhoods.

Not Business as Usual

The uncertainty of college schedules may also translate into volatility during the year as situations change according to coronavirus circumstances. College students might be reluctant to sign one-year rental agreements in September if they are unsure whether their college will remain open for on-campus classes all year. Those who do sign through-year leases might seek subletters mid-year if there’s a coronavirus spike and their campus suddenly shuts down.

Landlords who primarily rent to college students might consider a temporary policy this year of shorter leases, or tenant-at-will agreements to allow for these uncertainties.

This might also be a year to consider charging a higher security deposit than you usually do, up to the equivalent of one month’s rent, to help offset any potential complications or nonpayment during the lease year. (A few states allow landlords to require their tenants to purchase a surety bond instead of paying a security deposit, an increasingly popular option. That way, rent payments are guaranteed by the surety company and renters pay a lower move-in cost. So far, this is not a legal option in Massachusetts.)

Screening for Better College Renters

Whatever the college rental market looks like this summer and fall, screening college student renters thoroughly can help landlords identify better-qualified tenants amid unstable circumstances. Such tenants might be more likely to work and communicate with landlords and keep them apprised of their situations, and be less likely to skip out on an agreement.

Even in a normal year, qualifying student tenants comes with a set of specific steps to account for their relative inexperience as renters. This year’s uncertainty makes it more necessary that you know your potential tenants as well as you can.

College students are typically young in comparison with most renters (the average age of new undergraduate students is 19.9 years old). Many have not established rental, credit or employment histories – standard criteria for determining a renter’s dependability. And many college students haven’t cultivated an ability to speak and act professionally as called for in an interview situation. As a result, they may not come off as desirable a renter in comparison with others.

Screening Steps

As always, a phone qualification is the recommended first step for all prospects who answer your rental ads, whether by phone, email or text. Apartment showings should be scheduled only among those who pass the initial phone screening to your satisfaction.

Student renters should be instructed to bring with them an acceptance letter from their college. This will confirm their matriculation, inform you of their status as an accepted student and verify (as they may have asserted during their phone screening) if they are eligible for financial aid or scholarships.

You are invited to visit our rental qualifier to guide you through subsequent screening steps. However, this qualifier is meant for prospects with rental and work experience. Student renters may not pass because they lack experience.

How Will They Pay Rent?

Ask student renters during the phone screen how they intend to pay rent. Will they use financial aid? Do they plan to work part-time? Will their parents cover their living costs?

Whatever their answer is, you will need to obtain backup documentation. That might include bank savings or checking account records for them and/or their parents, copies of recent payroll checks and financial aid statements.

Employment and Activities History

As with any renter, you will want to see a record of their employment, such as a resume. Keep in mind, in many cases college students will have no or next to no employment history, having come straight from high school.

Invite prospects who still remain on the “yes” list following a showing to fill out a rental application. (During COVID-19, you may want them to pass the application before an in-person showing.) Again, keep in mind that college students’ residence and employment history may be scant. These criteria may have to be evaluated differently from seasoned renters.

References

Because many college students lack information that strengthens their suitability as renters, it’s more important that they provide at least three references and contact information.

Often with college student renters, their references will include parents, other family members or friends. But student renters get a bonus if their references include teachers, employers, coaches or landlords. These reference sources are more likely to give you unbiased assessments of the prospect and provide clues as to how they will behave in a business relationship.

Cosigners

In most cases, college student renters won’t have a significant rental background to give you useful information for ascertaining their viability as tenants.

In those cases, the students should provide the name or names of cosigners who will sign the rental agreement and act as de facto tenants. Students’ cosigners need to sign a cosigner guarantee that explains their obligations and commits them to providing a full rent guarantee in the event the resident lessee fails to pay rent or breaches the rental contract.

Cosigners must also pass applicant qualifying processes. This step might include credit checks, a criminal background check and proof of a solid financial history and income. Cosigners should get a bonus if they own real estate, more points if it’s local.

Parents of new college students can make good cosigners because, in general, they feel an inherent sense of responsibility for their children’s success and are willing to back it up materially. On the other hand, if parents are over-involved, it could indicate an unprepared or entitled renter who may be lax in paying rent and caring for the property.

Background Check

Inform your prospective student renter that you will conduct a background check, looking into their credit history, any criminal activity, employment background and changes in residence. If you notice any nervousness or objection, it’s a red flag.

Be sure to check for any evictions, including from college dormitories. Also do a quick online and social media search. You never know what you might find. Don’t be surprised if student background checks turn up little to no information. Many of them are too young to have any kind of adult record, be that criminal or financial.

Other Red Flags

A quick list of red flags to watch for when interviewing prospective student renters:

  • Long, convoluted stories about past rental situations, credit or employment
  • No references
  • Over-controlling parents combined with under-involved prospective students
  • Impolite or inconsiderate behavior
  • Any evasive or vague answers to questions about who will be living in the rental
  • Showing up late to appointments without a good excuse
  • False information on an application (an automatic disqualifier)
  • A dirty, uncared-for car (seriously!). It may not be an indicator, but it’s something to be aware of. If a prospect treats their car poorly, it may be a sign that they will treat your property similarly.

Undergrad vs. Grad Students

Renting to graduate students is frequently much different from renting to undergrads. Many landlords who rent to students prefer graduate student tenants only, and for some good reasons. Graduate students are usually older and therefore generally more mature. Graduate academic programs are typically more rigorous than at the undergraduate level, and grad students tend to be more serious scholars who are strongly focused on their academic work.

However, there are many more undergraduate students than graduate students nationally. This is true throughout Massachusetts and in Boston, too. Holding strictly to the graduate student market can be limiting, depending on the location of your rentals.

Also, some graduate students, as more experienced renters and as aspiring professionals, might prefer to rent units of higher caliber than undergraduates.

U.S. Citizens vs. International Students

The international student renter market will probably be relatively limited this fall in comparison with most years. Still, many students will arrive from foreign lands looking for housing, and they can make for very dependable tenants. It’s worth pointing out a few important distinctions between American and international college students.

U.S. college students are more likely to apply for rentals with reliable (if limited) credentials such as bank accounts and accessible financial records. They very often have U.S. government financial aid in the form of Pell grants and secured student loans. And American students are more likely to have local acquaintances or parents, or may be looking to rent with a friend or group of friends. Make sure that you give international applicants opportunity to document and explain their non-U.S. credentials, to avoid claims of discrimination on the basis of national origin.

Periodic Inspections

With the presence of coronavirus and social distancing, this summer and fall should be a little quieter on the college party front. Still, we all know, many college students like to gather at parties and they surely won’t stop altogether. In fact, early “coronavirus parties” tended to send college housing in the opposite direction. That fact alone keeps many landlords from renting to them at all.

Once you have your rentals occupied with college students, you will want to make it clear that you will visit them at the rental regularly during the contract duration. It’s recommended that you stop by once a month to conduct informal, or passive, inspections. If you intend to enter the rental unit, you are required by law to give “reasonable notice.” (In Massachusetts, reasonable notice is typically considered to be 24 hours.)

Even quiet, conscientious college students may need some extra attention. As first-time renters, these students may not know when to contact their landlords, and partying aside, something like a small leak could quickly get out of hand if they ignore it. Periodic landlord visits are in their best interest as well as yours.

Keeping in Touch

The coming academic year may see an uptick in subletting, or subleasing, in the college rental market. If a school opens in September, for example, but then responds to a coronavirus surge by closing campus, those students may again want to return to their hometowns. Meanwhile, Mass. residents attending college out of state might seek subletting situations back home if their campus closes.

In Massachusetts, a rental cannot be subletted without the consent of the landlord. Any subletters must qualify via the same screening and application procedures as the original renter. There might be more time sensitivity for approving a subletter, depending on the severity of a coronavirus surge and a given campus’ closing procedure.

That’s another reason why, in the coming academic year, it’s more important than ever to stay in touch with your student renters and remain apprised of local coronavirus and college news.

A robust screening process leading up to tenancy will help you identify and rent to college students who are more likely to communicate with you and navigate this uncertain year in the best way possible.

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