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Renting Apartments: The Ad

This is what we hope will be the first in a series of blog posts about tips for renting and managing apartments.

The first step to filling a vacancy is creating the ad, which means posting it on Craigslist. In some markets (especially lower income ones) paying for a local newspaper classified ad can still work, but this article focuses on Craigslist ads.

The headline of your ad is important. It’s what people see when browsing listings, right next to your competition’s apartments, so you have to make it count.

Use the headline to mention the best features of your unit (e.g., large, just renovated, includes utilities, new appliances, ceiling fans, etc.).

Avoid jargon and abbreviations if possible. You’re not paying by the word, so make it “user friendly” and spell out things like “2 bedrooms” instead of writing “2BR”.

Also keep your text succinct and to the point—huge blobs of text are very off-putting. Apartment hunters make a quick list in the morning of places to call and visit in the afternoon, so your ad needs to be easy to scan for the key info.

Ad Text: The Apartment

Answer tenants’ questions up front in the ad. Why waste their time and yours, if your apartment just won’t meet their needs (e.g., they need more bedrooms than your unit has)? Some items to include:

  • Neighborhood – good in the headline, especially if it’s a great area, but don’t bend the truth too much (e.g., North Main Street is not the East Side of Providence!)
  • Rent – obvious, but also include how often the rent is due, because some landlords charge weekly rent; eliminate any confusion up front.
  • Utilities – everyone asks, “Are utilities included?” so answer this in the ad. If they’re included, it should be in your headline too. If they’re not, state this clearly. For example, “no utils” could mean “tenant doesn’t have to pay utils”; instead write something like, “rent does *not* include utilities, utility bills are paid by tenants, past tenants have told us utilities average about $100/month all together” (if you don’t include this last part, people will ask you how much utilities are).
  • Type of heat – some tenants care about this, and will avoid electric heat. Put it in the ad to avoid a phone call and showing that ends with, “Oh, it’s electric heat, I forgot to mention, I hate electric, sorry, I’m not interested.”
  • Floor – yes, everyone hates the 3rd floor, but you do no one any favors (including yourself!) by concealing this fact in the ad. If it’s the 1st floor, put it in the headline.
  • Number of bedrooms – again, obvious, but sometimes you can forget the obvious; that’s why professionals have checklists.
  • Number of bathrooms – only if it is 2 or more; don’t bother to include if there is only 1 bathroom, that is assumed. If 2+, include in headline.
  • Number of parking spaces – don’t just say “parking”, say the # of spaces. If you have no parking you should reveal this up front. If you have 2+ spaces you could include it in headline if apartment is otherwise unremarkable.
  • When it’s available – this is the date someone can move in; if it’s ready now, say “available now”, not “move in immediately”, as the latter sounds more desperate.
  • Unfurnished – you only need this if your pictures include current (departing) tenants’ possessions, just to avoid anyone thinking the apartment comes with furniture; more on pictures below.
  • Address – because Craigslist finally allows mapping apartments, put the full address unless the whole building is vacant (then it might be safer to put a nearby intersection).

Note: Be very careful not to violate fair housing laws in your advertising or screening/renting. In the ad, as a general rule, “describe the apartment, not the renter.”

(You must comply with Federal and state fair housing laws—Rhode Island adds several protected classes beyond the Federal ones, and penalties for violating these laws can be severe, in the tens of thousands of dollars.)

Ad Text: Your Policies

It’s also important to specify how you do things, what you require of applicants, etc. Again, let tenants pre-screen themselves by answering as many questions up front as you can. Some items to include:

  • The big three – “We check criminal, employment and credit“; just letting people know that you will check these may deter tenants who have criminal records or a bad credit history.
  • Pets – for example, “no pets” or “cats only, no kittens” or “some pets OK with additional pet rent”; some landlords omit this in order to ask on the phone, “how many and what kind of pets will you have?”
  • Smoking – some landlords omit this from the ad in order to ask on the phone, “how many smokers will there be?”
  • Past landlord – if you require a previous (not current, and not related) landlord reference, you could put this in the ad also to screen out first-time renters if you wish; I sometimes omit this to see how callers react when I ask them for it.
  • Application fee – if you charge one, it may be good to put this in the ad along with related policies such as, “$20 application fee, credited toward first month’s rent if accepted.”
  • Cost to move in – for example, “$1600 needed to move in ($800 rent, $800 security deposit)”. See note below re: “payment plans” for security deposits, and last month’s rent.
  • Call to action – very important, this goes at the end and is where you tell them when and how to contact you, for example, “Call Anthony now 401-xxx-xxxx (no calls after 9pm, no texts at any time)”

Always collect a full month’s rent as security deposit, and never let someone move in without paying the full security deposit up front.

Do not ever make “payment plans” for tenants to pay the security deposit over time; once they’ve moved in you’ll never receive the full deposit. In fact, it’s a warning sign if a potential tenant asks you for this; if they can’t pay the full deposit, they’re going to have problems paying the rent.

You could even add to the “cost to move in” section, “sorry, no payment plans accepted, full security deposit and first month’s rent required for move-in”.

Note: It’s illegal in Rhode Island to collect more than one month’s rent as a security deposit… and I’ve been told that many RI judges consider collecting last month’s rent up front to be an additional security deposit which would then violate the law. Some landlords disagree and ask for last month’s rent anyway, but I prefer to be conservative and only ask for 1st and security.

Ad Pictures: Essential!

A big part of the ad will be the photos. We live in a very visual culture, even Facebook posts with pictures get more Likes. There are some ads on Craigslist without photos, but tenants can check the “has image” box when searching, so those ads might never be seen.

If you want good photos, and you want to get good tenants, you obviously have to make your unit look good—not just for showings, but for the pictures that will get you the showings. So clean it well, make it sparkle, etc.

The primary key to good photographs is good lighting. The best time to take photos is on a nice, sunny day. Turn on all the lights, open all the blinds, etc. Either early in the morning, or late afternoon are traditionally best for natural lighting, but if you can’t shoot during the day bring some high wattage light bulbs and maybe even a lamp or two.

(Side note: No blinds on the windows? You should have them—by Rhode Island law landlords are responsible for providing blinds on bedroom and bathroom windows. See the Rhode Island Landlord-Tenant Handbook for more on responsibilities of landlords vs. tenants)

Don’t use a flash as it will make your photos look washed out and have an awful glare. This means you’ll need either a steady hand or tripod, or to brace the camera against a doorway/counter.

You can do a lot with photos, such as using a DSLR camera, using a wide-angle lens, or processing the photos in Photoshop or another program to brighten the pics, add a little yellow/red to make them seem “warmer”, use auto-contrast/auto-level, etc.

Do whatever your time, expertise and budget allow, but you must have photos and they should be as good as you can reasonably make them.

One great tip is to use your digital camera to record a video walkthrough of the unit, then upload the video to YouTube and put a link to the walk-through in your ad.

Another important tip is that the first photo you upload will be your “default photo”, representing your unit in the “pic view”, show up at the top when someone clicks your ad, etc. So make sure that photo shows off the best part of your unit!

Other Tricks of the Trade

When dealing with tenants and potential tenants, you need to take control and stay in control. For example, don’t let callers ramble on; stay in charge of the conversation because 1) your time is valuable, and 2) you could get a call from another potential tenant at any time.

Note: In the call to action above it says, “no calls after 9pm, no texts at any time.” If you don’t state acceptable calling times people will call at all hours, and if you just say, “no texts or calls after 9pm” they’ll assume texting is fine except after 9.

I’ll text with current tenants about maintenance issues, but I will not text with potential tenants. I want to ask them about their rental history, remind them about the credit, criminal, and employment checks, ask them “how many” pets/smokers/waterbeds etc. and then listen to how they reply.

Of course, even if you say “no texts”, you’ll still get texts from potential tenants. I always reply with a simple, “Yes the apartment is still available, please call 401-xxx-xxxx if you’d like to schedule a showing.”

But it is a strike against someone if they can’t follow that simple direction. If they missed “no texts at any time”, what else (in my lease or house rules) are they going to “miss” because it’s not convenient for them?

You may be tempted at some point to just give a land line or straight-to-voice-mail number, that way you can decide who sounds good for calling back.

That’s a big mistake, because many good tenants are trying to set up same-day appointments and if they don’t reach a person they won’t bother leaving a message, they’ll just move onto the next ad. (And many bad tenants who are highly motivated to move will happily leave messages trying to find landlords with poor screening practices.)

So you must list a cell phone number and you must answer it every time it rings.

(Advanced tip: You could get a Google Voice number that you only use for apartment ads, set it up to forward to your cell phone as the Google Voice number, then put the Google Voice number in your cell phone so it shows up as “Prospective Tenant” and you always answer those calls.)

Some people will email you, even if you say not to in the ad. That’s fine, but as with texts, I tell them to call me so I can ask them questions and listen to how they respond. (Though you can Google their email address, look it up on Facebook, etc.)

Speaking of email: Beware of scammers! It seems like scammers target apartment ads a lot, so it won’t be long before one contacts you. They usually reveal themselves by saying how they’re from out of the area but are eager to send you a deposit to hold the apartment, etc.

When you get one of these scam emails, respond that they must 1) call you, 2) meet you in person to look at the apartment, and 3) submit a rental application that passes your screening, before they can give you any deposit. You must take an in-person signed rental application from each and every person applying for the apartment (again, anti-discrimination: Same process for everyone.)

(And note, scammers can get Google Voice numbers and send you texts too, they can use Skype to call you, etc. so beware of all out-of-area contacts. No one gets an apartment, and no money changes hands, until you get a signed rental application that passes your screening.)

Lastly, and this is huge, you must renew your ad as often as possible. As of this writing, on Craigslist you can renew your ad every 48 hours, which puts your ad back at the top of the “browse” list.

Even though the Craigslist search is pretty good, many tenants seem to take the easy route and just look at the first X listings on any given morning. I think the mindset is, “start at the top, scroll down and call on each one that sounds good until we have 3 appointments for this afternoon.”

So the more frequently your ad is found at the top of the list, the more calls you’ll get, and the faster your apartment will be rented.

Please note: I’m not saying to make new posts of the same unit over and over again. Instead, go to the main Craigslist page, click my account, find the ad you posted previously, and click “renew”.

If the renew link isn’t there, 48 hours may not have gone by since you posted it. Or if 48 hours has passed and there’s no renew link (which can happen after a few weeks), “delete” the ad and then “repost” it as a new ad.

(You want to avoid having the same apartment posted multiple times at once because people could flag all the posts as duplicates and cause them to get pulled.)

This post has covered a lot, so I’ll save topics like how to handle phone calls, how to do showings, how to take and screen applications, etc. for future posts. If you have any questions, or have a house to sell, please contact us.

Filed under: Property Management — Anthony Thompson @ 6:54 pm March 14, 2013

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