Ever feel like privacy is something the old-timers reminisce about, like penny candy or house calls from physicians? Privacy is dwindling in the digital era, and social media sits near the heart of the privacy debate. Increasingly, employers and landlords are experimenting with social media in vetting candidates, but where is the line drawn? Can social media serve as a useful tool for landlords? If so, should it?
First, a brief discussion of tenant screening fundamentals is in order. Minimal screening should include a credit check, criminal background check, income and employment verification, past housing verification and ideally a walk-through of their current home. Failing to do any of the above is simply a new landlord mistake. But with other resources at your disposal, should you go further?
How do our social media accounts represent us? Photo by Social Fresh.
While most people use Facebook and Twitter simply to connect with friends and family and post media, social networks have other uses. A host of studies have found that companies increasingly use social media during the hiring and interview process. It's only natural that landlords might want to tap into the same resources.
Social media accounts may offer clues as to an applicant's suitability. For example, many people post work histories on their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. Does the renter have children to support who do not live with them full-time? What about pets they didn't list in the rental application? Or frequent moves in the last five years? What about a proclivity for noisy parties?
But there are plenty of pitfalls on the social media trail. By federal law, landlords cannot discriminate based on race, gender, religion, familial status, ethnicity or disability. When you stray away from concrete data such as credit reports, income and housing history and start sifting through an applicant's Facebook photos to make a leasing decision, you open yourself up to claims of discrimination.
There is also such a thing as too much information. Reviewing an applicant's Facebook or Twitter account, you would have access to their likes, dislikes, photos, friends and comments... thousands of them. How much can you really learn about a renter's reliability from sifting through their photos and opinions? Not many people brag about not paying their bills, or post photos of bounced checks.
In the lending business there's an old saying: a person's income tells you can they pay, and a person's credit tells you will they pay. These fundamentals remain more predictive today than ever, and they don't require hours of social snooping.
Advertising Vacant Units
Aside from the murky waters of tenant screening, how can social media best help landlords? It turns out social networks can be a useful tool for advertising and marketing vacant units. What better way to find a reliable tenant than through a family member or friend of a friend? Compile photos and videos to show the property in its best light, write a snappy and intriguing description and you may well find a reliable renter through the virtual grapevine.
Like other businesses, landlords and property managers can create a distinct business account separate from their personal profile. For instance, this New York City landlord allows anyone to easily connect and view his open units. You can use photo galleries to showcase your units and publish your business contact information. By connecting with other businesses in the area, you can reach their customer bases.
There are even social networks built specifically for connecting renters with vacant rental units; examples include Apartable.com and RentSocial.com. Think of them as Craigslist with a social bent, and give them a shot to see how useful they are in your area.
Most tenants and landlords don't want to be friends, on- or offline. But are there any advantages to being friends with tenants on social media?
Some people are just easier to reach through social media than by phone or email. If you suspect your tenant is one of these, try reaching out on Facebook. You can also publish community events or news, and coordinate scheduling among multiple renters. Being friends on Facebook might also make you privy to renter information like "I'm getting a pit bull!" or "I'm throwing a keg party, invite all your friends!" This is tricky territory for landlords with a blurry privacy line.
Only contact tenants to object if they are clearly violating their lease agreement (e.g. the lease prohibits pets). To avoid alienating renters and being unfriended, look for other reasons to contact the renter, such as reminding them of scheduled maintenance. On the same call, you can gently remind them about any lease provisions you fear may be broken.
Social media is a tool like any other and can be used or abused. If you use social media in your tenant screening at all, consider only using it as a quick way to spot red flags and inconsistencies in the renter's application. Out of respect for privacy, alert all applicants if you intend to review their social media profiles, and avoid even the appearance of discrimination at all costs.