Finding Tenants During The Coronavirus Crisis

While it may seem like the world has come to a complete apocalyptic standstill as the coronavirus continues to cause unprecedented havoc around the world, the reality is, there are still things moving around, albeit it noticeably more sluggish than once before.

Yes, most industries have been gagged and wrapped in straitjackets, including the rental market, but that doesn’t mean landlords don’t have vacancies that people aren’t willing to fill. ‘shelter’ is just as essential as food, so there will always be demand for it.

If you’re a landlord with a vacant property (or soon-to-be vacant) and consequently in the midst of biting the last nail off your trembling hand, convinced the market is stone dead and one big money losing opportunity, then maybe you’ll be pleased to hear that I can tell you with certainty that the rental market is still alive. But it certainly ain’t what it used to be [post COVID-19].

Here are my thoughts on how to find tenants in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Has the government banned people from moving homes (i.e. buyers/renders)?

Nope. At least, not yet.

But people seem to think they have though.

There’s not a ban, but they are asking people to delay moving if possible, and if not, take extra special precautions:

If moving is unavoidable for contractual reasons and the parties are unable to reach an agreement to delay, people must follow advice on staying away from others to minimise the spread of the virus.

Full press release here.

Letting agents are closed, so how do I find tenants?

On the 23rd March, approx 9pm’ish, Boris Johnson just finishing making another bumbling speech, announcing that from the 24th March, every shop that isn’t selling “non-essential goods and services” should wave the white flag and shut shop. Immediately.

My assumption is that your local high-street letting agent will be nailing their doors shut by sunrise. Even though some could argue that “housing” is pretty damn essential. I certainly would. However, I have spoken to a few agents since the announcement and the general consensus is that they’ll be unavailable from tomorrow (other than handling enquiries from existing landlords behind closed doors).

I do understand why though, because there’s naturally an incredible amount of human interaction involved with managing tenants (e.g. hosting viewings), so those aspects of business need to be limited, if not obliterated altogether.

Interestingly, although not surprisingly at all, over the past few weeks I’ve seen a massive shift of service providers trying to frantically migrate their entire business online, so they’re able to continue providing a service that inflicts zero risk of transmitting infectious particles in our personal ether.

I’ve seen music teachers offer classes through Skype. Same with fitness instructors. It’s amazing how we adapt.

As for landlords, more have discovered the services of online letting agents (even though they’ve been around for ages now), and it’s how they’ve been able to continue marketing – without any human interaction from an agent – their rental property on the biggest UK portals like Rightmove and Zoopla in order to generate enquiries and find tenants.

Step-by-step guide on how to find tenants during the Coronavirus Crisis

Just to clarify, since most high-street agents are closing their doors, or at least unable to provide viewing services, I’m going to highlight the key steps I would take to independently find tenants with minimal human contact and without the use of a letting agent! This is purely to help landlords that wish to at least try and fill a vacancy during these uncertain and testing times. It won’t be the most efficient route, but given the circumstances, it’s probably a reasonable one…

  • Legally Complaint – first and foremost, make sure all your paperwork is in order, including an EPC and Gas Safety Certificate, along with ensuring you’ve ticked all the other safety and healthy checkboxes. You can find a complete list of your legal obligations here.
  • Record a virtual tour – yup, record a tour of your property with a video recording device – a smartphone will even do. Here’s a quick ‘How to’ guide by the online letting agent Howsy:

  • Marketing – Use an online letting agent to get your property listed on Rightmove & Zoopla to generate enquiries. Here’s a complete guide on Online Letting Agents, which explains how they work, and which are the best rated.

    I said that I can tell you with certainty that the rental market is still alive, and I know that because I can still see that landlords are using the services of online letting agents. Even today.

  • Tenant Enquiries – Once you start receiving enquiries, respond to each promising prospect with a with a link to your virtual tour (you won’t be able to embed the link to your video in your Rightmove/Zoopla listing, so this will be your opportunity to share the video). For those still interested after viewing the virtual tour, you should arrange and conduct a phone interview. You can download a free tenancy application form to help you ask the relevant questions. There’s NO need to meet anyone at this point.
  • Tenant Referencing – Once you have conducted your phone interviews, whittle down the applicants to a shortlist, and use a tenant referencing service to thoroughly reference those remaining.

    This is slightly backwards to normal procedures, but obviously these are not normal times. Normally, I would host viewings first and then reference the applicants that seemed most suitable. But the aim is to limit the human interaction to as little as possible, so we have to do things a little bit funky right now.

    You can find a list of tenant referencing services on this blog post they start from £7.49 per tenant.

  • Viewings – In case it’s not obvious, the idea of providing the virtual tour, conducting the phone interviews and referencing the shortlist is to end up with a highly promising list of prospective tenants, which will help limit the amount of viewings you have to take.

    Arrange viewings with the final shortlist:

    • If you have multiple viewings arranged, I recommend staggering them days apart from one another.
    • Keep a sensible distance from all applicants on arrival, and there’s no need to shake hands.
    • If the property is empty, I recommend leaving the front door open so they can freely enter and view the property without you following them around. You can wait outside.
    • If they have any questions, you can either schedule a phone call for later or kindly ask them to email you. I ‘spose you can have a conversion 2 meters apart, too. Do whatever you’re most comfortable with, while bearing safety in mind.
    • Wipe down surfaces and door handles between each viewing.
    • Leave all the internal doors open, so door handles don’t need to be touched in order to access rooms/cupboards.
    • Advise all applicants on how you plan on conducting the viewings so there is no confusion or shocks on arrival. For their peace of mind, it’s also worth informing them of the lengths you have gone to in order to put their safety first during the viewing (e.g. sterilising the door handles).

I won’t cover more than that, because the idea of this blog post is to demonstrate how to overcome the issue of finding a tenant without a letting agent while practising social-distancing.

If you’re interested in a more in-depth guide, which covers additional steps, like managing tenancy deposits, conducting an inventory etc. then I recommend downloading my complete landlord guide for new landlords (don’t worry, it’s completely free). It covers it all. But bear in mind, that guide was not written while anticipating a deadly viral outbreak, so you’ll have to use good judgement and common sense to adapt the regular best practises with current times, just like I did with the viewing process.

Is conducting a viewing against the rules? Honestly, I don’t know. But the government has made it clear that people are still permitted to travel to work if social distancing is practised, or to work from home if possible. Going by what they have said, I think it should be ok – this is essential work for landlords! Some of us depend on the rental income.

Needless to say, I can’t irritate how important it is to practise good common sense throughout the entire process, so no one’s safety is compromised.

Should I find new tenants during the coronavirus or leave my property vacant?

I really can’t answer that for you.

From a purely practical point of view, I think it’s better to at least try and fill the vacancy, even if it’s not via the most efficient route. What do you have to lose?

Just be prepared to accept that you may not find a suitable applicant, and if you do, it may not be as quickly as you’d like.

Of course, if you’re one of the 1.5m that are in the “higher risk bracket” in terms of health, then all bets are off. Stay at home and forget about it, unless you can get someone else to help you out.

My tips to finding tenants during the coronavirus pandemic

  • Do NOT buckle under desperation – under no circumstances should you take any shortcuts or chances out of desperation. Be patient and stay true to a vigilant and thorough referencing process and only accept a suitable tenant. Yes, a “suitable tenant” is going to be increasingly difficult to find during these times, while half the population is losing their jobs or taking massive pay cuts, but it’s better to wait rather than inviting in a rogue tenant (who will inevitably cost you more than a vacant property).

    Even in times of crisis there are opportunists out there looking to take advantage of wavering landlords. Remember, drug dealers are still dealing, and looters are still looting. There are still scumbags out there in times of a global crisis.

  • Maximum 6 month tenancy agreement – I recommend making the fixed term for any new tenancies the minimum amount permitted, which is 6 months. During these uncertain times, it’s considerably risky to offer long-term tenancies.
  • Lower your rent – you may want to consider slightly lowering the rent [compared to the local going rate] to help boost interest. Remember, it’s usually always more cost-effective to offer a lower asking price if it helps speed up the process, as opposed to leaving the property vacant for prolonged periods of time before eventually getting the full asking price.
  • Be prepared for slow results – the market is still moving, but I suspect it’s going to get slower before it reinvigorates, so mentally prepare yourself for a very slow process.

If you’re currently a landlord facing the issue of finding new tenants during this unprecedented time, please share your experiences…

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