How to Give Your Ex-Tenant a Landlord Reference

Has a former tenant requested a reference? If you're a landlord, sooner or later you'll find yourself wondering how to appropriately convey your experience with a tenant without compromising your ethics or exposing yourself to legal conflict down the road. Issuing a tenant reference isn't as easy as sending a quick e-mail or hastily-penned letter with a positive endorsement of (or warning against) the renter.

Has a former tenant requested a reference? If you're a landlord, sooner or later you'll find yourself wondering how to appropriately convey your experience with a tenant without compromising your ethics or exposing yourself to legal conflict down the road. Issuing a tenant reference isn't as easy as sending a quick e-mail or hastily-penned letter with a positive endorsement of (or warning against) the renter.

Your rental property is an investment, and you should treat all your important tenant communications as business transactions. As such, you'll need to take care of your referral letter format, wording, and degree of disclosure to protect your business from legal action.

When Your Tenant Requests a Letter of Recommendation

When Your Tenant Requests a Letter of Recommendation

Your renter may include a request for a referral letter with their official notice. Hopefully, this notice is within the timeframe stated in their rental contract, and they're not breaking their lease. You'll want to double-check their paperwork and have it on hand during the move-out process, of course, and find out when the tenant expects to vacate the property. If you require a walk-through on the day they surrender their keys, set that date.

If the tenant asks you in person or through unofficial communication to provide a letter of recommendation, don't agree to write one... but firmly let them know you'll consider it when they've vacated the property or conducted a pre-vacation walk-through. Not only will this give them an added incentive to leave the unit in good condition, but it also lets them know that this potentially awkward discussion is off the table in the meantime.

Don't allow yourself to be put "on the spot". Whether you have a friendly, casual, or contentious relationship with your tenant, it's easy to feel pressured to give answers or make promises... especially when the tenant is actively looking for a new rental arrangement. 

Their prospective new landlords may contact you directly or through a management company to inquire about your recommendation. Once again, don't feel pressured to disclose your opinion until you feel confident in your answer. It's not your responsibility to help your former tenant find new housing in a timely manner.

Would You Rent to That Tenant Again?

Would You Rent to That Tenant Again?

Once the tenant has vacated and you've assessed the property's condition, ask yourself if you would hesitate to have them back.

  • Did they pay on time? How many times did they pay late? What were the circumstances?
  • Did you receive any complaints about the tenants?
  • Do you plan to return their full deposit? If not, why not?
  • Upon inspecting the newly-vacated unit, do you suspect they violated the terms of the contract? (Pets, unauthorized alterations, additional occupants).
  • Were they respectful and honest?

Write down your answers and keep them on file. These are the questions their next landlord will want to know, and you're going to want to find a way to share your experience in an appropriate yet honest manner.

If The Answer Is "No":

If The Answer Is No

...then you're off the hook for writing a recommendation. In fact, if you do write one that's falsely positive, you'll be on the hook if a future landlord claims you recommended a renter known as a liability. If you write a negative recommendation, the former tenant can take you to court and ask you to prove your statements.

For example, if the former tenant left garbage in common areas and played their music too loud but paid their rent on time every month, focusing only on the positives still serves as an endorsement. If you depart from a neutral stance and sound too enthusiastic, you could be accused of promoting the bad tenant for the sole purpose of getting them out of your property at the cost of another landlord.

There's a precedent: In Randi W. v. Muroc Joint Unified School District , a case pertaining to employment references given for a school administrator known to have sexually assaulted a student, those who issued the positive recommendation without addressing the very serious negatives were held liable for their deception. The Supreme Court's ruling can, by extension, apply to the landlord-tenant relationship .

Be prepared for persistent requests from the tenant. When they're searching for advice to assist them, they'll find articles like "My Landlord Does Not Want to Give Good References", on SFGate.

If you receive a call, e-mail, or letter from a new landlord's representative, simply decline to respond. You are not required to give any excuse for your refusal. Be firm, polite, and neutral.

If The Answer is "Yes":

If The Answer Is Yes

You might be heartbroken to see your tenant go. They may have been the renter of your dreams. Before you write a long letter (using a formal business format, of course) extolling their timely payments, neighborly behavior, and spotless housekeeping, note that overenthusiastic recommendations, as mentioned above, may seem to be in-genuine and could actually hurt your tenant's prospects.

And sometimes, people experience life changes that alter their legitimacy as an excellent tenant. A sudden job loss can prevent them from paying their rent on time... or at all. Circumstances may alter their priorities or abilities, causing them to become overwhelmed by household chores. A new partner, family member, or housemate might negate that tenant's fine qualities, making it difficult for the new landlord to decide which tenant is responsible for bad behavior.

These types of circumstances have the potential to blow back on you. Avoid "overselling" a high-quality tenant by providing accurate, succinct information without emotion or embellishment, and be sure your letter lists the move-in and move-out dates of their tenancy for context.

  • Good:  Jane Doe paid her rent on or before the due date, and was only late once on (give date).
  • Bad:  Jane always drove her check over to the office at least a week before it was due, and she brought cookies.
  • Good:  On a scale of one to five (five being excellent) I would rate the unit a 4.5 upon vacancy. There was a water stain under the kitchen sink that indicated she had done a repair herself without alerting our authorized repairman.
  • Bad:  Any issues we had with her move-out were minor. On a scale of one to 5, we'd give her a 4.5.
  • Good:  Jane Doe was respectful of other members of our community. She did have a frequent guest who violated the guest parking policy and we had to contact Ms. Doe twice to warn her, but in the three years she lived at (complex) we had no other reasons to give her notices.
  • Bad:  We never had any complaints.

Review your notes prior to engaging in a phone conversation and do your best to "stick to the script". Don't hesitate to decline to answer questions you can't honestly answer.

Keep Good Records & Stay Informed

Keep Good Records and Stay Informed

Make a copy of any written correspondence relating to your former tenant's reference. It's never a bad idea to record your tenant-related phone conversations, either, if it's legal in your state to do so without their knowledge. These recordings may not be admissible in court, but they will help you make better notes. There are several free or low-cost apps on the market for smartphones that will meet your needs. If a screener calls you on a landline, ask to call them back so you can prepare. This is also a great time to gather your records and your thoughts.

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