Best Practices in Tenant Screening

Darin Barney and John Hall Comments
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These days, self-storage operators face countless security challenges, and many have considered the use of tenant screening to prevent criminals from causing dangerous or costly incidents at their sites. The process is beneficial for businesses as well as the communities they serve. Not only does it help keep customers safe, it can improve the makeup of a facility’s clientele and, therefore, enhance profit. To launch your protection program, you first need to decide which type of screening will most effectively meet your security needs.

Criminal-Background Checks

A criminal-background check should be the centerpiece of your screening process. There are several options, each with its own benefits and limitations.

A courthouse-records searchis a good way to gather detailed information, albeit from a geographically limited source. It provides more particulars than other searches, but because it’s generally performed at the county level, it’s inadequate for obtaining a complete criminal background on applicants who have lived in more than one place or committed crimes outside their county of residence.

Other drawbacks are cost and turnaround time. Because a search of courthouse records is ordered and executed on a case-by-case basis, it tends to be more expensive then other background checks. It also typically requires several days to complete, which is simply not compatible with a need to rent units instantly.

A criminal-database searchaccesses data from multiple sources. In addition to courthouse data, it often relies on department-of-corrections records and other resources. A criminal database provides the convenience of wide geographical access at a very affordable price. This type of search also offers the luxury of instant results, so screening decisions can be rendered while an applicant waits.

There are industries for which a courthouse-records search is preferable, but in the case of self-storage, a database search is usually a better fit. Since the goal of the tenant-screening process is to prevent criminals from operating inside facilities, the limited geographical data available from a courthouse search means important records are more likely to be missed. Also, the types of crimes that should concern an operator most—violence, drug-related crimes and property theft—will typically be best captured by database searches.

Other Sources

There are several other data sources that may be of great value to a storage operator. Some screening providers provide access to these for an additional fee, while others include them as part of their standard service. Some will even allow you to enhance or customize background checks to match your tenant-screening goals. Whichever provider you use, make sure you can retrieve the following information:

Sex-offender datais compiled by state under “Megan’s Law,” and typically identifies sexual predators and perpetrators of violent crimes. Facility customers and employees will appreciate knowing a facility screens applicants to identify these people.

The Office of Foreign Asset Controlis a federal database that identifies those convicted of interstate crimes and other federal offenses. This source is especially useful for tracking drug-related crimes and potential terrorist activity. Other federal sources include the FBI’s Most Wanted list, the U.S. Marshals Office, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the Secret Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Fraud searcheshelp verify an applicant’s identity. A Social Security check will uncover numbers that have never been issued or belong to people who are deceased (common tricks used by criminals to pass background checks). This search will also identify numbers that have been associated with fraudulent activity, which can also be matched to Social Security addresses.

The Credit Question

Some storage operators add credit checks to their screening programs. While credit reports won’t uncover much in the way of criminal activity, they are extremely helpful in identifying applicants with poor credit histories, thus minimizing rentals that may result in delinquency, lockouts, collections and eviction.

A credit report can be used in two ways. First, it can identify applicants with a long history of unpaid debts, liens and bankruptcies. Second, scoring can be added to a basic credit report to achieve the optimal balance of occupied units and qualified tenants.

The premise behind credit scoring is simple: By pulling applicants’ credit scores, you essentially rank them by the potential risk they represent. Choosing tenants who are most likely to make timely payments and least likely to default allows you to improve profitability. Using a credit score also helps eliminate subjectivity and shields a storage facility from potential compliance issues.

Here’s another benefit: Self-storage operators now have the ability to report payment activity directly to the credit bureaus. Adding this information to a tenant’s credit report not only helps with rent and debt collection, it helps managers identify applicants who have poor payment histories at other storage facilities.

Getting Started

Now that you know the types of screening available, the question is how to access information. Several vendors provide tenant-screening products, and you can use single or multiple companies. Some will let you test their services for free on a short-term basis. Here are some tips for choosing the best provider:

Ask Questions. Know exactly what is included in your background checks and if additional sources are included or require an extra charge. Determine if there is a setup fee or monthly access fees, and if the provider requires a minimum number of transactions per month. Get specifics on the breadth of the criminal data being offered, the geographic region it covers, and the frequency of data updates. Finally, find out if the provider offers 24/7, live customer service, and don’t forget to ask about ease of use and other required elements such as software or Internet access.

Try It Out. A quality provider will be glad to set up a trial period so you can see how tenant screening works and use it on a daily basis. Make the most of the demo by closely examining the type of data you receive and making full use of training and support.

Whichever tenant-screening options you choose, the most important thing is to get started. Once you begin contacting providers, many of your concerns will be quickly addressed. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy and inexpensive it is to get an effective screening process up and running at all of your facilities.

Darin Barney is the director of marketing and communication for Phoenix-based MiniCo Inc., a national provider of specialty insurance programs for the self-storage industry. It offers commercial insurance programs and specialty coverage, including customer goods’ legal liability, sale-and-disposal legal liability, limited pollutant removal and systems protection. MiniCo also offers the TenantOne customer-storage insurance program. For more information, call 800.528.1056; visit www.minico.com.

John Hall is marketing manager for TransUnion, a global information-solutions company that has partnered with MiniCo to offer Storage Screening. This data-screening product, tailored to the specific needs of the storage industry, allows facility operators to cross-check customers against multi-source databases to ensure they are legitimate, law-abiding and creditworthy. For more information, call 888.827.4751; visit www.storagescreening.com.

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