How to Incorporate Home Visits into Applicant Screening Process
Screening applicants is becoming increasingly important for assisted sites. And visiting an applicant's home is an effective way to identify bad applicants. It can also help you get a head start in working with those applicants you ultimately decide to accept. At the Residences at Ninth Square, a site in New Haven, Conn., the management uses home visits with great success as part of a rigorous applicant-screening process. They perform the standard background checks on credit, criminal records, and prior evictions for each applicant. In addition, they conduct a home visit of all prospects living within a 50-mile radius of the site. This intensive screening process resulted in a rejection rate of approximately 15 percent of applicants for the subsidized units. And they've attributed their low rate of eviction to this intensive screening process.
While HUD allows you to make “home visits,” it doesn't go into detail on how to make them. As a result, many managers omit home visits from their application process. But including home visits in your screening process isn't always complicated or difficult.
Here's an overview on how to make the most of home visits. We've also provided a Model Form: Home Visit Report, which you can adapt and use to document what you find out about applicants during your visit. But check first with your attorney to make sure our report will work at your site.
What's a Home Visit?
Before deciding whether to accept or reject applicants, some management companies conduct a home visit to applicants' current residences. The person conducting the visit should be either a staff member familiar with inspection issues at an assisted site or an outside contractor with site management experience. Typically, a home visit will attempt to answer these questions:
- Who's living with the applicant?
- Does the applicant understand rental responsibilities?
- Is the applicant's home used for criminal activity?
- Does the applicant's unit meet acceptable housekeeping standards?
Benefits of Home Visits
Home visits give you information about how applicants are currently living. This information lets you:
Screen out bad applicants. You can reject applicants who are living in unsanitary conditions of their own making, or whose criminal activities would pose a threat to the safety of other people at your site.
Head off costly problems at your site. With applicants you do find acceptable, you might spot problems—housekeeping mistakes, for example—that could lead to damage at your property. So if, on the home visit, you see signs of misuse of appliances, or damage to floors or carpeting—areas where slip-ups pose potentially costly problems—make a note. And be sure to address those issues during your move-in orientation for these new residents.
Shorten problem residents' stay with you. Even if the situation you find isn't clear-cut enough to reject an applicant who may become a problem, the home visit may give you a head start on spotting lease violations and acting on them. Say, for example, you find on the home visit that an applicant's boyfriend is living in her current unit, but he hasn't applied to be part of her household at your site. Tell the applicant about your site policy against unauthorized guests and warn your site staff to be on the lookout for this “live-in.” Then, if her boyfriend tries to move into your site, you'll already be on the alert for this lease violation, says Anita Moseman of Monfric Realty, a property management and consulting firm. But if you aren't prepared, it might take you months to notice this lease violation, and much longer to do something about it.
Set Policy on Home Visits
HUD says you must apply your screening criteria “uniformly to all applicants” [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 2-25 (B)(2)]. Many managers think this means that home visits are an all-or-nothing proposition—either all applicants get home visits or none do. However, you can make exceptions if you keep a written home visit policy in your files.
The written policy should state the situations where you won't conduct a home visit. You must apply the exceptions uniformly. And you must have objective criteria for skipping a home visit—you can't skip a visit, for example, because an applicant looks clean. You must apply the policy's exceptions uniformly to all applicants that fit the exceptions. If you don't, you're bound to run into discrimination problems. There are two common objective exceptions:
1. Distance. It's impractical to visit applicants' homes if they live far from your site. Instead an owner should establish a geographic radius within which home visits are made, outside of which home visits are not made [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par 4-7 (E)(5)(c)]. For example, an owner may determine that 50 miles is the maximum distance that can be traveled to visit an applicant at home.
2. Credit report or letter from previous owner is unavailable. When screening applicants, most managers do credit checks and get references from previous landlords. You may want to conduct a home visit only for applicants who have no credit history or aren't able to get a letter describing their prior rental histories.
Another important point to remember is that you can't ask applicants to pay the costs of home visits or other screening methods. For example, owners must not require applicants to pay application fees, credit report charges, charges for home visits, charges to obtain a police report(s), or other costs associated with these functions [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 6-20(A)]. These costs are considered project or operating expenses for your site.
When to Visit
Don't conduct a home visit until an applicant has reached the top of your waiting list, has given you all the certification information you need, and has passed all your other screening criteria. That way, you won't waste time and money visiting the home of someone whose application you'd reject for other reasons anyway—like bad credit or ineligible income level.
It makes sense to schedule the home visit with as little advance notice as possible. A home visit won't tell you as much about how a family really lives if they know you're coming and have time to whip their unit into shape. That's why some managers call ahead just a few hours before they plan to arrive.
Moseman goes a step further. She asks applicants to sign a statement at the time they fill out their applications, agreeing to an unscheduled home visit. That way, applicants know she's coming—but they don't know when. She says she typically finds applicants at home when she drops by.
What to Look for During Visit
On these visits, always use a home visit report to record what you find out about a family and their housekeeping habits.
You need to find out whether applicants have given you accurate information about who's really going to live at your site and what pets they'll have with them. So ask to meet the household members who are at home when you stop by. You might see other people in the unit (possibly friends or neighbors) or notice, say, six beds—even though the application for your site proposes only four household members. Or you might see pets or pet food in the unit, even though the applicant hasn't requested permission to bring pets to your site. The home visit report asks you to get the applicant's explanation for any differences you spot between the makeup of the proposed household at your site and the current household.
You can also use the visit to find out if applicants understand that they're responsible for taking care of a rental unit. For example, some applicants' units may be in terrible condition, and the applicants may make it clear that they don't feel any particular responsibility to care for them. Other applicants may not fully understand that they're responsible for paying for repairs to appliances they've misused. Be sure to give these households special attention at their move-in orientation.
In rare instances, you might see drugs, drug paraphernalia, or firearms out in full view in a unit. This is obviously grounds for rejecting an application. People involved with drugs and firearms can be dangerous. So don't confront them about this activity. Just politely leave the unit and note in the report what you saw.
And lastly, you can look to see if the applicant's unit meets acceptable housekeeping standards. Poor housekeeping habits might be described as those that create an unsafe or unhealthy environment, such as an uncontrolled accumulation of trash, which has led to roach infestation or poses a health danger to other residents [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-47(D)(1)]. It's important to note that messy living quarters are not the same as safety and health hazards.
Treat it like an annual unit inspection at your site. A condition is unacceptable if it doesn't comply with HUD's physical condition standards. Some applicants might thoroughly clean their units because they know you'll be inspecting them. But some unacceptable housekeeping conditions can't be undone by a one-time cleaning. Since you're entitled to reject applicants who don't maintain sanitary conditions in their units or who pose a threat to your property, be on the lookout for the following signs of neglect, misuse, and abuse: soiled surfaces in the bathroom; severely stained carpets; foul odors; damaged refrigerators and stoves; and holes in ceilings, walls, and floors. And if an applicant is living with someone else, and the housekeeping is out of the control of the applicant, the owner must evaluate only the living quarters over which the applicant has control [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-47(D)].
Also be aware that a substandard condition may not be the applicant's fault. The unit may have been substandard before the applicant moved in, or became substandard because the manager hasn't done maintenance for which the owner is responsible. So during the home visit, give the applicant a chance to explain the cause of any substandard conditions visible in the unit.
Evaluate What You Found Out
The final section of the report asks you to summarize your findings. Here's where you're to alert your site staff to any problems that will require special attention from site personnel who, for example, verify certification information or conduct move-in orientations. In this section of the home visit report, you should say whether the applicant should be rejected and, if so, give your reasons—for example, because of criminal activity; unsanitary housekeeping; or damage to, or neglect or misuse of, the unit. And if you don't believe an applicant's explanation for substandard conditions, you should explain why.
Example: An applicant says that soiled surfaces in the bathroom and kitchen were badly stained before he moved in, and that he regularly cleans these areas. You note on the report that you don't believe this explanation because you didn't see any cleaning supplies in the unit.
Anita Moseman, HAHP, CPO: Vice President, Monfric Realty,3205 E 1/2 Rd., Clifton, CO 81520; www.monfricinc.com.
See The Model Tools For This Article
|Home Visit Report|