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Web site Offers Landlords Ways to Check on Problem Renters

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RISMEDIA, Nov. 23, 2007-As a landlord, Bob DeCosmo has dealt with his share of problem tenants. He also has grown increasingly frustrated with how difficult it is to evict someone from one of his rental properties.

“Once you give them the keys, the tenants have more rights to the unit than the owner,” said DeCosmo, a partner in Covino Realty LLC in Waterbury, Connecticut and acting president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Waterbury.

He believes he knows the best way to deal with problem tenants: “Don’t rent to them.” But that’s easier said than done.

DeCosmo has launched a Web site he hopes will help landlords keep problem tenants out.

Called TennantTracks.com, the site offers members a database of people with criminal records or a history of failing to pay their rent, as well as a way to do a credit or background check on prospective tenants.

The data is gathered from a variety of sources, including contributions from member landlords, DeCosmo said.

“There’s a wealth of data nationwide that supplies all the key ingredients,” he said. “There is the national sex offender registry, the terrorist watch list, a nationwide criminal report, housing court records, credit bureau information and other information supplied by our members.”

The Web site attempts to bring all that information together on one site. But perhaps the most important information it offers is data on tenants who have been evicted or are currently in eviction proceedings.

“That’s the reason we started this service,” DeCosmo said. “There is a window of opportunity where someone who is evicted can fly under the radar screen. Most property owners I’ve dealt with are just happy to get the problem out of the building. They don’t take it to the next step.”

Allowing landlords to identify tenants who have been evicted, he said, makes it possible for other landlords to determine whether someone who has just been evicted elsewhere is seeking to rent from them.

“This service is going to integrate property owners’ associations’ efforts,” DeCosmo said.

Nettie Sarro is all for that. A landlord in Waterbury for five years, she and her husband, Nelson Matos, have owned nine properties in the city, ranging from single-family to multifamily dwellings.

Sarro said she has reached a point where she doesn’t want to be a landlord anymore because of problems with destructive tenants.

“The very first time we did it, we rented out a four-family building. We renovated it, we went all out because it was our first place,” she said. “The first tenant, a year later when their lease was up they decided they wanted to leave, and the place was nothing but a pigpen. There was trash everywhere, the carpets needed to be replaced, and there was a water leak they never told us about.”

The apartment also had a mouse and bug infestation, she said.

“We sold that building, and it looked worse than when I bought it,” Sarro said. She said a Web site like TenantTracks might help her avoid problem renters in the future.

“I would love to have something like that,” she said. “You can’t look at someone and just judge them. I’ve rented to people who came up in a BMW, but they were one of the worst tenants I ever had.”

DeCosmo claims there are an average of 25 eviction cases a week in Waterbury housing court alone. That, he says, is a deterrent for those who might otherwise be willing to own multifamily homes.

“In urban centers across the state, we have a revolving door of homeownership,” he said. “What we’re trying to accomplish is to create a better environment for homeownership.”

“All these multi-family homes in Waterbury don’t work with absentee owners,” he continued. “In order to succeed and stabilize and rebuild these neighborhoods, we’ve got to rely on local homeownership. My theory is that TenantTracks is designed to tear down these obstacles — notably the nonpaying, destructive tenant — to allow people to feel comfortable with owning a three-family house.”

Using the Web site isn’t cheap, however. It requires a $99 annual membership fee that also gains you membership in the Property Owner Association of Greater Waterbury Inc. Members then choose from three data report levels, which require paying an additional fee ranging from $21.50 to $39.50.

Members who want to receive credit report information, however, will also have to pay a one-time, $105 fee to have a credit inspection, which is required under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act to ensure that credit information will be kept private and stored properly.

How that information is handled is just one concern about the Web site raised by Raphael Podolsky, staff attorney for the Legal Assistance Resource Center in Hartford. Podolsky said he understands why landlords want a Web site like TenantTracks, but has concerns nonetheless.

“It really is important for property owners to be able to screen applicants,” he said. “When they don’t, they invite problems down the road. … In the long run, it reduces conflict to find out about problems up front.”

Unlike a bank, however, the Web site will lack key personal information necessary to make sure the right person is being identified as a problem.

“In the banking world, it’s sort of systematized,” he said. “The information they are using can be double-checked against birth dates or Social Security numbers so they can be pretty sure they’ve got the right person.”

Podolsky said if the site is gathering information, for example, from court eviction proceedings, “you have to make sure you are always looking at the final disposition of a court case, and not the beginning. There’s a liability if the information they provide is not accurate.”

Podolsky also said it is important for landlords to tell prospective tenants they have received information about them, and where that information is from.

“As a general rule, if you apply someplace and you were turned down because of a report, the person is obligated to notify you that you’ve been turned down,” he said. “You have the right to ask the reporting service to investigate the accuracy of what they have, which would include where they got the information from.”

If a prospective tenant disagrees with the information in a report, he or she must be allowed to prove that it is in accurate. And if the reporting agency disagrees, federal law allows the person to permanently attach a statement in his or her defense to the report. “There are procedures that have to be followed to try to make the information as accurate as possible,” Podolsky said.

DeCosmo said he is aware of such issues, and has procedures in place to allow information to be challenged.

“We have 30 days to investigate a complaint, and if they are correct we will remove the incorrect information,” he said. “But if we’re correct, it stays.”

For now, he’s just trying to get the word out about the Web site, and hopes that it will help make things a bit easier for landlords.

“Home ownership should be a dream and not a nightmare,” he said.

To know more, visit http://tenanttracks.com.

Copyright © 2007, Waterbury Republican-American, Conn.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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