The coronavirus (COVID-19) presents unprecedented challenges for landlords—the virus didn't get the message that vacant rentals still needed to be filled. Between shelter-in-place orders and social distancing efforts, it might seem daunting—and even risky—to try to show your rental property to prospective new tenants. In many areas around the country, residential rental properties are still being listed and rented. Many "stay-at-home" orders exempt necessary real estate activities, as people still need a place to live—you might even land an ideal tenant during these less-than-ideal times.
Before you decide to show a rental property, check your local and state restrictions on business services and activities. With a few precautions, landlords can protect themselves, keep their businesses going, and help people find housing. There are both high-tech and low-tech ways to safely approach a residential rental transaction to minimize the potential of transmitting COVID-19.
While your rental property might not be your first priority in a crisis, you're still a landlord if you have rental properties and tenants. That means you have a duty to current and prospective tenants, and a goal of keeping your business running under trying circumstances.
If you have a vacant unit, this could be a blessing in disguise. There is no rule you have to advertise and show it right away. You can delay showing and filling the unit if it is possible for you financially. However, it might not be realistic or possible for you to leave a unit vacant for the foreseeable future (as mortgage, utility, insurance, and repair bills continue to mount). If you have a vacant unit and plan to leave it vacant for a bit, consider installing a keypad lock that doesn't require actual keys—this way, if virus-related concerns persist and you want to rent the unit, you can simply let the new tenant know the lock code instead of having to transfer physical keys.
For the High-Tech Landlord: Although you want to meet potential tenants in person under normal circumstances, you're probably reconsidering how necessary it is right now. If you can take advantage of technology, you can eliminate the need for technical "in person" contact. For example, you can answer questions online or on the phone. Consider using apps like Skype, Zoom, and Google Hangouts to arrange face-to-face digital interviews with promising applicants.
As for showings, by using comprehensive online photos as well as property management software and apps, you can virtually show the rental, evaluate an application, and sign a lease without ever meeting the tenant in person. You can even collect a deposit and first month's rent electronically—try services such as PayPal, Zelle, and Venmo. After you secure a tenant, you'll set a time to meet to hand over the keys. Then you can leave keys in the door and wait in the parking lot until they arrive.
For the Low-Tech Landlord: Review recommended social-distancing procedures, and develop a plan for how to best show your rental. Before you meet a prospective tenant at the property, explain on the phone how you'll show the unit to ensure maintaining social distance. For example, you can arrive at the unit, and text or call the prospect to let them know it's ready to enter. You could leave some spray disinfectant or wipes at the doorway so the prospect can wipe down surfaces they might touch. Stay outside or in your car. Be sure to put the application on the counter for the prospect to fill out and leave. Repeat the process for the lease signing. Swap the keys (at a distance) for the check and signed lease. (These extra efforts might be the nudge you need to move into the new era of online applications, leases, payments, and property management.)
There is financial hope ahead. The very recent coronavirus stimulus package might provide most renters with some income to pay rent and, combined with enhanced unemployment benefits, could help tenants bridge their rent payments until the worst of the economic fall out passes. If you come across any tenant assistance programs that a potential renter of your vacant unit might qualify for, you could note these in your advertising.
As a landlord, if, despite your efforts to rent, you're unable to find a tenant, seek help. Landlord and small business assistance programs are emerging. And, don't hesitate to contact your lender if you are concerned about possibly defaulting on your mortgage—most lenders have expressed a willingness to work with homeowners during this time of crisis.