Crime and Punishment

If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment-as well as the prison.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Today my office was yet again put in a position to draw a line between responsibility in disclosure, accountability, and our job description. Where the line should be drawn is still unclear.

As a full service brokerage, we oftentimes  represent lessors, matching and placing well-qualified tenants into their properties. Over the past few years, well-qualified has meant, at a minimum, job history and reference verification, credit check, and confirmation of rental/home history. Our clients have been impressed with both our thoroughness and dedication to finding tenants who will care for their homes as if they themselves were the owners.

One red flag we have learned to catch along the way is hesitations over putting secondary renters on a lease. Once, a few months back, a local agent submitted an application for her client to rent one of our listings. While the application checked out, further “google” investigation told us that her client was a convicted repeat offender for grand theft. Upon confronting the agent and her broker, they both confirmed the crimes and admitted to withholding the fact from us in the hopes that we would not find out. Needless to say, we said no thanks to the tenant and have refused to work with the untrustworthy brokerage ever since.

This happened to us again right before Christmas when a woman, selling her local single family home, applied to rent a short term apartment from us.

Her application was impeccable. Perfect job, perfect credit, wonderful references, and a home owner. I had in fact showed another client her lovely home prior to its’ sale, and it was gorgeous and perfectly maintained. Her selling agent spoke the world of her, as did all her references.

My associate who was working with her discovered that she was married in the process and insisted that her husband also be on the lease. At that point, the wife told her that she had hesitated to mention him because he was on parole. The crime? According to the wife, marijuana possession. My associate met the husband and confirmed that he seemed like a great tenant as well. The property owner was not concerned, and the tenants moved in.

A few days later the wife contacted us again to say that the parole officer needed a letter from us stating that notice of her husband’s parole status had been given. No problem, happy to help, we said, and I called the parole office to confirm the language she wanted on the letter.

Nice enough conversation, except one minor detail that the lessee’s had left out. In addition to possession, the husband was also convicted of murder. That’s right. Murder. Not involuntary manslaughter any other awful charge that we perhaps could have stomached, but murder.

Needless to say, we are now dealing with tenants that, as wealthy and clean and quiet as they may be, made a gross misrepresentation and are about to be evicted unless our lessor surprises us and is ok with this new development. Of course, we are, in hindsight, kicking ourselves for not better checking the husband’s record. It was easy to “google” the minor charge and his name and confirm it. But what more should we have done? Should we have run a full scale criminal background check? In hindsight, I unequivocally say, yes, we should have at least recommended that the lessor had one done. I also wish that we had not trusted the tenant’s own agent, an agent that is very well respected in our small community. But hindsight is always 20/20.

So my question, to both consumers and other agents is, what level of inquiry do you expect from a realtor in terms of tenant verification? Is it better to always expect the absolute worst of people? Is it no longer ok to trust other professionals representations? Should criminal background checks become the norm with high end rentals? Should realtors ever “vouch” for tenants  that have a bad past? Should anyone? He served his time, and the State has declared him a free man again. But to quote my beloved Dostoevsky one more time:  “Why am I to be pitied, you say? Yes! There’s nothing to pity me for! I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross, not pitied! Crucify me, oh judge, crucify me but pity me?”