Rental Showings & Social Distancing: Creative Ways to Fill Your Vacant Units

Rental Showings & Social Distancing: Creative Ways to Fill Your Vacant Units

6 min read
G. Brian Davis

G. Brian Davis is a landlord, personal finance expert, and financial independence retire early (FIRE) enthusiast, whose mission is to help everyday people create enough rental income to cover their living expenses.

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Through his company at SparkRental.com, he offers free rental tools such as a rental income calculator, free landlord software (including a free online rental application and tenant screening), and free masterclasses on rental investing and passive income.

He’s been obsessed with early retirement since the early 2000s (before it was “a thing”).

Besides owning dozens of properties over nearly two decades, Brian has written as a real estate and personal finance expert for publishers including Money Crashers, RETipster, Think Save Retire, 1500 Days, Lending Home, Coach Carson, and countless others.

Here’s to financial independence with real estate!

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Sure, the world may be ending and all, but guess what? People still need a place to live.

And some people still need to move, even in the midst of quarantines, lockdowns, and social distancing.

Make no mistake, fewer people are looking to move right now than usual. Most of those who can stay put are doing so. But the market for vacant rental homes still exists, even if it’s diminished.

As a landlord or property manager, you’ll need to take extra steps both to advertise your vacant unit and to show it to prospective renters. If you find yourself in the unenviable position of trying to fill a vacant unit in the COVID-19 crisis, as I do, try the following steps to minimize your vacancy and maximize your odds of finding a reliable tenant.

Visibility Tips

Yes, you should of course post your vacant rental listing on all the usual suspects for online advertising: Apartments.com, Craigslist, Zillow, and so on.

But even in today’s world, many renter demographics still don’t go online to find a new home. In particular, older renters and lower-income renters have lower digital fluency rates than younger and middle-income renters. To reach them, plan to go further.

  • Newspapers: It may sound old-school to you and me, but if you want maximum exposure for your vacant unit, list it in your local newspaper’s classifieds.
  • Local Newsletters: Many residents read neighborhood or community newsletters, whether paper or digital. They can make excellent messengers to otherwise hard-to-reach local residents and fill your vacancy faster.
  • Community Centers: While most community centers remain closed due to the coronavirus, many still maintain close communication with local residents and members. They do so through their website, which often contains a For Rent board; email blasts; and even paper mailings.
  • Grocery Store Boards: The one physical gathering place that isn’t closed right now, grocery stores often have community boards where you can still post flyers. Granted, don’t expect them to offer as much visibility as usual, given that most shoppers don’t feel inclined to linger at the moment. But they remain an option.
  • Your Own Local-Optimized Website: Many real estate investors have created their own lead-generating websites to find deals, and to advertise their properties for sale or rent. It’s not a fast-working strategy; optimizing real estate websites for local SEO takes time and effort. But for those who invested that effort before this crisis, many have an additional platform for advertising—one optimized for their target market to boot.

Related: How to Rent Your Property to the Right Tenants—Fast

More Thorough Listings

In normal times, the purpose of a rental listing is to drive showings leads. But in the midst of sheltering in place, often it serves not as the beginning of the marketing process, but as the entire marketing funnel.

You may or may not feel comfortable showing your unit right now (more on that shortly), but even if you do, your prospects may fret over every venture outside. Still others can’t visit the property, whether because they live out of town or legally can’t leave home.

So how do you put prospective tenants at ease, when they consider signing a lease sight-unseen?

Virtual Tours

Virtual tours can take several different forms. At the simplest level, you can simply create short videos compiling all the photos of your property. Take care to put them in logical order: the same order that a prospect would use entering the property for the first time and walking through it. Take more photos at intermediate intervals, so that each photo includes enough visual cues from the previous photo to make it intuitively obvious how the tour is progressing through the house.

You can hire someone on Fiverr to put one of these videos together relatively affordably. Alternatively, use a simple online service like Animoto to do it yourself quickly and cheaply.

Be sure to narrate a voiceover, guiding the viewer through the property and pointing out highlights. Walk them through just as you would if you were showing the property in person.

Or you can go above and beyond and create a virtual reality tour. But that tech often requires a company to come out to your property with special camera equipment to do it properly, which isn’t practical for many landlords at the moment.

Video Tours

Alternatively, you can create a video tour of your property, walking through each room with a video camera (or your phone, if that’s all you have). Again, narrate the tour as if you were walking someone through the property in person.

Most important of all, move the camera much more slowly than you would normally. Fast movements jar—and even nauseate—the viewer. Keep motions slow, fluid, and smooth.

Check out this example video tour for inspiration!

Consider Incentives

Again, you’re competing for far fewer tenants in the market to move right now. You may need to offer an incentive or two to catch their attention.

For a wink and a nod to COVID-19, you could offer a giant bundle of toilet paper. In most markets, the toilet paper hoarding has passed (I’m still disappointed in all of you for that, by the way), but it’s still fresh on people’s minds.

Consider providing a multi-pack of hand sanitizer or perhaps some face masks along with the lease. People want and need them, after all.

Or offer to book them a local rental truck for four hours to help reduce their moving costs. Now more than ever people need help moving, as their friends will be less likely to volunteer to help them move their stuff.

moving-out-of-state

Showing the Property

You can opt not to show the property at all and simply require renters to sign the lease without seeing it. But if you do so, it limits your pool of applicants. Choosing a home is about as personal a decision as they come, and people like the comfort of seeing a home before committing to live there for a year or more.

Self-Showings

One option is to let prospects view the property on their own, without you there. It saves you the hassle of showing the unit and keeps you safely distant from stranger-danger of the coronavirus variety.

Unfortunately, it also means sacrificing control over the showing. Prospects could track mud through the property, use the toilet, steal items, even set up shop as squatters.

Still, you can implement certain safety measures to minimize the risk. Rather than a lockbox with a key inside, consider using a smart lock. That way you can grant only one-time access for prospects to enter the property. A video doorbell and/or smart security camera system also helps you keep an eye on both the property and everyone who comes and goes through it.

Finally, communicate your wishes before allowing anyone to enter. Ask them to take their shoes off upon entering and to leave no trace of their visit.

Keep the neighborhood in mind if you offer this option. Use common sense here. The simple fact is that allowing self-showings comes with more risk in higher-density or lower-income neighborhoods than in spread-out suburbs.

Safety Tips for Physical Showings

If you decide to physically show the property in person yourself, take adequate precautions.

Stay at least six feet apart, first and foremost. Wear a mask, and ask that your prospects do the same.

Consider opening the front door for them, then withdrawing and letting them walk through the property on their own. When they finish, you can answer their questions at a safe distance outdoors and relock the door.

Again, use common sense, and don’t give them any physical paperwork.

Related: 1 Unit, 1 Week, 10 Applications: How to Fill Vacant Units While Practicing Social Distancing

Paperwork: Go Digital

What is this, 1995? Why are you still using paper anything in your property management?

Collect their name and email address, and send them a rental application digitally. You can run tenant screening reports on them simultaneously.

Despite the low volume of moving renters right now, don’t ease up on your tenant screening practices. Beyond the usual reports and phone calls to employers and past/present landlords, pay extra attention to their likelihood of continued employment in the midst of the pandemic. Ask probing questions of their employer, and analyze their financial stability and emergency fund.

When you’ve chosen a tenant you feel confident will pay the rent on time and treat your property well, create a digital lease and send it to them to sign electronically. Collect the security deposit and rent payments online. At no point do you need to pass anything physical between yourself and your tenants!

Besides, all of these modern property management practices ease your labor as a landlord and put the “passive” back in passive income.

Person sitting at a desk signing paperwork with guidance from another person who is pointing at a line item

Final Thoughts

You still have a mortgage to pay. You still have repair costs, property management costs, property taxes, insurance premiums.

So you still need rental income.

Get aggressive with your marketing—and also with your tenant screening—in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As painful as it is to carry a vacant unit, it’s far worse to carry an occupied unit with a non-paying tenant you can’t evict, all the while putting wear and tear on your property. When the courts reopen, expect a much slower eviction process than usual from the backlog of cases.

Yes, you can still find good renters right now. Be thoughtful in your marketing, thoughtful in your property showings, and thoughtful in your screening, and place no one but the most reliable renters in your vacant units.

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What are you doing to fill your vacant units currently? What tactics have worked for you?

Join the discussion below.

As a landlord or property manager, you’ll need to take extra steps both to advertise your vacant unit and to show it to prospective renters during the COVID-19 crisis. Try the following steps to minimize your vacancy and maximize your odds of finding a reliable tenant.