When I listened to his story of how he'd come to London to seek his fortune as an opera singer my heart just melted. Plus, he turned up for the viewing with a wad of £20 notes which he was eager to give to me to reserve the room.
Quite a loud voice inside my head told me to turn him and his cash away, but my common sense crumbled in the face of his pleading, puppy-dog looks. "How will you pay your rent with no job?" I asked. "How do I know I can trust you?" He stared at me with large velvety-brown eyes and said: "I give you my word." People, it was enough for me.
Yes, this is probably the daftest thing I've done and possibly I should have rejected him in favour of a tenant with references and a job, but I think sometimes you just have to go with your instincts.
What do references give you anyway, other than a false sense of security? They are no guarantee that the tenant will behave themselves or that they won't lose their job. Obviously I'm trying to justify my rash decision here, but I've always thought references were overrated.
Shortly before giving the room to the jobless singer, I received an email from a letting agency asking me to vouch for a previous tenant of mine. Now, how did this agency know I was who I said I was? The tenant could have easily given them an email address she'd set up herself in my name. The agency didn't ask me to provide any proof that I was indeed the owner of the property. I wasn't even asked for my signature.
I honestly think letting agencies insist on obtaining such references only in order to justify their tenancy fees. Once, when I was a tenant myself, an agent charged me £20 to email a previous landlord for a reference. When I asked the reason for the charge, which was on top of her lettings fee, she said it was because the landlord was overseas, even though it would have cost no more to send an email to Zanzibar than to email a colleague at the next desk.
Another letting agency promised me it had obtained references for one of my tenants but when he stopped paying his rent I discovered that it hadn't verified his employer's reference, which turned out to be fake. I do think it's a good idea to ask prospective tenants to provide copies of several months' bank statements to prove that they are solvent and if you want to take out insurance against them failing to pay their rent you'll have to run a credit check on them, obtain proof of ID and also a letter from their employer stating their salary.
However, all I got from my new tenant was a month's rent upfront, a six-week deposit, a photocopy of his passport — and his word, of course. Maybe I'll live to regret this but I reckon that's enough.