Two-thirds of tenants in Australia rent through a real estate agent. A national shortage of private rental housing forces these tenants to impress the real estate agent to secure a property – their application needs to stand out from other applications.
An analysis of articles on leading online real estate sites www.realestate.com.au and www.domain.com.au identifies six aspects of interactions between the real estate agent and tenant that affect a tenant’s ability to secure a rental property. My research reveals the power of the agent over the tenant. Agents strongly stigmatise certain tenant characteristics during the property search.
These real estate articles typically fail to recognise the systemic issues of housing shortages in Australia. As owner-occupied housing becomes more unaffordable and public housing becomes less available, a variety of household types are competing in a high-demand private rental market.
Households have differing economic, cultural and social capital. This puts some applicants for a rental property at a disadvantage. But real estate sites present the issue of secure rental housing as an individual problem that can easily be overcome once a tenant understands how to highlight their desirable characteristics when applying for a rental property.
How do agents assess tenants?
When assessing a rental application, the two most important qualities a real estate agent looks for are a tenant’s ability to pay the rent on time and their ability and/or willingness to care for the rental property.
In addition, a tenant’s ability to impress the real estate agent matters. My research identifies six aspects of interactions between agent and tenant that affect the ability to secure a rental property:
- responsibility – positive reference/s from previous agents and/or landlords help demonstrate this
- making an impression – dress appropriately and be on time for inspections, engage with the agent and present an easy-to-read, error-free application form
- established relationships – a previously established relationship with the agent or landlord improves the tenant’s chances
- honesty – tenants are encouraged to be honest with their agent about their lifestyle
- flexibility – be flexible about lease length and the cost of rent
- creative thinking – for example, bringing cupcakes to a rental inspection.
Through these interactions, tenants can highlight their desirable characteristics while downplaying their undesirable characteristics.
Selection process reinforces disadvantage
The ability to make a good impression on the agent, however, is largely based on a variety of factors that place some tenants at a disadvantage.
For example, tenants are advised that several lifestyle factors may hamper their ability to secure a property. These include pets, dependent children, age, a negative rental history and other potential housemates.
These findings match those of an Australian survey of private renters, commissioned by Choice, National Shelter and the National Association of Tenant Organisations. It found 50% of renters have experienced discrimination in the private rental sector. This includes discrimination on the basis of: pets (23%), receiving government payments (17%), age (14%), having young children (10%), being a single parent (7%), race (6%), needing to use a bond loan (5%), gender (5%), disability (5%) and sexuality (2%).
Further, when it comes to making an impression, some tenants are at a significant advantage. For example, factors such as English proficiency and the ability to “dress to impress” are often a reflection of economic and cultural capital.
The articles assume that presenting an application form with no spelling and grammatical errors is simply a matter of taking a little extra care. However, a newly arrived migrant may find this difficult, not because of laziness but because they may not yet be proficient in English.
The articles also highlight a tenant’s willingness to be flexible as important. Flexibility is presented in the following ways:
- where demand for properties is high, tenants are advised to offer more rent
- when a tenant has no rental history, they are advised to offer to pay rent in advance
- tenants are also advised to cater to the needs of the real estate agent and landlord by being flexible about the length of the lease.
Tenants’ ability to be flexible in these ways varies greatly. For example, not all tenants have the means to offer more rent or pay rent in advance. The ability to be flexible about lease length also differs depending on individual circumstances.
My research shows the process of securing a rental property could reinforce the disadvantage of some tenants. This raises an important question. When private rental housing is the only option, what happens to those tenants who fail to impress the real estate agent?
Bronwyn Bate receives an Australian Government Research Training Program Stipend Scholarship and Western Sydney University Top-Up Scholarship as part of her PhD program.