Asking Landlords For References From Former Tenants Should Be A Thing

Photographed by Jessica Garcia.
“My last landlord hung a dead pigeon on a stake in my front yard. I definitely would like any future tenants to know that,” tenant Sinead O’Farrell shared in a comment on TikTok.
Landlord horror stories seem to be a rite of passage for many renters — experiences of uncommunicative, uncooperative and unreasonable landlords are frequently shared around dinner tables and in group chats. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to vet the good landlords from the bad ones? Unfortunately, at least in Australia, while renters are often asked to provide multiple references before being approved for a place, asking for a reference from a potential landlord you may be renting from is far from the norm.
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Australian comedian Tom Cashman took to TikTok to try just that. After he was approved for an apartment he wasn’t completely sold on, he thought he’d ask the real estate agent for a landlord reference from a previous tenant.
In the TikTok that’s been viewed over 2.1 million times, Cashman explains his reasoning. “[Landlords and real estate agents] ask me for three references to see if I’m a good guy, what about them? Are you a good guy? Are you gonna fix stuff? Are you going to reply to my emails? Or are you just going to ignore me once I’m in there.”
Ben Pretty, founder of Rent Rabbit, Australia's first rental property review website where tenants can leave reviews for their past properties, says this practice is becoming increasingly popular. “We’ve all wanted to ask the current tenant at a viewing what the property was like. It’s a no brainer.”
“Renters are starting to [use] landlord and agent references to secure a place… we also believe it will be normalised for renters to rank and rate their experiences of the property, property manager and landlord,” he tells Refinery29 Australia.
While references are typically only requested by those in positions of power, there is a gradual power shift taking place. We've seen people asking for references from potential employers, and the idea is now seeping into other areas, such as renting.
After Cashman hadn’t heard anything for four days, the real estate agent asked for clarification, to which Cashman replied, “I was asking whether the owner would provide a reference, written by a previous tenant of theirs, recommending them as a landlord. I’ve found this is an effective way to find out if an owner is good to their tenants (and it seems appropriate, as I’ve already provided a few references to them).”
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The real estate agent denied his request, saying, “Unfortunately the owner will not provide a reference as they are not in contact with the previous tenant… The owner does not wish to contact the previous tenants and it is not a requirement.”
That same minute, the agent withdrew their approval for the property Cashman was planning on renting. Comments flooded his videos, advocating for landlord references to become the norm, one reading, “If I’d have been able to get a landlord reference for my current place, there’s no way I’d have moved in”.
In December 2021, the median rent of houses and units in Australia was $499 a week — and that figure is expected to increase dramatically this year. Renters make up a large sector of our population, so why are they so undervalued and overlooked?
“Despite the importance of the renters to the rental market, their perspective is largely absent,” Pretty says. “Rental market control sits with developers, [investors] and governments — this market views renters as a homogeneous group of consumers with straightforward needs; our values and requirements are viewed simplistically and defined by bedrooms, bathrooms and car spaces.”
A house isn’t just made up of the physical space someone is renting — elements that are left out of a property listing can be just as, if not more, important. Whether a place is child friendly, if there’s enough natural light and ventilation, what the neighbours are like, how helpful the landlord is — and if you’re that unlucky TikToker — whether there’s a dead pigeon on a stake in the front yard, all help in figuring out whether a place is the right fit for you.
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