Tenant screening is a critical part of being a successful landlord. But screening is not just about eliminating irresponsible tenants, it is also about reducing the number of problems you have as a landlord and finding rental applicants who will be good fits for your properties.

Screening out someone who might be a bad financial fit is relatively easy. A simple credit check will turn them up. Finding tenants who will be good personal fits for you and your properties is however a bit more nuanced.

The rental application process always begins with that first point of contact. That first phone call or e-mail can say plenty about who is looking to rent your property.

But the rubber really hits the road with your application. A completed application that asks the right questions can go a long way towards easing your pain later on.

Being a landlord can be fun—if you do it right

No matter how great you are at finding good rental property deals, you could lose everything if you don’t manage your properties correctly. Being a landlord doesn’t have to mean middle-of-the-night phone calls, costly evictions, or daily frustrations with ungrateful tenants.

Pre-screening questions

Remember that you are trying to attract and qualify responsible tenants to your rental property, and the questions you ask should attract the good while weeding out the less-good. You’re not looking for the right tenant yet. Pre-screening should only help you decide which potential residents meet the basic requirements of your rental. The Fair Housing Act prevents discrimination on the basis of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Familial status
  • Disability.

Of course you need to get the standard stuff like name and work history. But your application should function as a mini-background check, asking questions designed to weed out those who may not fit. Questions designed to weed out tenants who will break your rules and cause you enforcement nightmares later on. Start out by asking a few simple questions before having the potential tenant fill out a formal application.

1. What is your name and phone number?

This is key. After all, you may need to contact them again later to set up a showing or just to follow up with further questions. If you do not ask for this information on the front end, you may forget to ask later on as the conversation progresses.

2. When do you need to move?

You might be surprised at this question, but we get numerous calls from people who are looking to move three or more months down the road. While I applaud them for being proactive, we tell them that while we will be happy to show and discuss any apartment, we really cannot help them at the current time, as any rental they are interested in will likely be rented and off the market by the time they are ready to move.

3. Do you work or go to school?

This question is designed to determine if someone has the income needed to afford the property and also to understand if their lifestyle fits with your property.

First, find out if the caller has a job. Then help them determine if they can afford your property. If you have an income requirement, explain it to them. Sometimes, prospective renters will withdraw themselves from consideration at this point.

4. Will anyone else be living with you?

You must find out about all of the adults that will be living in the property and insist that they go through your screening process. Nail down the precise number of people who will officially be living in the space and write in your lease that those specific people—and only those specific people—are allowed to live there.

You should add other questions to your list depending on what your rental criteria are. For example, you may want to ask about pets or smoking depending on whether you allow pets or smoking in your properties. There’s no sense in setting up a showing appointment, meeting the applicant, and then finding out they have a dog when you do not allow them.

Potential tenant screening questions

First impressions mean everything.

When you first meet your prospective tenant, you should ask a few key questions. A good tenant’s answers will shed a good amount of light on what type of experience you can expect from this candidate.

Tenant screening is not always a cut and dry, yes or no process, but it is one of the most important things a landlord can do. As a landlord, you need to develop your application and screening process with the goal of finding the best fit for you and your properties. Asking insightful questions will help you in achieving that goal.

1. Why are you moving out of your current home?

This is probably the single most important question for potential renters. Their stated reason for moving out of their current home can shed a lot of light on the experience that you’ll have if you accept this person as your tenant.

If the person has just moved to the area, changed jobs, or wants to upsize or downsize their space, you probably don’t have much to worry about. That’s the ideal tenant. If the person launches into a long-winded complaint about how much they despise their next-door neighbor, watch out! Be particularly cautious if they complain about their current landlord. Yes, there are bad landlords out there, but a tenant who immediately launches into tirades about their landlord is a red flag.

2. When would you like to move in?

If your applicant answered “today,” or “ASAP,” be very careful during your screening process. A tenant wanting to move quickly could mean a few things:

  • They are being evicted
  • Their landlord asked them to leave
  • They do not plan ahead
  • They are not currently renters (everyone needs a place to live—where are they currently living and why?)
  • A variety of other reasons that don’t bode well for you

However, it could also mean that they need to escape a negative situation with a roommate or partner, which isn’t a reflection on them as a tenant.

Another answer to be aware of is if they write a date in the distant future. For example, if they apply for your vacant rental in April saying they would like to move in July, that’s probably not going to work for you. It’s highly unlikely it would be financially advantageous for you to hold your rental for three months! The answer you will want to see to this question is anywhere from one to four weeks out. Anything else you will want to scrutinize closely.

3. What pets do you have?

This question is phrased in such a way as to not appear negative. If you were to ask, “Do you have any pets?” they may write “no,” thinking a “yes” will immediately disqualify them. Asking “what” instead of “do you” increases the chances of their being honest with this question. If they do have pets, discuss your pet policy with the tenant.

4. Have you been evicted before?

An eviction filing identifies an irresponsible tenant. But it’s not always an automatic no. If their stated answer is yes, take note of whether they accept responsibility and indicate that they have since turned their life around, or whether they continue to blame the eviction on some external force that was outside of their control.

5. Have you ever broken a lease?

This information should also be discovered when gathering your landlord references, but by asking here you again will be able to determine your applicant’s honesty. If they have broken a lease, find out the details from the previous landlord and be prepared to require additional securities should you decide to rent to them.

6. Do you smoke?

Smoke gets into everything and can only be remedied by repainting with oil-based paint and replacing the flooring. Sometimes you may even need to oil-base prime the floor underneath your new carpet to seal out the odor. It’s a hassle, and it’s expensive. Triple check that your lease has a clause specifying tenants cannot smoke cigarettes on the property.

7. Is the total move-in amount available now?

For some landlords, “required money” is made up of the security deposit plus the first month’s rent. For other landlords, this also includes a move-in fee or perhaps two months’ rent.

The answer to this question gives you a good indication of whether your applicant is financially responsible and plans ahead. You may also want to ask about their monthly income. If they knew they would be moving and have gone so far as to apply for your rental, they should have had adequate time to prepare for the move-in money standards.

8. For what reasons could you not pay rent on time?

If a tenant states any reason other than “death,” it should be noted. Again, you are looking for a tenant who is financially responsible, and while a lot of tenants live paycheck to paycheck, you don’t want someone with the mentality that as soon as something goes wrong, the landlord doesn’t get paid.

Things go wrong all the time for everyone; plans change, cars break down, jobs are lost, medical emergencies happen, but even with these unexpected (but guaranteed) events, you want a tenant who pays their bills and doesn’t let hardships interfere with their rent. The correct answer to this question is “nothing.” If they answer differently, it doesn’t mean they are going to be bad tenants, but it does indicate a mentality that you should be wary of when making your decision to approve or deny them tenancy.

9. How did you hear about this home?

This question helps you track what parts of your marketing are working and what parts are not.

10. Who is your emergency contact (including to contact regarding rent or tenancy)?

Every landlord has experienced a tenant (or multiple tenants) who are late on their rent and bury their heads, making it impossible for the landlord to communicate with them. That’s where the emergency contact comes into play.

Most applicants will list someone close to them, such as a parent or a close friend. These are people you want to know. As long as you have specified that the emergency contact is also a contact for rent or tenancy issues, you may contact that person in the event the tenant doesn’t pay rent or has some other tenancy-related issue that a kick in the pants from the emergency contact may help solve.

11. Do you have a checking account? Do you have a savings account?

When screening your potential tenants, always find out whether they have a checking or savings account. Having a bank account does not magically make your prospective tenant more responsible; however, not having a bank account is a definite sign that something might be amiss.

Chances are, the reason they don’t have a bank account isn’t that they just never got around to it. It may be a sign of an irresponsible financial life—maybe they couldn’t handle a bank account and got tired of all the bounced checks or overdraft fees—or it could also be a sign of garnishment due to judgments or illegal sources of income. A bank account versus no bank account is definitely not a deal killer, but something to keep in mind during your screening process.

12. Why should we rent to you?

With this question, the tenant has the opportunity to tell you what makes them the best choice for tenancy.

What every landlord wants to hear is: “I have great rental references and solid, consistent income. I always pay my bills before they are due, and I love the home you have available for rent. I would love to make it my permanent home. I also have a halo and wings and volunteer at the children’s hospital every Saturday.” Okay, maybe not that last part. If they answer, “I don’t know,” or “I need a place to live ASAP,” they aren’t very confident in their attributes as a tenant, are they?

13. Is there any additional information we should know?

As stated on the application itself, the applicant is invited to, “Please use this optional space for additional information, comments, or explanations.” This is where a tenant can explain why they were evicted two years prior or the fact that their former landlord is a sleazeball who won’t fix anything. This section can give you a little more insight into the person you are screening.

None of these questions are dealbreakers in and of themselves, and there can easily be extenuating circumstances. If any answers alarm you, take the time to dig deeper before automatically rejecting someone and you may be surprised by what you find.