Every landlord needs to know if their potential tenant is likely to be a responsible tenant moving forward. Rental checks give landlords insight into how the applicant has been as a renter in the past. Ideally, past performance will be a good indicator into the future.
What’s Included in a Rental History Check?
A rental history gives a landlord a comprehensive timeline of the applicant’s time as a tenant. It should include both personal information about the applicant as well as how they’ve behaved as a tenant in the past.
Rental histories typically show:
- Dates & addresses – Where the applicant has lived and for how long they lived in each property.
- Contact info for landlords – This allows landlords to contact previous landlords to gather information.
- How much the applicant paid in rent – This helps the landlord see if they have a history of being able to afford the amount they plan to charge.
- Late/missed payments – Can they be relied on to pay future rent?
- Evictions – Did things get so bad the applicant had to vacate the property?
- Broken leases – Did the applicant leave the property early and/or without notice?
- Broken rules – This could be too many cars, not mowing the lawn, lighting candles indoors, smoking, etc.
- Recommendation from previous landlord – Would a previous landlord rent to this person again?
How to Run a Rental History Check on a Tenant
Putting together a rental history is more difficult than gathering other information on a tenant. Credit reports and criminal histories are usually gathered by paying a tenant screening service.
While those services can provide some of the information needed, a comprehensive rental history requires more manual work on the part of the landlord.
Best practice is to weed out as many applicants as possible before putting together a rental history. Otherwise, landlords will spend too much time gathering information on undesirable applicants—leading to burned-out landlords who eventually skip this step altogether.
Here are the steps to pull rental history:
- Ask For Rental History on the Application
- Have the Applicant Sign a Release Allowing You to Gather Information
- Use Professional Tenant Screening Services
- Contact Previous Landlords
- Talk to Personal References
- Ask Clarifying Questions to the Applicant
1. Ask For Rental History on the Application
While the applicant isn’t the most trustworthy source, it’s still the most logical place to start. An applicant may share that they have a past eviction, and at that point a landlord may be able to weed them out immediately.
Be sure to state on the application that you will be verifying their entire rental history. This helps ensure you’ll get truthful answers, or even applicants who decide not to submit their application. A landlord can even put on the application that they don’t consider applicants with missed payments or evictions in the past 12 months to keep further unqualified applicants out of the pool.
You can also check the information provided against what you learn later from your reports to ascertain if the applicant is truthful. Anything that doesn’t stack up indicates an applicant that should be rejected.
Here are a few examples of questions to ask on the application:
- Do you have any prior evictions?
- Have you missed or been late on any rental payments in the last 5 years?
- Have you ever left a rental unit early and/or without notification?
- Have you damaged a rental unit before?
- Do you believe that your previous landlords would rent to you again?
- Did you get into any trouble with breaking lease rules?
That is all in addition to gathering their contact information for previous landlords, as well as dates and addresses for prior residences.
2. Have the Applicant Sign a Release Allowing You to Gather Information
Many landlords will be wary about giving out too much information about a prior tenant, especially if they’re new and not sure what they’re legally allowed to say.
Having the applicant sign a release provides some cover. You can mention that you have a signed release from the applicant giving permission for you to gather this information.
A release is also legally required to pull any tenant screening reports such as criminal history, credit checks, and eviction records.
In the release itself, make sure to mention every possible source of information that you’re planning to use to gather information, such as:
- Talking to previous landlords
- Talking to all references
- Talking to employers and gathering income data
- Hiring tenant screening services
Of course, the best thing to do here is to talk to an attorney. You can start with a basic template, and then have an attorney review it.
3. Use Professional Tenant Screening Services
Most landlords use tenant screening services to pull reports that include a credit report, criminal background, eviction history, and sometimes more (depending on the service).
These reports will only include some of the information you’ll need for a full rental history, but they can fill in some key areas.
Tenant screening services will generally provide you these pieces of information related to rental history:
- Contact information
- Dates and addresses of prior residences
- Missed payments
- Sometimes property damage (if reported)
- Sometimes late payments
Late payments can only be reported to a credit bureau when they are 30 days past due. Even then, some landlords won’t report them because of the extra effort.
In addition, landlords would still like to know if the applicant often paid a little late, paid in installments, or tried to barter or beg for leniency. That will require talking to landlords.
4. Contact Previous Landlords
This is the most effective step for putting together a rental history. However, this can be time intensive if the landlord has many applicants. For this reason, it’s a great idea to hold off on doing this until you’ve rejected most of the applicants and only have a few of the most qualified ones remaining.
- Would you rent to them again?
- Did they pay rent on time each month?
- Did they reasonably take care of the property?
- Did they break any of your lease agreement rules?
- Did they give proper notice before leaving?
- How was their communication style?
- Did they get their full security deposit back?
- Did they smoke on or near your property?
It’s a good idea when talking to previous landlords to stick to these sorts of fact-based questions with just the one open-ended “would you rent to them again” question.
This can help keep both of you from talking about topics that could break privacy or discrimination laws.
While landlords cannot discriminate against a tenant for a drug addiction, they can deny an application for smoking. It’s not considered addicting, and therefore not labeled as a disability—meaning it’s not protected by the Fair Housing Act.
5. Talk to Personal References
By this point, you may already have enough information to put together a full rental history. However, a good landlord will still talk to personal references to get a better feel for the rental applicant.
While talking to them, you can verify anything else needed that a personal reference might know, such as:
- Do they smoke?
- Do they have a pet?
- Have they had issues with landlords in the past?
- Do you consider them to be responsible?
- Do you think they’ll take good care of the property?
6. Ask Clarifying Questions to the Applicant
After you’ve done steps 1-5 for your most qualified applicants, you’ll likely have 1-2 left that seem like the best options. At this point, if needed, you can reach out to the applicants to ask anything that you’re not quite sure on.
Such questions could include:
- Your previous landlord said you had a good reason for paying rent late a couple times, would you mind telling me what that was?
- Your previous landlord said you didn’t get your full security deposit back, would you share with me the reason?
- Why did you vacate your last rental early?
At this point, you should have a complete rental history for each tenant. If you’ve done all these steps, you’ll have a clear picture if the person is likely to be a good tenant moving forward.
What if the Applicant Has no Rental History?
This usually happens for a few reasons:
- The applicant just moved into the country.
- The applicant has only owned property before, rather than rented.
- A younger applicant has moved away from home for the first time.
You won’t be able to put together a true rental history in this situation, but there are a couple of things you can do to still find qualified applicants:
- Review the rest of their application – If they are well qualified in every other area (especially income), it’s easier to overlook a lack of rental history.
- Require extra – In the case of less-qualified applicants, a landlord can legally require a co-signer, charge more in rent, or require a higher deposit up front.
Analyzing Rental History
Throughout the process of putting together a rental history, the landlord will also be evaluating information as it comes in.
In fact, at each step of the way, landlords should be reacting to the information they receive and disqualifying more applicants. This saves time and money from having to continue screening a greater number of applicants.
While there are many factors involved in analyzing rental history, one strategy for deciding between applicants is to keep a written document of the baseline standards for what you will consider. For example, a landlord may decide to reject any applicant with an eviction in the past 5 years, or who has intentionally destroyed property.
Having these minimum requirements allows for 2 things to happen:
- Much quicker assessment of applicants
- Avoid discrimination
By having a legitimate, written reason for rejecting an applicant that doesn’t infringe on one of the Fair Housing Act’s protected classes, landlords can avoid most cases of discrimination.