14 Reference Questions to Ask a Tenant’s Previous Landlord

14 Reference Questions to Ask a Tenant’s Previous Landlord

Last Updated: January 3, 2023 by Cameron Smith

While the most important reference to call is probably an applicant’s current employer (have to verify that income!), a close second would be a previous landlord. You want to know if that tenant is going to cost you money as well as give you headaches, and that prior landlord is going to have all the dirt. It’s especially important to talk to them as many things you really need to know can only be answered by them.

Why Is it So Important to Talk to a Prior Landlord?

During the screening process, your goal is to put together the puzzle pieces to construct a full picture about potential tenants. Background checks, current employers, and the application can give you a pretty decent idea who you’re dealing with, but prior landlords are the only ones who really know how your applicant is as a tenant.

Failure to do your due diligence on this step will more likely lead to evictions (which can cost you $3,500 or more) and vacancies (which cost $2,000 per month in lost rent).

However, the biggest long-term cost can come in the form of a property that you’re tired of managing and you decide to sell it. This happens all the time, and a main reason to quit and get out comes from dealing with bad tenants.

Beware of Fake Landlords

An applicant with a poor rental history may give you the phone number of a friend who will pose as the landlord. One way to try to avoid this is to ask something like “Do you have any vacancies?” If they hesitate, that’s a clue they’re not who they say they are. A real landlord is used to that question and answers it all day long.

Another strategy, which is actually something you should ask anyway, is to have them confirm the address and the dates your applicant rented from them. A phony landlord may have that info if they’re well prepared, but it’s worth a shot.

14 Questions to Ask a Potential Tenant’s Previous Landlord

Here are the best questions to ask a previous landlord:

  1. Can You Confirm [Applicant] Rented From You?
  2. Would You Rent to [Applicant] Again?
  3. Did [Applicant] Pay Rent on Time and in Full?
  4. Did [Applicant] Have Problems With Illegal Activity?
  5. Did [Applicant] Reasonably Take Care of the Property?
  6. Did [Applicant] Break the Rules of Your Lease Agreement?
  7. Was the Property in Good Condition When [Applicant] Left?
  8. Was [Applicant] a Good Communicator?
  9. Did [Applicant] Smoke on the Property?
  10. What Was the Monthly Rent?
  11. Did [Applicant] Receive Their Full Security Deposit Back
  12. Did [Applicant] Give You Proper Notice Before Vacating?
  13. Why Did [Applicant] Move Out?
  14. Was [Applicant] Responsible for Landscaping and Snow Removal?

Download Printable Questions

1. Can You Confirm [Applicant] Rented From You?

The first question to ask, just to make sure you’re both on the same page. 

Tenant landlord reference   on iPropertyManagement.com

2. Would You Rent to [Applicant] Again?

Perhaps the best question to ask as it really encompasses the rest. If the landlord says no, have them elaborate. If they say yes, then you can have a good idea that the applicant isn’t a handful.

Of course, you still should ask all the other questions as perhaps your questions will jog a memory.

3. Did [Applicant] Pay Rent on Time and in Full?

This question is extremely important because many late payments won’t show up in a credit check. By federal law, landlords cannot report late rent until it is 30 days past due. Many landlords, even after that 30-day period, will still not report the late payment because of the hassle. 

You’ll certainly want to know if they have a history of paying rent late or in installments, so you have to dig deeper than the credit check and ask the landlord.

You’ll also want to know:

  • Did they often only pay part of the rent and then the rest later?
  • Did they try to negotiate or complain when it was due?
  • Did they try to barter the price? Like the applicant does a service in exchange for cheaper rent?

None of these things make the applicant a bad person, but it does make them a higher risk tenant.

4. Did [Applicant] Have Problems With Illegal Activity?

If they have any convictions in their past, you can uncover that with a quick criminal background check. However, not everything will not show—for example, if a misdemeanor happened in a different county, it might not show up on a background check

Also, the prior landlord may have noticed illegal activity, but didn’t care enough to report it. If you’re going to deny an applicant based on that reason, you should have adequate proof of the illegal activity.


Arrests cannot be used as a basis for denying an application, as they do not imply guilt. If a prior landlord mentions an arrest, be sure to not ask the applicant about it, nor should you use that information when deciding on your next tenant.

5. Did [Applicant] Reasonably Take Care of the Property?

You want know if they took care of responsibilities such as:

  • Mowing the lawn
  • Paying the utilities
  • Handling the landscaping
  • Shoveling snow
  • Other responsibilities laid out in advance

Also, did they generally keep the house in good condition? Were there signs of poor interior maintenance, such as:

  • Dinged walls
  • Chipped paint
  • Stained carpet
  • Broken cabinet doors
  • Unreported maintenance issues

All of that costs you money, so be sure to ask the previous landlord and be specific about what you’re looking for.

Tenant landlord reference     on iPropertyManagement.com

6. Did [Applicant] Break the Rules of Your Lease Agreement?

Each lease agreement has different sets of rules for the property, and finding out if they didn’t follow the previous landlord’s rules is important information to gather.

Some of these rules can include:

  • No repainting walls
  • No installing new permanent fixtures
  • No pets
  • No long-term guests or tenants not on the lease
  • No candles inside

If they had problems with these (or other rules established by the previous landlord), they’ll likely have issues at your property as well.

7. Was the Property in Good Condition When [Applicant] Left?

While it may not be a requirement that a tenant leave a place completely spotless, the best tenants will do a thorough cleaning job before leaving.

They will also try to clean spots off walls, stains on carpets, and other small bits of maintenance that they can handle. They’ll do this in an effort to get their security deposit back. 

Your applicant likely hasn’t vacated their previous place yet, so you may have to contact a landlord for the place they lived in prior to the one they’re in now. It’s worth the extra effort to get a feel for the quality of your applicant.

8. Was [Applicant] a Good Communicator?

Was the applicant:

  • Respectful?
  • Helpful?
  • Timely?

A great tenant will be sure to let you know of any maintenance issues as they arise. They’ll keep you apprised of their intentions to renew, and they’ll be accommodating when you’d like to visit the property. Be sure to ask this of their previous landlord.


Great communicators will often suggest alternate times to visit if yours doesn’t work. For example, if you suggest coming by Tuesday at 5pm, a great tenant will provide you with 1-2 times that work better for them rather than giving a flat “no.”

9. Did [Applicant] Smoke on the Property?

Property managers are allowed to reject an application if the applicant smokes. This is because it’s not considered addicting, so therefore isn’t a handicap, which is a protected class.

While your application should ask if they smoke, it’s easy to lie on the application. A prior landlord can help answer this question for you.

Since the average smoking-related costs to a rental property run about $4,935, you need to find out if your tenant smokes.

10. What Was the Monthly Rent?

If the applicant’s previous rent was $1,200 and your rent is $2,100, that’s something you’ll want to look into.

Perhaps they got a raise and want to upgrade, or it could be they’re stretching too far to get a nicer place. If you were on the fence before about their income, this could be another sign that you should move on.

11. Did [Applicant] Receive Their Full Security Deposit Back?

This is a good question that can let you know if they were hard on the property and the landlord had to withhold some money to cover repairs.

Tenant landlord reference   on iPropertyManagement.com

12. Did [Applicant] Give You Proper Notice Before Vacating?

Vacancies are among your highest costs with how expensive rent is becoming. A tenant who doesn’t let you know they’re leaving leads to an unexpected vacancy and costs you weren’t planning on.

13. Why Did [Applicant] Move Out?

  • Did the landlord have to kick them out?
  • Were they breaking lease rules?
  • Did they get a new job?
  • Were they just restless or wanted a “change of scenery?”

Knowing why they moved out can help you understand if the applicant is likely to stay for a long time—which is what you want for great tenants.

      14. Was [Applicant] Responsible for Landscaping and Snow Removal?

If you’re in an apartment, condo, or townhome, this may be less relevant. However, if you have a single family home as a rental, and you require your tenants to handle landscaping and snow removal, you’d like to know if they’ll do it.

If the previous landlord claims they were spotty with it, or constantly trying to get out of it for one reason or another, that’s a sign of a less-than-stellar applicant.

Be Careful of Discrimination

While you can ask these questions from a previous landlord, you may get answers that you can’t actually use as a basis for denying an applicant.

Here is the list of protected classes laid out in the Fair Housing Act:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Gender/gender identity
  • Familial status (e.g. can’t reject for too many kids or unmarried couples)
  • Handicap

For example, if the previous landlord says something like “I heard they were going through a rehab to get off meth,” you can’t deny an applicant for that reason. Drug use is a protected class as addiction is considered a handicap. However, they are not allowed to use illegal drugs on your property, or to keep, manufacture, or sell them.

If you’re ever unsure about your reason for denying an applicant, be sure to consult with a landlord & tenant attorney. Otherwise, you could have a potential discrimination lawsuit on your hands.