Great landlords will always follow-up with their rental applicants’ references. Asking them the right questions can uncover crucial information for deciding between tenants.
Why Should You Follow Up With a Rental Applicant’s References?
Your goal is to do your best to figure out your applicants’ character. Yes, you should ask many questions on the application, but you also need to corroborate as much of the information as possible.
And while it may seem like a hassle, it’s certainly worth your time. Vacancies are often a property manager’s biggest expense, as average U.S. rent has surpassed $2,000 per month. If you get a bad tenant that leaves after a single year, doesn’t notify you they’re leaving, or needs to be evicted, that gets expensive fast.
Evictions, though more rare, usually cost $3,500 or more.
Doing your due diligence up front minimizes the chance that you’ll need to evict or have a vacancy sooner than you’d like.
Won’t Personal References Be Too Biased?
You can be relatively sure that personal references are hand-picked by the applicant because of the likelihood they’ll give a glowing recommendation.
You should still call them! First, as you get used to calling references, you can start to pick out who’s really giving a good review and who’s just doing it because they were asked to.
However, if the reference hesitates or doesn’t really have much to say, that can be a red flag to watch out for.
12 Questions to Ask a Rental Applicant’s Reference
Here are the top questions to ask:
- What is Your Relationship to [Applicant]?
- How Long Have You Known [Applicant]?
- Would You Rent to [Applicant]?
- Does [Applicant] Have a History of Financial Trouble?
- Can You Describe [Applicant’s] Character?
- Would You Describe [Applicant] as Reliable? Any Examples?
- Does [Applicant] Smoke?
- Does [Applicant] Have Any Pets? What Kind?
- How Is [Applicant] at Handling Conflict?
- Has [Applicant] Had Any Legal Trouble You’re Aware of?
- What Condition Does [Applicant] Keep Their House In?
- Do You Know Where [Applicant] Works and How Long They’ve Worked There?
1. What is Your Relationship to [Applicant]?
This is a great setup question for the rest of your phone call. If it turns out you’re talking to the applicant’s brother, then you should take their recommendation with a grain of salt.
The best applicants will try to find personal references who aren’t so obviously biased in their favor, such as a church leader or coworker.
2. How Long Have You Known [Applicant]?
We’re establishing their relationship so you can judge how seriously to take their recommendation. If they just met a few months ago or they don’t seem to know your applicant very well, consider moving on to the next reference.
3. Would You Rent to [Applicant]?
This is a fantastic open-ended question that can let your reference say whatever’s on their mind about the applicant. Sure, most references will only give positive reviews, but you can get a better judgment based on how effusively and how easily they answer this question.
4. Does [Applicant] Have a History of Financial Trouble?
Running a credit check, talking to an employer, and asking previous landlords are great for getting specific answers. However, a personal reference can give you a more wide-ranging idea of how they are generally with money:
- Are they always asking to borrow money from friends?
- Do they seem to overextend on buying lavish things?
- Do they max out their credit cards?
- Have they had trouble paying off debts?
5. Can You Describe [Applicant’s] Character?
This is an especially important question to ask. If you’re only asking yes or no questions, it’s very easy for a reference to always answer in the way that most benefits your applicant.
However, when you ask an open-ended question that requires your reference to think a little more, you can get a better feel for how others view your applicant. If they struggle to come up with specific character traits, then perhaps they can’t think of positive things on the spot. That could be a red flag.
Ideally, you want a reference to have quick and obvious answers about why your applicant is a stellar person. The more praising and enthusiastic the reference is, the better the likelihood your applicant is an overall good person to have as a tenant.
Open-ended questions are great for uncovering information, but they can sometimes be too good for this. Be sure to ignore answers with obvious bias, discriminatory implications, or unprovable claims.
6. Would You Describe [Applicant] as Reliable? Any Examples?
It can feel a bit uncomfortable asking many questions of a reference, but in the long run, it’s worth every penny. You need to get the best tenant possible or it could seriously damage your business.
Asking for examples of reliability can feel like too much prodding, but you want tenants who will go above and beyond to work well with you. Reliable tenants pay on time, take care of their responsibilities, and communicate with you when needed.
7. Does [Applicant] Smoke?
Applicants can lie on their application and it’s tough to know if they’re lying about smoking during the screening process. A friend or family member may lie for them, but hopefully at least one of the references will tell the truth when asked a direct question. Coworkers will also certainly know if your applicant is a smoker.
8. Does [Applicant] Have Any Pets? What Kind?
This is a great question for personal references that an employer or even previous landlords may not know.
In addition to finding out if the applicant has been truthful on their application, you can also get a feel for just how close the reference is to your applicant. Knowing what types of pets they have indicates a close relationship.
As the landlord, you can deny tenancy to someone with pets, or you can charge higher rent and a higher security deposit.
However, be careful that the pet isn’t an emotional support animal (ESA) as you can’t deny tenancy for that reason. You’ll also want to make sure that you’re not falling for a fake ESA letter.
ESA letters can only be submitted by a licensed professional after a mental health screening. They can be obtained remotely. Many websites offer ESA “certification” services. These are scams. Be sure to have your applicant provide an ESA letter and make sure it was put together by one of these people:
- Primary care physician
- Licensed mental health professional
- Licensed therapist
- Licensed general physician
You are not allowed to charge higher rent or security deposit for an ESA. You are allowed to charge for any cleaning costs related to the ESA, and you can also evict a tenant if the ESA causes excessive damage to the property or the tenant does not clean up after the ESA (e.g. feces in the apartment).
9. How Is [Applicant] at Handling Conflict?
Again, these open-ended questions can be a great tool to tease better answers from references otherwise prone to giving a glowing review. If they can’t give you a good answer, or they seem to be hedging the truth (that maybe your applicant is abrasive), then that’s a red flag.
10. Has [Applicant] Had Any Legal Trouble You’re Aware of?
Property managers are allowed to deny housing to someone based on prior convictions. While a background check should be able to uncover most of what you need, some types of crimes can be expunged from a record, based on state and local laws.
It can also happen that certain crimes committed in other counties may not show up on the background check. Again, this varies from state to state.
Asking a personal reference can help you get more information that a background check may not uncover.
You cannot deny an application based on an arrest, as that does not imply guilt. If you uncover any information about prior arrests, be sure to not let that change your opinion about the applicant.
11. What Condition Does [Applicant] Keep Their House In?
You want to know if the applicant is going to maintain your property well. If they seem to keep the house in disarray at all times, then your property is more likely to have stains, odors, or water damage.
12. Do You Know Where [Applicant] Works and How Long They’ve Worked There?
This is a good question that can lead down a line of useful questioning. You can verify employment information found on the application, as well as then ask more questions about their employment.
You could follow up with:
- Does [Applicant] seem to jump from job to job?
- How serious is [Applicant] about their career?
- Does [Applicant] complain much about their job?
Don’t Discriminate When Denying Tenants
You’ll need to be careful about using everything you learn from an applicant’s references, as there are some tidbits you won’t be able to use when picking applicants. The Fair Housing Act established a list of protected classes. You cannot deny tenancy based on any of these factors:
- National origin
- Sex (including gender/gender identity)
- Familial status
While you can ask the questions laid out in this article to a personal reference, not every answer you get can be used as a reason to deny an application.
For example, if the reference mentions that the applicant is going through a drug rehab, you cannot deny them tenancy. Drug addiction (except smoking) is a protected class, although keeping, manufacturing, or selling drugs is not protected.