Find out everything there is to know about effective tenant screening, such as asking telling questions, picking the right tenants, questioning references, and more.
What Does a Great Tenant Look Like?
The best tenants are ones who:
- Pay their rent in full and on time each month. This is the most important part, or else why own a rental property? The best tenants will have no drama surrounding the amount or the due date.
- Take care of the property. They follow the lease rules, keep the property relatively clean, don’t break things, and let the landlord know when something needs to be fixed.
- Communicate responsibly. The best tenants are courteous, respectful, and proactive.
- Stay for a long time. Once a landlord has a tenant who does all 3 of the above, the last part is to keep them in the property for a long time.
What Does a Bad Tenant Look Like?
In short, bad tenants increase stress and cost the landlord time and money.
These are the tenants who do things like:
- Vacate the property without notice
- Pay rent late
- Miss rent payments
- Break rules such as no pets, smoking, having too many vehicles, or painting rooms
- Neglect landscaping
- Destroy the property
Bad tenants lead to two of the worst outcomes for a landlord: evictions and vacancies. The average eviction costs property owners between $3,500 and $10,000 in court costs, possible property damage, and vacancy. With average rent surpassing $2,000 per month, having an empty property is one of the most expensive costs for a landlord.
How to Screen a Tenant in 8 Steps
The goal is to find applicants who are the most likely to fit the parameters of a great tenant. Here’s how to do it:
- Ask Questions on the Application
- Collect Applicant’s Information and Consent
- Gather Criminal and Credit History
- Put together a Full Rental History
- Contact All References
- Review and Analyze Collected Information
- Interview Applicants and Ask Clarifying Questions
- Decide on a Tenant
1. Ask Questions on the Application
During the screening process, the landlord will be putting together data about the applicants in order to best predict their future viability as a great tenant. The first step is to simply ask them.
While asking the applicant directly can’t always result in trusted answers, there are a few reasons to begin every screening process this way:
- It’s quick and easy. Landlords should ask the questions here because they can. There’s no reason not to.
- Landlords can filter out the obviously unqualified applicants – All landlords should have minimum standards that all of their applicants meet. It doesn’t matter how good the rest of their application is, or the context surrounding the event, these people get filtered out automatically. This could be a violent crime in the last 12 months, multiple evictions, or a credit score below 550. Automatic rejection at this step saves money and time later.
- Landlords can compare gathered data to what’s answered here – Because the source of the information is biased, the landlord will verify it all later. If any discrepancies arise, you can either dismiss the application or talk to the applicant for clarification.
- Many applicants won’t apply at all – Once an applicant sees the questions on the application (and that the landlord plans to verify all of the answers), they might decide to withhold their application altogether. Fewer unqualified applicants is always a good thing.
Be sure to keep the same standards for all applicants. Asking different questions or raising the required credit score for a particular applicant you find unappealing is grounds for discrimination.
Questions Landlords Should Ask on an Application
Here are some of the most important questions that a landlord should ask:
- What is your credit score?
- Have you ever filed for bankruptcy?
- Have you ever been evicted before?
- How much is your gross monthly income?
- How much do you pay per month in debt payments?
- Have you ever been evicted?
- Have you ever broken a lease by leaving a property early?
- Do you smoke?
- Do you have any pets?
- How many vehicles will you keep at the property?
- Will we find anything upon running a criminal background check?
- How many people will be living in the property?
- How many adults will be living in the property?
- Do you plan to run a business out of the property?
- Do you have the ability to pay one month’s rent and a security deposit?
Be sure to mention that you will be verifying all of this information.
2. Collect Applicant’s Information and Consent
Of course, landlords will need to have some information in order to continue screening the applicant, such as:
- Date of birth
- Current address
- Current employer and phone number
- Previous (or current) landlord and phone number
- 2-4 personal references
- Social security number (optional)
In the past, social security numbers (SSN) were considered perhaps the most important piece of information gathered—next to the applicant’s name. Times have changed, and now most data can be collected with just a name, address, and date of birth. Social security numbers can be useful as an added layer of identity verification, but you can still screen tenants without an SSN. However, landlords are within their rights to require an SSN in most cases.
In addition to collecting their personal information, be sure to get the applicant’s consent to gather more information about them. Without consent, not only will many referrals not talk to the landlord, but they could also be guilty of breaking HIPAA and FHA regulations.
On the consent form, be sure to specify each of the ways that you plan to gather information. This could include:
- Using tenant screening companies to pull credit and criminal background reports
- Contacting current and previous landlords
- Contacting current and previous employers
- Contacting personal references
- Requiring additional credit and personal references upon request
Of course, consult with an attorney in order to ensure compliance with all local & state laws.
3. Gather Criminal and Credit History
At this point, the landlord will begin to gather in-depth information about the tenants.
Gather Criminal History
Criminal history usually includes a 7-year history of any misdemeanor and felony convictions for the applicant. Juvenile records are handled on a state-by-state basis, but are often expunged at a certain age.
It is illegal to consider arrests when choosing a tenant for the property. Don’t ask about this information, but if you happen to come across it, don’t use it in determining who to give the lease to.
Most commonly, criminal history is gathered through a tenant screening company. Varying services offer different types of reports:
- State-only crimes. This will cover only the crimes committed in the state. It’s not best practice to pull state-only reports, but it is cheaper. AAOA’s Basic level costs $19.95.
- State and nationwide crimes. This will cover nationwide crimes. An example of this is Rtenant Multicrim Criminal Background Check service, which costs $20.95.
- Full criminal, credit, eviction, and income history (and sometimes more). This is a fully comprehensive report that is the most thorough service that most tenant screening services offer. This type of service will usually run about $35 – $50.
It is also possible to pull criminal history for much cheaper, or even for free. Each state has their own website that also includes criminal records—which are available to the public.
However, there are a few problems with gathering criminal records for free:
- Online records aren’t official. The official records are the copies at the courthouse. Many of those records are online as well, but not all.
- Online records aren’t always comprehensive. Some online court records will only have quick summaries or be missing some information.
- Some states charge for pulling data. It’s free in some places, but costs money elsewhere. If you’re going to pay, you might as well pay for a professional service to pull the report.
- Takes too much time. Pulling criminal reports for each applicant can be much too time consuming for most landlords.
Gather Credit History
Landlords can choose to gather a simple credit score or to get a full credit history. A credit history contains a record of the applicant’s past 7 years of financial history, including a list of all creditors, amounts owed, history of payments, bankruptcies, judgments, liens, collection accounts, and more.
A credit score is a summation of a credit history into a single number. In other words, a credit score is a measure of how likely a person is to fulfill their financial obligations.
In general, it’s best practice to get both the credit score and credit history (provided the credit score is high enough to merit consideration to rent the property).
Like pulling criminal background, it’s most common to hire a tenant screening service to pull a full credit history. This can be done a few ways:
- A la carte credit history. Landlords can get credit histories by themselves with services such as Experian Credit Report & Score. This usually costs around $14.95.
- As part of a comprehensive tenant screening report. As mentioned above, most landlords opt to have full credit, criminal, eviction, and income history pulled by their tenant screening service.
It is possible to have credit reports pulled for free. Each of the 3 main credit bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian) are required to provide a full credit report for free every 12 months. A landlord can ask the applicant to pull their own credit report and send it to them for review.
This is uncommon because it’s possible for the applicant to alter the report, or the report may be outdated if they had already used their free report earlier. Most landlords will simply get credit histories as part of a tenant screening service.
Paying For Tenant Screening Services
In most states, landlords can charge an application fee which is generally used for tenant screening costs. However, this isn’t the case in all states, as some have put limits on how much a landlord is allowed to charge. In these cases, property owners will often have to cover some or all of the tenant screening service costs.
It’s still worth the cost, even if it’s out of pocket, because of the long-term advantages to finding excellent tenants. The income from a tenant that pays consistently month over month makes up for any screening costs.
4. Put together a Full Rental History
Rental histories usually consist of the following:
- Dates and addresses of residences
- Contact info for landlords
- How much the applicant paid in rent
- Late/missed payments
- Broken leases/rules
- Recommendations from previous landlords
Most tenant screening reports will uncover addresses, evictions, and missed payments. Missed payments may show up, but those can only be reported to credit bureaus after 30 days, and even then some landlords will decide not to report it.
The rest must be gathered by talking to previous landlords. This step is essential in a thorough screening process because you’ll be talking with someone who directly rented to the applicant. They will know better than anyone else if the applicant is worth taking on.
Here are a few questions to ask previous landlords:
- 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 smoke on or near your property?
- Did they get their full security deposit back?
Most of these questions require a simple yes or no. The reason for this is that it keeps both parties on topic and away from topics that can potentially result in a discrimination lawsuit.
For example, don’t ask “Did you like the tenant?” That can give all types of answers that violate the Fair Housing Act (FHA).
It’s true that the “Would you rent to them again question” can lead to some of these issues, but it’s such a wonderful question to get at the heart of what you want to know about your applicant. If the previous landlord gets into dangerous territory when answering this question, you can steer them away or disregard what they’re saying.
5. Contact All References
Since you’ve already contacted previous landlords as part of the rental history, next is to contact employer and personal references.
The main purpose of contacting employers is to verify their income, as well as their job title and duration of employment there. Verifying their income lets you know they can pay the bills, but the other two points of information can still tell you a few things.
If they have a strong job title, like an executive or director, they’re likely to have increased earning potential, even if they leave their job. Duration is also nice to know as a longer stay at a company shows they’re valued, they’re committed, and also less likely to be fired.
These may be a little nitpicky, but every data point matters if there are dozens of applicants.
Here are a few example questions to ask an applicant’s employer:
- What is their annual pay?
- Do they have a history of missed work?
- Do they have a history of being late to work?
- Do they have a history of disciplinary issues?
- How long have they worked there?
- What is their job title?
- Anything else I should know?
In addition, it’s important to know that you’re talking to the right person. One trick for this is to call the company’s general phone number and ask to be transferred rather than calling a number given on the application that could be a friend posing as a manager.
Contact Personal References
In general, personal references are likely to be extremely positive about the applicant. However, a few specific questions can get some of the answers needed. In addition, after you do many of these types of calls, you can begin to tell when someone hesitates or doesn’t tell the whole truth.
Adding in 1 or 2 open-ended questions can help get a feel for the applicant. For example, you can ask, “Can you describe their character?” If the answers sound trite and generic, that’s a bit of a red flag. If the person gushes about the applicant with specific examples, that can tell you a lot.
Here are a few example questions to ask an applicant’s personal references:
- What is your relationship to them?
- How long have you known them?
- Would you rent to them?
- Do they have a history of financial trouble?
- Can you describe their character?
- Would you describe them as being reliable?
- Do they smoke?
- Do they have any pets? What kind?
- What condition do they keep their house in?
Don’t skip this step—any good landlord will turn over every stone in the quest for the best applicants.
6. Review and Analyze Collected Information
In reality, landlords will be analyzing information at every step of the way. If they send in an application with subpar qualifications, they should be rejected right then. If you find evictions on their rental history, don’t move forward with them.
The reason for this is twofold: time and money. If a landlord gets 40 applicants, they simply don’t have the time to go through all of them. If an initial scan of applications can result in turning down 30 of those, that’s a big win.
Plus, tenant screening reports cost money as well. Even though application fees generally cover the costs for these, that’s still money out of a landlord’s pocket. If the tenant screening costs $50, a landlord would rather do 5 of those than 40 to save $1,750.
Analyzing Rent-to-Income Ratio
The number one reason for rejecting an applicant is based on their income. If the person clearly can’t pay the rent, then that’s the most obvious reason to deny them.
Rent-to-income ratio is a good rule for them for quickly determining if someone earns enough money to credibly pay the rent.
The formula for rent-to-income is:
Rental price / gross monthly income
If your unit costs $2,000 to rent, and the applicant makes $8,333 per month (roughly $100k per year), then you’ll get this equation:
$2,000 / $8,333 = 24%
A general rule of thumb is to find applicants with a rent-to-income below 30%. This number is getting harder to reach with increasing rental prices, so it may be a matter of picking the best one among the applicants.
Rent-to-income, however, doesn’t tell the whole story because it doesn’t include debt. If two applicants earn $100k, but one of them has two massive car payments, that changes things drastically.
A good alternative is to focus on debt-to-income ratio, which takes into account the monthly rental payment as well as other monthly financial obligations.
Analyzing Credit History
In general, a landlord will first look at the credit score, but then may also dig deeper into individual items in the full credit history.
It’s fairly standard for landlords to look for a minimum 650-670 credit score. In that range, you’ll find people who have mostly made payments, but may have missed a few along the way. You can also get people who are newer and haven’t had time to build a higher score.
You can also get people who have more serious infractions in their history, but enough time has passed that they were able to rebuild their score to this level.
This is why it’s important to look into their credit history as well. For example, if you decide to take a no-nonsense approach to past bankruptcies, then you might deny someone with a decent credit score.
However, it’s generally best practice to take into account how much time has passed. If they have a pristine credit history since their bankruptcy 5 years ago, you’re likely looking at a good candidate.
Analyzing Criminal History
In general, landlords with decent demand will turn down applicants with any sexual or violent crimes in their past. Many other felonies will have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
For example, a white collar crime that happened five years ago may be something a landlord can overlook—especially if there aren’t other, more qualified candidates. However, be wary of financial crimes, as you’re going to be handling money with your tenants.
Some misdemeanors should also raise red flags for the landlord. For example, any sort of vandalism or destruction of property in the recent past can indicate a pattern of behavior that you should protect your property from.
Also, domestic abuse of any sort is another issue that you don’t want to deal with. Neighbors calling the police on your tenants for this sort of behavior isn’t ideal.
Analyzing Rental and Eviction History
Evictions are one of the costliest expenses for any property owner. If any applicant shows evictions (especially recent ones) or a pattern of behavior that could lead to evictions, it’s best to deny that applicant.
For example, if they’re consistently paying rent late (or have missed payments), that’s a frequent headache that could turn into a disaster with an eviction. When it comes to analyzing rental and eviction history, the best thing a landlord can do is to have a written list of what’s acceptable and what isn’t for their applicants.
7. Interview Applicants and Ask Clarifying Questions
At this point, you might have one applicant that stands above the rest. If this is the case, move on to the final step!
Otherwise, it’s time to take the remaining applicants and have a conversation with them. An important part of this conversation would be to ask any clarifying questions about items you found during the information-gathering process.
Here are a few examples:
- Would you mind telling me the circumstances behind your bankruptcy?
- I see that you have property destruction on your criminal record…how can I be sure you won’t damage my property as well?
- I see that you went 6 months in between jobs. Can you tell me why that was?
The goal of this conversation is to round out the screening process and ensure you have all the information that you’ll need to make a decision.
8. Decide on a Tenant
You’re almost there! Now it’s time to pick a tenant.
Here are some of the most common ways one applicant will be superior to another:
- Higher income
- Lower debt
- Higher credit score
- Better criminal background
- Better rental history
- Better eviction history
- More praise from references
- Better communication style
- More stable job situation
- Doesn’t smoke
- Doesn’t have pets
- Agrees to lease rules (seems more likely to follow them)
- Fewer vehicles
- Has lived in the area longer
- Earlier application submission
All else being equal, it’s best practice to choose the applicant that applied first. Because this is the generally accepted practice, a rejected applicant could claim discrimination if they were well qualified and applied first.
How to Properly Reject Applicants
Settling on the right applicant doesn’t mean that the landlord’s job is done. The rest of the rejected applicants need to be handled in the correct way or the landlord could land in hot water.
Avoid Housing Discrimination Laws
The Fair Housing Act lays out a list of protected classes which cannot be the basis to reject a rental application. These protected classes are:
- National Origin
- Familial Status
- Sex (including gender identity or orientation)
Discrimination against these protected classes can happen during advertising, on the application questions themselves, during the screening process, and (most commonly) when choosing the final applicant.
It’s fairly easy for a landlord to unintentionally break discrimination laws, so it’s important for a landlord to not even give the appearance that they could be discriminating. Here are a few best practices:
- Do not discuss anything related to a protected class with a reference. For example, it may seem innocuous, but don’t ask questions like “Do you know where he is originally from?” or “When are you due?”
- Keep a list of minimum standards for your rental. If there isn’t an obvious reason why someone is rejected, they could choose to believe that it’s because they belong to a protected class and sue. However, if you have a written list of standards, and the applicant falls short, they won’t have a case.
- Notify every rejected applicant. The law says you must notify every rejected applicant if it’s for a reason found on a consumer report. However, best practice is to just notify all of them and give a reason why. This will nip most discrimination cases in the bud.
- First come, first serve. As mentioned above, this is standard practice for choosing applicants, assuming all else is equal.
Reasons a Landlord Cannot Reject an Applicant
There are many other sub-groups not explicitly mentioned by the FHA, but would fall under one of those 7 groups. Some examples include:
- Family size (can’t reject them because they have kids or if a couple isn’t married)
- Marital status (e.g., an unmarried couple can’t be turned away)
- Age (some landlords discriminate against the young or the old)
- Primary language spoken at home
- Participation in the Section 8 program or other subsidized programs
- Arbitrary discrimination (e.g., someone with tattoos)
Remember, do your best to never talk about any of these things. For example, talking about someone’s kids can be a touchy subject. Some landlords don’t like to rent to couples with children, so they will try to find out if the applicants have kids. Don’t do this—it’s not worth a potential discrimination suit.
Reasons a Landlord Can Reject an Applicant
Now that we’ve talked about some potential pitfalls, it might seem like there are hardly any legitimate reasons left to reject an applicant.
Not only is this not the case, but there are plenty of legal reasons to deny an applicant. Here is a list of the most common:
- Debt-to-income ratio is too high
- Can’t verify income
- Poor credit history
- Has a bankruptcy on record
- History of late payments
- Prior evictions
- Prior convictions
- False information on the application
- Refusal to consent to gather credit, eviction, criminal, or rental history
- Illegal activity
- History of damaging property
- Has pets
Mrs. Murphy Exemption
The Mrs. Murphy Exemption says that if the owner of a single dwelling with four or fewer units lives in one of the units, then that property is exempt from the Fair Housing Act.
In other words, the owner can use whatever reasons they want to justify rejecting an application without fear of discrimination (except for race or color).
This rule is a bit of a relic, and most consider it to be bad practice. Furthermore, many local and state laws have put in place stricter laws that supersede the Mrs. Murphy Exemption. If you fall into the category to potentially qualify for this exemption, be sure to consult an attorney before making any potentially illegal application decisions.
How to Avoid Being Scammed as a Landlord
For some people with a checkered past, it can be difficult to find decent housing. In some cases, the applicant may try to pass along fake information in the application and then further try to validate that information with unscrupulous acts.
How to Spot Fake Landlord References
An applicant who has a poor history with their previous landlords may try to refer you to one of their friends posing as a previous landlord. There are a few ways to try to sniff out fake landlord references:
- Ask in-depth questions. For example, ask for exact dates and addresses. Ask if the property is near a certain landmark. Ask if they have any other properties available to rent. The more questions, the more likely you are to trip up a fake reference.
- Look up the property online. One option is to call the number you find online for the rental property rather than call the one provided by the applicant.
How to Spot Fake Employer References
In general, an employer reference will be either an HR representative or the employee’s manager/supervisor.
Perhaps the easiest way to avoid a fake employer reference is to call the general line for the company. Then you can say something like “Hi, I’m verifying information on a rental application for [NAME]. Do you have an HR rep that I can talk to?”
By doing this, it’ll be nearly impossible for an applicant to fake, unless the real HR rep is willing to risk their career over the applicant.
How to Spot Fake Pay Stubs
Unfortunately, it’s becoming easier and easier to fake pay stubs with the wealth of technology online. There are simple templates that can be downloaded with the numbers added in later.
Here are a few potential ways to spot these fake stubs:
- Rounded numbers. These are rare on a real pay stub.
- Missing company information. The most important will be the Employer Identification Number.
- The numbers don’t make sense. Perhaps the deductions/taxes are too high or too low, or the net pay doesn’t make sense compared to the gross income.
- Watermarks. Some fake online generators will have watermarks on their free versions. Dead giveaway.
However, anyone with any skill can fake a pay stub. The best option is to verify income with other sources to back up what’s on the pay stub. For example, you can call the employer or request to see bank statements.
How to Avoid Emotional Support Animal Scams
This one is common because people love their animals, and some landlords worry about breaking discrimination/privacy laws by asking about an emotional support animal (ESA).
First of all, a landlord is allowed to reject an applicant for having a pet. If there is a pet, the applicant must prove that it is an ESA in order to bring it into the unit (if the landlord otherwise doesn’t allow pets).
Here are a few quick things to know about spotting ESA scams:
- True ESA verification letters can only come from a licensed health professional (including therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social worker, nurse, or doctor).
- There are no certificates or registries – Most online scams will have the person pay for a certificate or registry. These are not legitimate.
- ESA verification letters must contain the name of the doctor, contact info, and a date of issuance in the last year.