Pre-screening questions are critical for weeding out potential tenants upfront that aren’t the right fit for your rental property. A good questionnaire helps establish expectations and gathers information helpful for predicting whether they are likely to cause financial or behavioral problems during a tenancy.
Goals of Pre-Screening Questions
Pre-screening questions help cut down on the number of tenants that need to go through the full application and screening process.
To be effective, each pre-screening question you ask should help with determining two things:
- Are your and the prospective tenant’s expectations aligned?
- Is the prospective renter likely to cause problems as a tenant?
These questions can be asked over the phone, or they can be set up in an online questionnaire that tenants must fill out before scheduling a showing of the property.
Qualifying Applicants Before Pre-Screening
Before we discuss our list of pre-screening questions, know that you can cut down on the number of unqualified applicants BEFORE you even get to a pre-screening questionnaire.
No matter where you list the property, make sure to add notes about any policies that you are strict about enforcing. This includes putting details in the property description about any no-pet policies, parking situations, smoking policies, utility expectations, and more. Landlords can even put their desire for a tenant with a good credit score and no criminal history to help keep away applicants who don’t fit this criteria.
Though it may seem aggressive, it can save a lot of time and unnecessary strife. Make sure to be transparent about the type of tenant that you are looking for.
20 Questions to Ask Potential Tenants
You don’t need to ask a lot of tenant screening questions, you just need to ask the right ones.
- What Is Your Estimated Monthly Income?
- Have You Ever Been Evicted?
- Will There Be Any Issues on Your Background Check?
- Do You Have Any Recent Bankruptcies?
- Have You Ever Broken a Rental Agreement?
- Can You Sign a 1-Year Lease?
- Can You Pay the Security Deposit?
- What Date Would You Like to Move In?
- How Many People Will Be Living in the Household?
- How Many Adults Smoke?
- Do You Have Pets?
- How Many Parking Spaces Do You Need?
- Are You Familiar With Our Application Process?
- Are You Okay With Paying Our Rental Application Fee?
- Can You Get Utilities Turned On in Your Name?
- How Long Have You Lived at Your Current Address?
- Why Are You Interested in Moving?
- What Kind of Work Do You Do?
- Does Your Current Landlord Know You’re Moving?
- Would Your Current Landlord Give You a Good Recommendation?
1. What is Your Estimated Monthly Income?
This is the big question. If they don’t answer this adequately, nothing else matters. If the applicant will struggle to pay rent, then move along to the next candidate.
2. Have You Ever Been Evicted?
Evictions are costly, time-consuming, and can cause the landlord to lose a lot of income. Tenants who have been evicted once may not have a problem being evicted again, and that’s a problem for any landlord. Learning whether your tenant has an eviction record before spending the time and money to run a screening process may rule them out before taking these steps.
3. Will There Be Any Issues on Your Background Check?
Again, asking this in advance can save a lot of hassle later. Tenants may not be honest, but if they aren’t, you’ll learn about it anyway. If they are honest about it, it gives the landlord the option to stop the application process at this point before moving any further.
4. Do You Have Any Recent Bankruptcies?
Bankruptcies can affect the tenant’s ability to pay rent. They can also massively impact the tenant’s credit score, so it’s a good idea to ask before you start looking for more information. Having a bankruptcy on their record may not be a bad thing, but it can make their score look bad so it’s good to know this information up front.
5. Have You Ever Broken a Rental Agreement?
Renting to a tenant who has broken a rental agreement in the past might leave you open to having your own lease or rental agreement broken. Though tenants may not be upfront about this information, it can help weed out undesirable tenants if they are. And, if they aren’t honest about it, maybe they aren’t a good rental candidate anyway.
6. Can You Sign a 1-Year Lease?
Whatever your preferred lease period is, you want to know that the tenant can commit to signing it. If the tenant isn’t able to meet this requirement, it isn’t worth the time and cost to move forward with their application, unless you are willing to shorten the leasing period for them.
7. Can You Pay the Security Deposit?
The security deposit is another thing that may cause a hang-up in your rental agreement. You can explain the amount of the security deposit at this time and ask if they are able to pay it. If not, then it isn’t worth moving forward with the screening process.
8. What Date Would You Like to Move In?
If your vacancy needs to be filled immediately but the tenant isn’t willing to move for another month or two, perhaps they aren’t the best tenant. Even if the tenant is perfect in all other aspects, unaligned schedules may sink everything.
9. How Many People Will Be Living in the Household?
Overcrowding can be another issue when it comes to renting a unit or a property. While it’s discrimination to deny renting to a family with kids, you are entitled to know how many total people will be living in your rental. Also, different states have different occupancy limits (by law or by recommendation) which can impact who you decide to give the lease to.
10. Do You Smoke?
If you want to preserve your rental property and need to prevent smoking inside (or outside, in some cases), this is an important question to ask. Even smokers who smoke primarily outside will need to be smoking in the area, and if there are important rules about how far they must be from the building or a general consensus from the community that they don’t want to deal with cigarette smoke, it’s important to know before the screening.
11. Do You Have Pets?
Landlords are within their rights to reject applicants for having pets. You can also specify types of animals, breeds, and sizes in order to best protect your property. Landlords also commonly require a “pet deposit” where they charge extra up front, or even add a bit more to the rent.
12. How Many Parking Spaces Do You Need?
Parking spots may be limited in an apartment complex or other rental arrangements. Knowing how many cars will regularly be parked at the property can help a landlord make a decision, especially if they don’t want cars parked on the curb or taking up space that other tenants should be able to use.
13. Are You Familiar With Our Application Process?
This isn’t a dealbreaker, necessarily. If both you and the tenant are willing to go through with the application after the pre-screening questions, it’s good to know that the tenant knows what is expected of them. Otherwise, this is a good opportunity to explain what the process is.
14. Are You Okay With Paying Our Rental Application Fee?
Whether the tenant is able and willing to pay the rental application fee can be helpful to know before you go through the trouble of sending them the application and waiting for a response. This is also a good opportunity to explain to the tenant why the application fee is necessary.
15. Can You Get Utilities Turned On in Your Name?
This question is often left out of pre-screening opportunities and it can be a stumbling block (especially in low-income areas). It’s important to ask this because it would be a shame to go through the entire process of screening only to find out that they can’t get the electricity turned on in their name.
16. How Long Have You Lived at Your Current Address?
This question can alert you if the potential tenant moves from property to property often. If they do, you can only assume that they’ll do the same. If you want to make sure that you aren’t looking for another tenant immediately after the first least period is up, this is a great question to lead with.
17. Why Are You Interested in Moving?
Hearing a tenant’s reason for moving can be a telling experience, especially if the tenant seems to be hostile or angry at their previous landlord. Sometimes, the answer to this question can be all that you need to cut an interview short. However, learning that a tenant only wants a larger home or a home where they can have pets can be good to know.
18. What Kind of Work Do You Do?
Stable employment is a good sign for your tenant’s ability to make rent moving forward. Are they someone with a high-paying career, or do they hop around jobs? Have they received promotions into areas of more responsibility? All of these are good to know before making a decision.
19. Does Your Current Landlord Know You’re Moving?
Good tenants will inform their current landlord that they’re planning on moving out within an appropriate amount of time. If the tenant admits that they haven’t alerted their landlord that they may be looking for additional housing opportunities, they may do the same to you in the future. This is something to keep in mind.
20. Would Your Current Landlord Give You a Good Recommendation?
While the tenant may not be able to answer this question truthfully, the estimation that they provide in answer to this question can be helpful. If they immediately say that the landlord would not rent to them again, they may not be a great choice for your property.
Any Further Questions?
It’s good to end the pre-screening questionnaire with an opportunity for the tenant to ask questions, especially if they are unclear about any of the information that you presented to them. If this is the case, it’s better to find out at this point than at a later point, where it might become an issue.
If a tenant answers favorably to all of the pre-screening questions, moving forward with a tenant screening process, applications, and more should yield good results.
Illegal Questions to Ask Potential Tenants
There are both federal and state laws that prevent a landlord’s ability to unfairly discriminate against prospective tenants. The Fair Housing Act establishes certain protected classes that can’t be discriminated against, which we’ll go over below. Here are some examples of questions that are illegal to ask during the screening process.
- Nationality – “Where were you born?” or “What country are you from?”
- Race – “What’s your ethnicity?”
- Familial Status – “Do you have children?” or “Are you married?”
- Age – “How old are you?” or “Will you be retiring soon?”
- Religion – “Do you attend church service?”
- Disabilities – “Are you disabled?”
- Service Animals – “Do you have a service animal?”
- Arrests – “Have you ever been arrested?”
Additionally, make sure to check your state’s laws for other protected classes that aren’t covered in the Fair Housing Act.