20 Best Questions to Ask Potential Tenants to Spot Red Flags

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, which is both time consuming one and, in some cases, mildly expensive.

To be effective, each pre-screening question you ask should help with determining 1 of 2 things:

  1. Are your and the prospective tenant’s expectations aligned.
  2. 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 in the description on a listing website 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.

The questions below are a type of guideline that will apply to many landlords and rental situations, but it’s important to consider your own individual criteria when generating a list of questions.

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.

Tenant Screening Questions on Expectations

Tenant Screening Questions to Gather Information for Predicting Problems

What Date Would You Like to Move In?

This is another very important question to ask before screening the tenant. 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 for you. Even if the tenant is perfect in all other aspects, if your schedules don’t match up it just isn’t going to work.

How Many People Will Be Living in the Household?

Overcrowding and overuse of the space can be another issue when it comes to renting a unit or a property. If you are renting a two-bedroom apartment, for example, it would be disheartening to discover that there are going to be 7 people living there after the fact. This is an important question for the sake of your property (and for the sake of laws that prohibit too many people from occupying a single dwelling).

How Many Adults 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.

Do You Have Pets?

All landlords have pet policies, whether they allow them or not. It may be that certain landlords don’t allow dogs, or don’t want cats in their units. Landlords may also not allow pets at all, regardless of what type, or only allow animals under a certain weight limit. Knowing if the tenant owns a pet (and which type of pet it is) can be one of the things that stop the application process, as having a pet at all might mean that they won’t be accepted.

How Many Parking Spaces Do You Need?

Any landlord wants their properties to look nice. In addition, 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.

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.

Are You Okay With Paying Our Rental Application Fee?

Whether the tenant is able and willing to pay the rental application fee can be massively 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 what this application fee is and how they can pay it.

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. This stands for any leasing period and applies across the board if there will be a lease in the rental agreement. 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.

Can You Pay the Security Deposit?

The security deposit is another thing that may cause a hangup 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 they cannot and you are not willing to work with them on it or waive it, then it’s not worth moving forward with the screening process.

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, though that is not always true). It’s important to ask this if there is any doubt because it would be a shame to go through the entire process of screening and signing a lease only to find out that they can’t get the electricity turned on in their name.

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.

Why Are You Interested in Moving?

There are a lot of reasons why someone may want to move. 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.

What Kind of Work Do You Do?

This can be the first insight into how much a tenant makes, and if they can maintain stable employment. For example, a tenant who is between jobs is a risk because they may not be able to pay the deposits or make the rent payment on time. In addition, what a tenant does for work can indicate how much income they are bringing in, which leads right into the next question. Other considerations that this question may address is if they need to use part of the rental property for their work. Whether they will have clients coming and going frequently or if there will constantly be cars in the driveway being worked on can be valid concerns for a landlord.

What Is Your Estimated Monthly Income?

This is one of the most important questions to ask, perhaps even more than the others on this list. The landlord’s first concern when it comes to a potential tenant is whether they will have the ability to pay the rent. Payment problems can be a dealbreaker for any potential tenant, even if they are perfect in all other respects. A standard across most landlords is to require that the tenant makes at least 3 times the amount of the rent so that they have enough to pay and meet their other obligations.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 – i.e. “Where were you born?” or “What country are you from?”
  • Race – i.e. “What’s your ethnicity?”
  • Familial Status – i.e. “Do you have children?” or “Are you married?”
  • Age – i.e. “How old are you?” or “Will you be retiring soon?”
  • Religion – i.e. “Do you attend church service?”
  • Disabilities – i.e. “Are you disabled?”
  • Service Animals – i.e. “Do you have a service animal?”
  • Arrests – i.e. “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.