Tenant Screening is About the Questions You Ask

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Tenant screening is a critical part of being a successful landlord.  But screening is not just about eliminating the professional deadbeat tenant, it is also about eliminating and reducing the amount of problems you have as a landlord.  It is about finding people who will be good fits for your properties, who will live by your rules, not theirs.

Here’s how.

Related: Tenant Screening: The Ultimate Guide

The Tough Part About Screening Tenants

Screening out the deadbeats is relatively easy. A simple credit check will turn them up. Finding tenants who will be good fits for you and your properties is however a bit more nuanced.

Tenant screening always begins with that first point of contact.  That first phone call or e-mail can say plenty about who is looking to rent your property.

But the rubber really hits the road so-to-speak with your application.  A completed application, that asks the right questions, can go a long way towards easing your pain later on.

Of course you need to get the standard stuff like name, social, work history, etc.  But your application should also ask questions designed to weed out those who may not fit.  Questions designed to weed out tenants who will break your rules and cause you enforcement nightmares later on.

For Example…

Let’s say you have banned smoking in your properties and no longer rent to smokers.  You might think that asking “Do you smoke?” on your application will eliminate smokers from your properties.  But people lie.  So it might be better to not ask a yes or no question but ask an either/or question like “Do you smoke indoors or outside?”  Either answer will eliminate the smoker.

You can use this technique with all sorts of criteria.  Pets are another good example.  Rather than asking “Do you own a pet?”  ask “What type of pet do you own?”  Sure, people can still lie, but they are much more likely to answer the second type of question truthfully.

Another question that may help you on your application is “Who is your attorney?”  You may wonder why we care who a tenant’s attorney is but we wonder why the tenant needed an attorney?  Did they go through a bankruptcy or need a criminal defense?  This question seems innocuous on the application but the answer can give you a reason to dig deeper.

A final example is “Who can we contact in case of an emergency?”  We ask this question for two reasons.  First, in case there truly is an emergency and second to try and the tenant if they decide to skip out in the middle of the night.  They may not tell you where they went, but they may tell mom and dad and mom and dad may just tell you.

Related: 13 Rules Great Landlords (Almost) Never Break

Conclusion

Tenant screening is not always a cut and dry, yes or no process, but it is one of the most important things a landlord can do.  As a landlord, you need to develop your application and screening process with the goal of finding the best fit for you and your properties.  Asking insightful questions will help you in achieving that goal.

What questions do you ask on your application?  Please share with your comments.

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About Author

Kevin Perk is co-founder of Kevron Properties, LLC with his wife Terron and has been involved in real estate investing for 10 years. Kevin invests in and manages rental properties in Memphis, TN and is a past president and vice-president of the local REIA group, the Memphis Investors Group.

31 Comments

  1. Charlie Williams on

    Good thoughts Kevin. I am having problems with one of units in a duplex. The tenant met our standards, but I have seen some shady people going in and out of the place. I do need to ask where detailed questions on my application. Do you have any more specific questions you ask to weed out potential bad tenants?

    • Kevin Perk

      Charlie,

      Most questions are pretty basic, name, social work and rental history. Others are like the ones I describe in my article and others describe below. Tailor your questions to look for the behavior you are trying to weed out like smoking or pets.

      Good luck and thanks for reading,

      Kevin

  2. Thanks Kevin, You did stick a bug in my brain for the future. We are lucky (actually not, it was planned) that we don’t have any smokers or bad dogs. We started out our path to near zero landlording problems with choosing where we bought our rentals. Instead of chasing cheap houses like the Funds and Foreign buyers (here in Atlanta) we chose the cheapest neighborhoods in the BEST school districts. Then we advertise the high school name in our ad. Which I admit get run so infrequently I think the verbiage contains “thee” and “thou”. :) Just kidding.
    Just sharing a winning recipe: buy in great schools high school districts 5 or better, 7 or higher is best, over fix the house, price it $50 below the average, take great pictures and advertise it for long term rental in a great high school district. Choose folks with 4x income vs the rent, 2 income earners and low bills. I always ask: Why do you want to rent this place? I give preference to “I want to keep my kids in the middles chool then high school”.

    One might ask, how can he be so picky (or get that quality of applicant)? When your rentals are in great school districts, have the nicest rental, you are there in person (renters see you have skin in the game) not via a leasing agent, we’ve found we get to choose from some great applications. Our extremely low turn over and repair costs is proof that our system works in my view.

    Just saying that one can filter out ok tenants from a pool of bad ones with these great tips or you can change the business model and chose the best tenant from a pool of good choices. One problem though is that our system starts before you buy the house.

    What’s your secrets to attracting top renters and keeping turn over low?

    • “our system starts before you buy the house”

      So true, Curt! This is where a lot of people go wrong. Knowing who your tenant base will be and then choosing a neighborhood that caters to that base is so important. For instance, families may be mostly concerned with schools, while 20 somethings would focus more on proximity to transportation and walkability scores. I know some investors disregard these kinds of factors, but I agree with you, they are important.

      • Right Sharon, I will not take claim to originating this strategy, it’s entirely from my retired high school teacher wife now turned RE pro. Her 30 years of torture being a teacher taught her things about “people” I could never have figured out on my own. :)

        1) Choose your customer carefully as a premeditated process: age group, income and aspirations, education and aspirations, type of job. Don’t this happen by chance. You can still direct a desired group to your rental by how you fix it up and advertise..
        2) study your geography and figure out where these folks live. Find the cheapest city blocks/neighborhoods and tell agents to feed you listings. Do yellow letter mailings to these areas, put bandit signs out just in these areas.
        3) buy, fix and rent: putting in the subject of your ads what ever it is that your customer base seeks: good school, proximity to freeway, the company names near by, hardwood floors low allergy house with high efficiency windows and AC.. What ever.
        4) Then use an electronic rent payment system. Literally you’ll never hear from your renters unless you need to fix something. But since we over fix and I txt my renters to change the furnace filters I only see the property to over see a roof replacement or similar.

        • “premeditated process”

          Another great phrase. Looks like you have one smart wife there.

          What electronic rent payment system do you like? Thanks, Curt!

    • Kevin Perk

      Curt,

      Good advice. We also buy where people “want” to live rather than “have” to live. It makes a big difference in tenant quality. We also keep our rentals nice, treat our tenants fairly and weed out problems quickly.

      So far so good!

      Thanks for reading and sharing some great advice,

      Kevin

  3. I added the following question to the end of my application 2 years ago:

    “Describe why you’d be a good tenant?”

    The answer I’ve gotten have been very telling.

  4. You should also ask about the EXACT number of occupants who will be living in the house –including PART TIME– we had a renter who said they had NO children– but they did NOT disclose they had numerous (ELEVEN) foster children- — we discovered this due to a plumbing repair( so we had to be at the house,) where we saw eleven teenagers!! when we asked the tenant about eleven teenagers she replied, “well, you didn’t ask if we had foster children, you just asked if we had children ourselves.” That was a very costly , learning lesson for us in terms of damage, since we ended up with THIRTEEN residents , and thought we were renting to a couple only !!. Now our application asks how many residents, full and part time will be living in the residence , whether related to applicant or not.

    • We do not ask about the maximum number of occupants, we tell the tenant the maximum. We are also very specific that all inhabitants 18 years of age or older, must be signatories to the lease.

      We also indicate if a guest is staying longer than a week, we are to be informed and if they stay longer than a month, they are no longer a guest.

      Violation of the above is cause for termination of the lease.

      • Yeah, I’d think you’d have to be real careful about asking how many children someone has – that could be against some Fair Housing Laws.

        • Sharon:

          We do require prospective tenants to list their children/dependents on the application form.
          We include the count of inhabitants per unit in our emergency response kit – which we thankfully have not had to use.

  5. Kevin, great article.

    Back when I was still a green landlord, I asked every applicant if he/she had ever been evicted. A young lady answered “No”. Turns out she was in the process of being evicted!! I called her and told her that she could no longer move in, because she lied to me about being evicted. Her response (in an angry tone mind you) “I did not lie! I haven’t been evicted!” I said, not yet you haven’t but you’re in the process of being evicted and that means the same thing to me. She learned a valuable lesson and so did I. Her lesson: Do not lie! You will get caught. Shame on her landlord for telling me that she was a great tenant. I guess he was hoping to get rid of her any way he could! My tenant screening process has improved significantly over the years, but…there’s always room for improvement and Kevin, your examples will help!

    Since then I ask: Have you ever been evicted OR are you currently in the process of being evicted? I also add that it best that they tell me now, because I will find out.

    • Kevin Perk

      James,

      We have all learned from that kind of experience. Good advice and good question. We also point out that you lying is grounds for automatic disapproval.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment,

      Kevin

  6. About 2 yrs ago I added, “Are any prospective tenants / co-tentants or frequent visitors registered sex offenders?”. They are not a protected group, so it’s fine to ask. If you want to be the most hated landlord in town just place a sex offender in a family neighborhood. All the neighbors will receive a notification that a sex offender is living in the area. In our city we have a person who receives gov’t money for placing ex-cons (mostly sex offenders just released) into his houses. Ppl can’t stand this guy and have been trying to run him off. He will place 5 or more to a house in single family areas. Overnight property values drop, and a linch mob forms. I don’t want to be that guy they’re hunting.

  7. My post isn’t taking, I’m guessing because of a word I was using. Let me rephrase a bit.
    About 2 yrs ago I added, “Are any prospective tenants/co-tenants or frequent visitors registered s3x offenders?”. You see the word I changed. If you want to be the most hated landlord in town, place a registered offender in a family area. They neighbors will receive a paper notifying them an offender is living near, photo address, etc. In our town we have a guy that gets gov’t money for placing them in his houses (5 or so to a house). He has decimated home values in pockets of town and ppl can’t stand him. They are not a protected group so it’s ok to ask. I don’t want to be the guy the mob is hunting.

  8. Sara Cunningham on

    Kevin great tips. The secret is to ask open ended questions instead of closed end, in other words ones that can’t be answered by a plain and simple yes or no.

  9. Jordan Thibodeau on

    Great post. I look at tenant screening as hiring an employee for your business. It much easier to do front due diligence than having to evict someone.

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