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The Four Pillars Of Tenant Screening

by Eric Drenckhahn on May 12, 2014 · 34 comments

  

There are four pillars to tenant screening, including:

  1. Credit score
  2. Income
  3. Rental History
  4. Criminal background.

All four are important, but credit score and income are the main ones.

Those two are the easiest to uncover and verify. They are also the most objective rather than subjective.

Make Housing Affordable:

One thing that landlords must understand is that to be a successful landlord, you must offer affordable housing!

No if, ands or buts about it, if your tenant cannot afford the rent, it is not affordable.

If you’re rent cost is $3,000 per month then you’re tenants need to bring home ~$10,000 per month.  That is what affordable housing means to me and what it should mean to you!

I hear lots of stories from prospective tenants. They were a great tenant and the previous landlord doesn’t want them to leave but they were always late on paying their rent!

I always tell my renters that by definition, it is impossible to be a great tenant if they do not pay rent.

It must be paid in full, on time, every time!

It doesn’t take too much for a tenant to be two month’s behind on rent. On day one, they owe rent. On day two if they have not paid yet, then they are a month behind.

Thirty days after that they are already two month’s behind, which is a mere thirty days into a rental cycle, so it adds up fast. You want to make sure you are getting paid on time and in full.

Related: Tenant Screening: The Ultimate Guide

How I Screen Based On Income

When I screen tenants on income I look for at least 3.5X the gross income in rent. Most of my places, which are three bedrooms, rent for an average of ~$1,025. The federal government recommends a family spend no more than 30% of their gross salary in rent.

That would equate to a $41,000 per year in household income. 3.5x the rent would be closer to $43,000.

I know the median household income in the USA, for 2014 is $53,043. That is, just as many households make more than $53,043 as below.

If you do not know what average is, you do not know what below average is.

Know it! Know it for credit scores and income at a minimum!

Why You Should Set Your Income Standard High

I cannot discriminate against familial status so I can’t say a working person with four children and a non-working spouse with no money in the bank, has to make more than a single person without children and $5,000 in the bank.

It makes no sense but that is the way it is.

I could use the money in the bank criteria but not the mouths to feed. The federal poverty rate definitions take familial status into account but  a landlord cannot. Everyone knows it takes more to feed six people than one.

I cannot charge more in rent just because you have children and I cannot have a different set of criteria for tenants without children.

Setting the income bar too high, at the median of $53K, might exclude one person households. Setting the bar to low at only 2.5 times the rent would bring in people that cannot afford the apartment.

The Low-Income Renter Calculator

Here is a typical situation with low income renters. They generally have unreliable cars.

The cars break down. There are car repair expenses. They do not have emergency funds. Below is a  great word problem that all high-school (and below) kids should have to learn to calculate:

If rent is $1,000 and a car repair is $400, what is the amount you have left to pay your landlord (on time) after you pay for the car repair?

I went to college and minored in math so I understand how to create complex formulas. I know this word problem looks easy but to a low income renter it is very complex.

Assuming you were going to have the $1,000 rent on the first of the month and your car trouble happened about that same time, my complex math formulas come up with a rent payment of $600.

It should still be$1,000 but it doesn’t always work that way. The renter calculator is a bit different.

The correct answer is $0. 

If you are lucky it may be $150, or $200, but it will never be $600. You will get the rest of the rent on the next payday if nothing else comes up.

It would never occur to them that rent should be paid first, before the car repair.

They need the car to go to work to make money to pay the rent, so that expense will always come first. How next month’s rent will be paid is also not a concern at this time.

The low-income renter calculator figures that if you are not going to pay in full why pay at all. Some is better than nothing and if all you are going to pay is some, why stretch it?

If this happens to you as a property manager it is your own fault, not the renters.

You loaned your renter an apartment that they could not afford. It is no different than the banks loaning mortgage money to homeowners who could not afford to pay the mortgage.

So, again, make sure your tenant has at least 3.5x the rent in income. Most of my professional renters make 10x+ the rent so they have no trouble paying on time, car payment or not.

I have some renters that make almost 20x the rent in income.

Related: 13 Red Flags for Troublesome Tenants (+ 9 Totally Insane True-Life Tenant Stories)

Preparing for Rental Increases

Another reason why to make sure your tenant has plenty of money to pay rent is for rent increases. If your tenant can barely afford what you are charging now, how are you going to get more rent from them in the future?

If they are government assisted maybe increased rents are an option but only if the government entity approves your higher rent. So, make sure there is plenty of money in the tenant’s paycheck for you when you need it.

Taxes, insurance, utilities and maintenance costs all increase so you need to keep your ROI and cash flow steady and increase rents with the expenses when needed.

When it comes to income, you can create all sorts of complex formulas to look at income vs. loan payments and do all sorts of complex analysis.

You can take into consideration car payments, credit card bills, outgoing payments of child support, etc. but I prefer to look at gross income only.

I do not look at outstanding debt. I do not have time for tedious analysis!

I just set the bar a bit higher and know they should have enough to pay rent.

Don’t Bother With Counting Child-Support As Income

So, when I get an application I first look at their credit score first because, well that’s easy.

Then I look at income. I do not count child support, as I do not know the payer of the child support’s background.

They are, after all, like a co-signer; they are effectively paying a portion of the rent. If they are paying rent in the form of child support, I need to know their credit score, income, job stability, etc. and I do not have time for that.

They will not normally give that information anyway, so skip it!

How I Handle The Self-Employed

I generally do not like self-employed people, unless it is a ‘solid’ business. I want a business that can be validated on paper, not some guy doing car work on the side.

If you are a consultant or professional, you will have bank deposits and checks from clients. You will have a business checking account, with a tax ID and deposits that I can verify.

You will have a tax return. You will have a solid credit score and you may have a larger deposit.

Remember, a tenant’s income will tell you the tenant’s ability to pay rent and the renter’s credit score will tell you the desire to pay rent.

You need both.

In Conclusion

I discussed how to use credit score to screen renters in a previous post. In another future post I will discuss the other two pillars, criminal backgrounds and rental history.

What is your income level requirement for your rentals?

Did you ever think it may be your own fault when a tenant cannot pay rent?

Did you blame the 2008 financial crisis on greedy bankers and do you think you may actually doing the same thing?

Be sure to leave your answers below in the comment section!

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Will Bradford May 12, 2014 at 6:20 am

Eric you are two for two so far. I am enjoying your articles. I currently only have two rentals but have used 4x income to rent and it has worked out great. The oldest rental has seen 3 vacant days in 4 years and the newest seems to be doing fine as well.

You did get me thinking about child support though. I have included that as income recently but hadn’t looked at it from your perspective. Definitely something that I’m going to think about.

Great post again!

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Eric May 12, 2014 at 8:35 am

Thanks for the comment Will!

Child support is risky to use as income. There are too many deadbeats that do not pay it. It is a professional that has a solid job it may be more secure.

On the lower income side, I have hired people that I needed to withhold child support. ( I owned a bar/grill at one time, “My Second (and third) Investment Property” on my blog). the state mandated I withhold up to 60% of the take home pay. But it takes ~6 months for the state to catch up to the job to notify about the withholding requirement.

These low income people move from job to job, and avoid the withholding of child support. Once the state finds out, it is no longer worth working there.

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James May 12, 2014 at 7:22 am

While you can’t discriminate on familial status, I think you probably can on the savings in the bank part. (Of course, I am not a lawyer and all that, and I certainly don’t know the laws in your area, anyway).

Also, a simple formula to take into account certain kinds of debt would be a benefit to you, and really is not all that difficult. If a potential tenant has no debt and $5,000 in the bank in savings, with an income 2.5 times rent, they are probably a better bet than one with no money in the bank, a large car payment (or two) massive credit card debt, and income 3.5 times rent.

For example, in your word problem above, I a tenant earns 2500 a month, and rent is 1,000 a month, they have $2,100 left to pay their 1,000 rent. They also have 5,000 in the bank to help if they need it, but unless their utilities are excessive or they have many mouths to feed, they probably won’t have to even dip into their savings. On the other hand, if a tenant earns 3,500 and has a $700 car payment, credit card payments of $500, maybe a payment on a boat of $300, plus all their normal expenses, etc. They may have trouble paying their rent that month, and they have no savings to smooth things out.

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Eric Drenckhahn May 12, 2014 at 7:31 am

Thank you for the comment!

The problem becomes doing it for a large quantity of tenants. And doing it consistently across all tenants. Getting bank statements, knowing where the money came from (and if it is going back), etc. gets too subjective for me.

For emergency funds, I would rather just hold them myself, in terms of a deposit. I generally just charge a deposit larger than a month’s rent, like $1,250 for $1,000 in rent. If they do not have it, I move to a different tenant. I also look at credit score very heavily. If the score is low (sub-600 for all occupants), I will generally pass.

I am also quick to charge late fees, and get evictions started, but I have not had an eviction or lost rent in a few years. Nor have I had much in terms of vacancy, I have not had a vacancy longer than two weeks, and many turn the same day, for the past few years.

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James May 12, 2014 at 8:01 am

You would only need to request bank statements for those tenants that need to demonstrate savings to make up for a bit lower income (like my example above) not all applicants. If they don’t claim any substantial savings on the application, no need to look at bank statements (unless you need to to verify income, like in your self-employed example- so in a lot of ways, it is similar to evaluating a self employed applicant). While it is a good idea to get a larger deposit, too (in my state of Missouri, it can legally be up to 2x monthly rent) that would not help at all in the example you gave- a tenant generally can’t call the landlord and say “hey, you know how I paid you an extra $400 for my deposit- well, I need to fix my car this month, so I am going to pay you $400 less rent and you can take the rest out of my deposit”. Most Landlords don’t go along with that! If you would, that is one thing, I guess. But for most tenants, having a large deposit doesn’t help them to be able to pay rent on time and in full every month.

A high debt to income ratio will also show up in the credit score, so that may work to help weed out high debt tenants too. My personal problem with credit scores is the high number of false data that the credit bureaus use. Getting them to correct mistakes is a long and difficult process taking months and investments in legal fees to sue them and force them to change their faulty data- this I know from personal experience. While I agree that currently landlords have to look at credit reports, I am find the current state of affairs in the credit industry depressing.

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Eric May 12, 2014 at 8:28 am

Exactly. A high-debt to-income will show up as a lower credit score tenant. I find 2x the deposit large enough, although I rarely go over $2000. I had a tenant last year, single person making $50K per year. Credit score of 585. I charged a $2,000 deposit.

The same with one of my “horror Story” tenants I wrote about on my blog, “Bernard the Strangler”. Two individuals, household income over $100K, once score was 750+, the other was “no score”. I charged $2K for a deposit, plus kept them on a month-to-month lease. Easy termination if there was going to be a problem, and there was.

Only a small percentage of credit scores have false data. If only 20% of all people have a credit score below 600, I am OK with excluding all of those people and focusing on higher level people.

In a multifamily, if you have a low-income tenant, higher income tenants do not want to live there. That’s why there is income stratification in all neighborhoods. It happens in a multifamily too.

James May 12, 2014 at 8:59 am

Eric- according to this FTC study- http://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/reports/section-319-fair-and-accurate-credit-transactions-act-2003-fifth-interim-federal-trade-commission/130211factareport.pdf

The percentage of credit reports containing errors is between 20 and 25 percent! That is not a small percentage! Now, as a landlord, if you don’t have any trouble getting lots of applicants that are highly qualified, that may not be a problem for YOU. It is the applicants that are being denied due to false information that will see the negative effects of this false information. Since you, as the landlord, are the one paying the credit bureaus, they have no financial incentive to reduce false negative information in their reports. In fact, they go so far as to attempt to sell “credit monitoring” services to consumers! Thus, their incentive is to have as much false information as possible, and to attempt to get consumers to pay them to correct that false information! The Big 3 Credit Reporting Bureaus are nothing more than the mafia, demanding “protection money” from consumers. It is an industry that badly needs to be disrupted.

I wish I had the financial resources to do it, too.

I understand your position as a landlord. But you should at least be aware of the negative effects that the credit reporting industry, as currently constituted, has on people. As you avoid low income rentals, these effects are not as severe- but they still effect middle income families. (I haven’t found any studies on this, but I hypothesize that low income individuals are more likely to have mistakes that have financial consequences to them than on their credit reports than higher income individuals).

Only once you, and your fellow landlords see that their is indeed a problem with the current credit reporting companies, will you be able to see the need in adopting whatever new comes along to replace them that offers a superior solution.

Eric May 12, 2014 at 9:10 am

I totally agree that there are errors. And they may be as high as 25%. But how much does that impact the actual credit score?

An address error is an error, but does it impact score? A tenant with 10 collection accounts, that should only be none, does that matter? Some mistakes help a person, some hurt them.

Out of 1001 participants in the study you listed, only 129 experienced a change in their credit score. 13%, not 25%. Only 5.2% of the people had an error that even mattered. That means, for 95% of people, credit score is a viable method. Of those 5%, even the incorrect lower score may have been enough to pass a rental application check. So, maybe only 2-3% of people are actually impacted. I am OK with that.

I have heard of some laws preventing employers to use credit score. Possibly even insurance companies. Even using criminal background is not recommended by some. Are we eventually going back to a very subjective environment where being sued is common place?

James May 12, 2014 at 9:33 am

If you are only using the credit scores, you are correct that the number of meaningful errors in the credit score is lower. Some landlords, and (virtually?) all banks and most insurance companies use other data from the credit report as well. I don’t know what an employer looks at. For most jobs, I can’t possibly imagine what good a credit report does an employer (Perhaps as a sign of general responsibility? Seems like there would be better signals for an employer to use.) I know some high security employers fear that someone with a lot of debt is more likely to do something criminal to pay of debt. I find that claim dubious, but I would also be interested in any studies that prove that to be the case.

> I have heard of some laws preventing employers to use credit score. Possibly even > insurance companies. Even using criminal background is not recommended by some. Are we eventually going back to a very subjective environment where being >sued is common place?

I would find a market based solution to be vastly preferable to a government/judicial induced one.

Eric May 12, 2014 at 12:29 pm

There is a very strong correlation between credit scores, and personal behaviors. That may be what employers are looking at too.

Lisa Phillips May 12, 2014 at 8:07 am

I use the 2.5x rule and credit report, I don’t slack on that, and that’s been the number one indicator of if they will be a great paying tenant or not. That’s successful for me in the neighborhoods I invest in. I’ve said this before, but I am pretty sure I wouldn’t invest in the low income neighborhoods you’ve invested in, because from what I’m hearing, you’re clientele has very little money, so even though the asset is relatively inexpensive, the business side of things are too dicey, especially when there are other areas with low asset prices that are better for the business. However, especially in these neighborhoods, you need some level of STRINGENT income reqs (whatever works for your particular market and area) (I turn down tenants who don’t have it, no matter how nice they are), although 2.5x works for my low income assets (But I am very discerning about where that is so its not a struggle at all)!

And as to your questions, sometimes landlord DO let people in the hurry up and get paid, just like the banks, and rent their apartments to people who really can’t make it. Ive made those mistakes early on, but luckily learned from them! But, im the property manager, I let the renter in, I chose the location, so if it didnt work out, that means I have to up my skills to become better in those areas.

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Eric May 12, 2014 at 8:20 am

Thank you for the comment.

I am not invested in low income neighborhoods, and I do not rent to low income households. If you accept 2.5x the rent, are your rents $2000+? If you are accepting 2.5x the rent, in a $1000 or less rental, that is by definition low income.

I cut my landlord teeth on low income tenants, so I know the problems of tenants that only make 2.5x the rent in income.

I avoid low income like the plague now. I have pilots, school teachers, accountants, nurse practitioners, software professionals, etc. My average household income is probably 80K+, and I have households making in excess of $175K.

When you lower your standards to as low as 2.5x, you run the risk of non-payment. I would be curious to know how many units you manage, and what your eviction rate is.

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James May 12, 2014 at 8:28 am

I think that whether or not $1,000/month is low income depends on your location. Where I am from, very few homes and almost no apartments rent for more than $1,000 a month. There may be a few luxury apartments or condos in that range, but by far that is not normal in these parts :)

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Eric May 12, 2014 at 8:39 am

Even worse. If you have a $700 apartment, and you accept a $1,750 monthly income, or $21,000 annual income, that is low income by definition. Maybe if you have a 1-bedroom, with a full-time minimum wage+ earner, it may work. It won’t work with a two or three bedroom. You need more than 2.5x the income to have a secure cash flow.

The median national household income is $53K. It’s easy to fine the median income in any area. Anything less than the median is below average. I choose to stay above average.

Bilgefisher May 12, 2014 at 9:06 am

Eric,

I have read all your replies, both your posts and most of your blog. What I haven’t been able to glean is why having a late tenant is always bad. I have a tenant that is late by a few days every month. They pay like clockwork, but also pay their $150 late fee. I do not give them any leeway on late fees and starting the eviction process. I am curious your perspective. I have enjoyed your posts and blog. Many folks stress the importance of tenant screening, few get down to the nuts and bolts.

Jason

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Eric May 12, 2014 at 9:18 am

Thank you for the comment!

A late paying tenant that pays more, and eventually pays, increases cash flow. If you only have a tenant or two, that may work. And if you have time to deal with that behavior, that’s great too. If you have enough backup capital to deal with it, even better.

If you have a lot of people paying late, and they all pay late at the same time (Christmas, school starting, etc.), can you afford it? If you have to evict a few, and some give notice to move out, and some additional tenants are late, what will you do? What if you miss 30% of your rents on the first of the month? A single bad tenant will monopolize your time and effort.

If you have a full time job, do you have time to manage tenants in a tedious manner? I am about making the most money, in the least possible time, with the least possible effort. Class A tenants, paying rent on time, every time, is what the ‘big’ investors go for. Why shouldn’t I?

If you have a low quality tenant base, you need to make sure your ROI and cash flow is better so you are compensated for it. That’s why, ‘D’ neighborhoods demand a 12%+ cash-on-cash return.

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Jason May 12, 2014 at 10:57 am

Eric,

Thanks for the reply. I do not manage my properties directly. I have property managers, even for my rental down the street. I have plenty of reserves to cover move outs and mortgages.

Since you self manage your properties, I can understand the desire to minimize your time chasing late rents. I see an extra $150/mo just one of our tenants is willing to pay month after month. ( we have tried to work out better schedules for these tenants so they can avoid the late fee, but they rarely work).

I am all for the big picture approach. Other than the time chasing the late fee, I do not see any other negative consequences.

Jason

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Eric May 12, 2014 at 12:25 pm

I charge late fees too, but I never get a chance to charge them.

How do you know when a tenant is a non-payer, vs. late? At what point do you start an eviction? some states, it takes 3+ months. Any time you delay, you run the risk of a major default. Even banks want you to pay on-time, they do not want late fees either.

A PM makes it easier, but I do not like to give away 20%+ of my profits. With PM fees commonly being of 8% of the rent, that might be a 20% hit to the bottom line.

Be sure to read my post on my blog about PMs… “Property Managers, The Downside “

Nick May 12, 2014 at 9:19 am

Eric & All:

Why do you use gross income instead of net? If one earns $5000/mo on paper (gross) but half goes into taxes, health insurance, alimony, 401K, etc., they only have $2500 to pay all bills including rent.
That leaves them with $833 max based on net while in terms of gross they can “afford” up to $1666.
If you look at their pay stub and find out that half of more of their gross pay is deducted before they see it, do you adjust your criteria?

Thanks
Nick

Reply

Eric May 12, 2014 at 9:28 am

Thank you for the comment!

Net is very subjective, and may depend on the time of year. Even for myself, I elect to put 75% of my salary into my 401K. In the early part of the year, my net is small. Later in the year, when it is maxed out, I have more.

If I withhold more for taxes, my net is smaller, but I may do it to get a refund, like an interest free loan to the Government. What about deductions to a savings account, that is available on-demand? Or an amount to a stock purchase program, that can be discontinued at any time?

I also want it to be simple. A company will give me a verified salary, but not a net pay. I want less work, more clean, simple, demarcation lines. A line so plain, anyone can come up with the same conclusion as me.

There really is no right answer, but I find that I am pretty successful with my methods when I am talking to other landlords in the same complex, or even other landlords that I know.

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Steve Babiak May 12, 2014 at 7:50 pm

The HUD recommendation that 30% of gross income should be the rent is where we get the use of gross income. A DTI (debt-to-income) calculation would be used to further determine affordability; that DTI takes into consideration expenses that the tenant already has committed to such as car payments and student loans.

Keep in mind that some wage earners choose to set their dependents low on the W-4 given to their employer in order to get a bigger income tax refund. That tends to lower net income but then that money finds its way back to the wage earner after filing income taxes. Just another explanation as to why net income isn’t used as much – I would say net income is what you look at with somebody who is self-employed because any business expenses they have definitely reduce their actual spending money.

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Eric May 12, 2014 at 9:32 pm

All great points! I set my W4 to single, and claim 0 dependents. I also add additional deductions for both State and Federal taxes. Quite a bit more in fact, so I do not have to deposit any money of my own to pay my rental income tax. My depreciation only covers about a third of my rental income.

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Sharon Tzib May 12, 2014 at 10:09 am

I really like the tip about keeping a self-employed person on a month-to-month. That decision right there can save you a lot of headaches later. Thanks!

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Eric May 12, 2014 at 10:21 am

Thank you for the comment!

A lease only protects the tenant anyway. If they take you to Court, the lease will prevail. It will not matter if the landlord did not make a ‘material’ violation of the lease. When a tenant makes a non-material violation, it is OK.

When a tenant leaves in the middle of a lease, you can keep the deposit, that’s it. You can take them to court, and maybe get a judgment for another month’s worth of rent, but then you still need to collect. Good luck with that on a low-income tenant.

With good tenants, a lease is a solid handshake. The tenant will honor their commitment, and will do what the lease says. And in the unlikely event you do have to go to court, they have money to collect.

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Ryan May 12, 2014 at 7:34 pm

All – looking for feedback on income req. my renters are responsible for paying for their own utilities. In this case what would you use as a income requirement multiplier? 2.5-3x doesn’t seem too low? Thanks for your feedback.

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Eric May 12, 2014 at 9:37 pm

It all depends on how much risk you want to take. A high credit score person, 740+, will give up food to pay the rent. A low score person, under 620 or so, will pay rent after all other bills are due.

But, unless you are just in a low income neighborhood, why not just get tenants that make at least the median income, and have plenty to pay rent? 3x the rent, in a $1,000 rental, is only $36,000 per year. That’s two people making $9 per hour. What happens when one takes too much time off? you suffer.

I have proven in my units, that I can get a class A tenant, in a formally class D neighborhood. Anyone can get great tenants if the neighborhood supports it. I have a post about it in my blog, “How I turned a Class ‘D’ Apartment Classification complex into a Class ‘B’ complex”

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Steve Babiak May 12, 2014 at 7:51 pm

When utilities are included in the rent, that is one situation where a lower income like 2.5x rent can be used.

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Eric May 13, 2014 at 10:25 am

That would make it easier for a tenant to pay rent, but when you have your tenants paying the maximum that they can afford, you are on the edge of possible future issues.

Why not get a tenant that has more than enough to pay rent, and some is left over? That allows room for rent increases and small hiccups in their daily life.

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David Carlson May 13, 2014 at 9:42 pm

“Did you ever think it may be your own fault when a tenant cannot pay rent?” Nope. I never feel like it’s my fault. We were a bit lenient with our first renter, but it was honestly our first tenant ever and we were just overjoyed that we had money coming in and the half of our basement that was already set up as a studio apartment was being used and monetized, versus sitting empty or becoming a rarely-used man cave. We let her pay late once or twice, never more than a couple weeks (I know some veteran landlords out there are having a heart attack reading that haha). Then finally when she took advantage of it a third time because “she owed someone money” I said no, that we have her rent budgeted into our finances. Anyway lesson learned!

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Eric May 13, 2014 at 9:46 pm

It’s important to make sure that the tenant has the ability to pay the rent, much like a bank does for a home loan.

I see many investors rent to someone that does not make enough money to pay rent, especially when some ‘emergency’ happens. I have cleaned up al my renters, and now are able to get 25 of 25 rents collected by the second of the month. It would probably the first, but I do not check the rent boxes very late.

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Kay Khan May 20, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Eric, you have another winner. I enjoyed reading your post. I invest in low income neighborhood. Trying to improve my tenant screening. What tenant screening service do you use?

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Eric May 20, 2014 at 2:48 pm

I use a company called MccGRP. I am not sure if I can post a link, but you can google it. There are others that do great too. I have also used Rental Research and Trak-1, I have heard good things about RHR, but never used them.

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Jordan Thibodeau May 21, 2014 at 5:47 pm

Excellent post. Thank you Eric.

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Eric May 21, 2014 at 6:30 pm

You are welcome! Thank you for the fine words.

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