Managing the Tenant Screening Process

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Image by joeltelling via Flickr

Occasionally, I hear from landlords who have absolutely no problem marketing their rental units.  They put a sign out front, get a couple of calls and rent to the first likely prospect.  Then the tenant stays for three or four years before the next perfect tenant comes along.  What is the secret known only to these remarkably lucky landlords?  Simple.  They have made a deal with the devil.

I want to keep my soul, so I have a harder time renting apartments.  In a previous post, I discussed making the top of your marketing “funnel” as wide as possible to maximize your pool of possible tenants.  The very top is all those people who have read or heard about your vacancy, and might be interested in renting a new place.  Chances are that if they have heard about your vacancy, they are interested in renting.  If they aren’t (for example, if they are happy homeowners), they won’t even notice your fliers, Craigslist postings, or newspaper ads.

Tenant Qualification

The next step is qualification, which is not the same as screening.  Qualification eliminates most of the prospects who will not be renting your unit, either because it’s really not right for them, or because they don’t meet your standards.  By qualifying prospects over the phone, you’ll save a lot of time because you won’t be showing the unit to no-chance prospects.

Tenant Screening, on the other hand, takes place after an application is filled out.  That’s where you verify the statements the prospect made on the application and determine if you will accept the application and allow the prospect to take the unit.

Here’s my fairly descriptive ad:

“For rent: 1 bedroom apartment in Somersworth, large, off-street parking, storage, heat and hot water included, $695 per month.


One year lease required.  We check previous landlords, employment, criminal history, and credit.  Security deposit required.  555-555-555 or email to [email protected]


“Small pets allowed.  Neighborhood is quiet.  Apartment has hardwood floors and new carpet and paint.  555-555-5555 or email to brendan.nolas[email protected]

Will the prospects understand?

If my prospects have any self-awareness at all, they’ll recognize when they are completely unqualified, or when the apartment is completely unsuitable for them.  For example, a tenant who declared bankruptcy last year will never pass a credit check.  And a family with nine kids won’t work in a one-bedroom.

Unfortunately, most of my prospects don’t have any self-awareness! I have talked to many serial deadbeats who have literally no idea that the “credit check” exists, or that they might be rejected from rental housing because of their bad borrowing history. That family with nine kids? They may be the ones who spend an hour trying to figure out how to make that apartment work. “Let’s see, we’ll put three bunk beds in here…”

Starting the screening process

I really like designating specific times to call, since that usually means I’ll be in a position to take the call. I won’t be driving, and I’ll have access to my notes and a writing pad.

When prospects do call, let them ask a couple of questions first. This might end the call quickly if they don’t like your answers, but that’s a good thing. You really don’t want to waste time with somebody who will not be an appropriate tenant. Suppose somebody reads the ad listed above. When they call, they immediately ask: “I saw your ad said that small pets were allowed. Does that include Rottweilers?”

No. End of call.

If you have written your ad well, you probably won’t have to answer a lot of questions, though you will have to do some confirming and add some details. “Yes, it is a one-bedroom. About 15 feet by 14 feet. Parking for two cars.”

On the other hand, you do want to explain the screening process in some detail. As noted, many people don’t realize that they are a bad tenant risk. Others are looking to sneak past you. So make it clear that you will reject them if they don’t meet your standards for credit, work history, residence history, and criminal background. I consider credit history to be the least important of the four. You will have to spell these things out. Tell them, for example, that you will reject any tenant who has ever been evicted for not paying rent. You’ll also evict any tenant who lies on a rental application.

The screening call is also a good time to make some points about what tenants can expect from you (for good or bad). Of course, you’ll reiterate these points when going over the lease. However, bluntness up front may also screen out some prospects who know they will not be able to live up to your high standards. You soften the blow by explaining the standards of service they can expect.

A Foundation for Success

There are many tenants who want to be good tenants, but are not sure exactly what that means. This sort of screening conversation, by setting expectations, will also improve the chances that the tenant you eventually pick becomes a good tenant.

The last step is to make an appointment to show the rental unit. Don’t let yourself be bullied here! If the tenant insists on seeing the unit at 10 p.m. on one particular Wednesday night, they may be trying to assert authority over you. You can’t allow it. Give the prospect some date and time ranges but make it clear that those are the only times you are available for showings.

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  1. Single Maria on

    Thanks for the post. Qualification is very important thing, I can say. Your descriptive ad is very informative, anyone can understand very quickly does it suit him or not. Thanks again for your advice, now I can rent without any problems. And at the same time, the tenant will never assert authority over me.

  2. Hi Brendan, nice post. I am in the process of renting out my pad and had some doubts about what documents to look for a good prescreening of prospective tenants. Is it a better option to go for a professional tenant screening process or it is doable on ones own?

  3. Andrew,

    My experience is that you can do it on your own, but you MUST actually follow through on what you say. If you’re considering credit, work history, residence history, and criminal background, check them all. Credit checks and background checks can frequently be run by a local Property Owners’ Association for a reasonable fee. We belong to PROA – Puget Sound Renter’s Association. Make sure your application gives permission to run the checks (or check your state/local landlord law). If you don’t understand how to read them, ask your provider – they’re usually quite helpful. Ask for and verify work history and residence history on the application.

  4. I think that the secret to renting to good tenants has definately got alot to do with pre-qualification. I am an apartment locator in Austin and have no problem asking each person I work with whether or not they have credit, criminal or rental history problems. Then I thinkk if you stick just to the facts then it makes it easier. For example let them know what the qualifications are for units in question and remind them that application fees are not only non-refundable but very efficient as well. Alot of people with problems think they will just slide through somehow. Secondly you can really guage a prospects intentions with a 24 hr look and lease special. Ask them if they are ready to put down a deposit and application fee should they like the unit. You can fall back on the look and lease special and remind them that if they are not ready then the following could happen. First off you lose valuable specials should you procrastinate, secondly units pricing and availability are subject to change at any point in time and thirdly you are always at risk of rent increases due to market fluctuations. If you educate your prospect and cut through all the BS the entire leasing process including the prospects you deal with will be of a much higher quality. You can also control the quality of your prospects with the qualitry ofg your listings, advertisments etc.

  5. @ Michael

    Couldn’t agree more with you. Just be sure to ask relevant questions, whether they have a job, and don’t hesitate to profile. If someone dresses like a thug, well, they are probably a thug… and probably someone you don’t want to have in your unit. In Utah, we have a huge problem with tenants trying to use false identities and such to get rooms. I can’t stress enough the importance of doing a background check! Your real estate is worth it.

  6. It’s shocking to me how often this happens. I used to have a lot more faith in the intelligence of humans, but not so much anymore. I also used to be a lot more lax in my tenant screening process, but I had to stop that too. I don’t understand how people think they’re going to be able to hide 2 – 100 lb dogs. Give me a break. 🙂

  7. Last year i rented out my townhome to someone that got their house forclosed. Well of course they had bad credit, but i was desperate to move someone end.

    Well lets just say the payments have not been consistant

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