Tenant Screening: The Ultimate Guide

by | BiggerPockets.com

The links to third-party products and services on this page are affiliate links, meaning that BiggerPockets may earn a commission (at no additional cost to you) if you click through and make a purchase.

Tenant screening is one of the smartest steps you can take towards making your property management experience as headache-free as possible — and protecting your investments.

  • There are certain qualities you should seek that usually indicate top-notch renters, as well as indicators that an applicant might cause trouble down the road.
  • When choosing the best tenants, all property owners should be aware of protected classes that are illegal to discriminate against.
  • For a well-run real estate business, all landlords should create solid processes for pre-screening, screening, approving, and rejecting rental applicants.

Have you heard the story about the tenant who deliberately threw maggots down the stairs to the tenant below? Or how about the tenant who moved in 15 children into a 800 Sq Ft house? These stories are not made up for entertainment – they are true stories taken from actual BiggerPockets members and are just a tiny sample of what a real estate investor often must go through as a landlord.

However – by effectively screening prospective tenants you can reduce the chance of this happening and relieve the stress, headache, and back-aches that often accompany the landlord job. This guide will help you learn to discern a good tenant from a bad one, a responsible tenant from a irresponsible one, and a non-paying tenant from a paying one.

This guide is the authoritative step-by-step guide teaching the process to get your property rented to great tenants with minimal headache, stress, or costs. In this guide, we will look at:

  • The Ultimate Infographic for Screening Your Tenants
  • What Is Tenant Screening?
  • 7 Qualities of a Great Tenant
  • Setting Your Minimum Requirements
  • Pre-Screening Potential Tenants
  • Screening a Tenant in Person
  • Protected Classes, Discrimination, and Fair Housing Laws
  • The Application: Six Must-Include Sections for Proper Screening
  • How to Run a Background and Credit Check
  • Advanced (and Sneaky) Ideas for Tenant Screening
  • Calling Previous Landlords
  • Screening Tenants Through Employment Verification
  • Screening Tenants Through Personal References
  • Should You Allow a Co-signer?
  • Denying an Applicant after Screening

The Ultimate Tenant Screening Infographic

infographic about screening tenants

What is Tenant Screening?

When we talk about screening tenants – what exactly are we talking about?

Screening tenants is about digging into a potential tenant’s background and discovering who they really are. An application (which we’ll discuss in this guide) can only tell you so much – and can be easily manipulated or falsified. Screening your tenant means looking into the information they provided, as well as analyzing outside information you can discover, and coming to a reasonable estimate on the kind of tenant they will be. I say “reasonable estimate” because there are no sure-fire ways to know the future quality of a tenant. As a landlord – it is our job to simply screen effectively and choose the best possible applicant for the property.

7 Qualities of a Great Tenant

As mentioned above, there are no guarantees when it comes to the future quality of a tenant. However – there are several key metrics that will help you decide what kind of tenant they will be. To make your life as stress-free as possible, it is imperative that you only rent to the best tenant possible. The following is a list of the seven traits that make up a perfect tenant:


Their Ability to Afford the Rent Payment

The first and foremost quality of a good tenant is their willingness to pay the rent. Without proper payment, you’ll be forced to evict and be faced with potentially thousands of dollars worth of legal fees, lost rent, and damages. Most landlords require that a tenant earn at least three times the monthly rent from their (documentable) job. Many tenants believe that they can afford more than they really can – so it is the job of the landlord to set the rules. Three times the monthly rent usually is sufficient.


Their Willingness to Pay on Time

While some landlords look at late rent as simply a benefit (and the late fee as a financial bonus to them) a late-paying tenant is more likely to stop paying all together. The stress involved when the rent doesn’t come in is not a pleasant experience and can be avoided by only renting to tenants who have a solid history of paying on time.

Not-Available-for-Work-iconThe Long-Term Outlook for Their Job Stability

While a tenant may be able to pay the rent and pay it on time right now – their ability to do so in the future is often determined by their job situation. If they are the type to switch jobs often or have long periods of unemployment – you may find long periods of missed rent.

broom-iconTheir Cleanliness and House Keeping Skills

No tenant stays forever – and when they leave you want the property back in good condition. As such, it is important that the tenants day-to-day living be clean and orderly. They must take good care of the property you have entrusted them with.

pill-icon (1)Their Aversion to Crime, Drugs, and Other Illegal Activities

I don’t need to expound too deeply on this. Tenants who engage in illegal activities will cause nothing but stress and expense.

Emotes-face-sad-iconThe “Stress Quotient” – How Much Stress Will They Cause You?

The final quality of a great tenant is something I call their “stress quotient” or the amount of stress a tenant will cause you, the landlord. Some tenants are very high maintenance and constantly demand time and attention. Unless you are having a hard time finding quality tenants – these types will only cause more problems.

This ultimate guide is designed to help you find and sift through the information about the tenant to find one who most closely fits the above seven qualities of a perfect tenant. Obviously, no tenant is going to be 100% perfect, so deciding how close to perfection you will require is a personal choice that largely depends on your desired involvement level and the community in which your property is located in. If tenants are difficult to find – it may be financially advantageous for you to rent to a less-than-perfect tenant in order to fill vacancies. However – if you have plenty of tenants to choose from, you can be significantly more picky.

Setting Your Minimum Requirements

One of the most important steps in screening your tenants and finding the best qualified is by coming up with your list of minimum requirements for the property. This list of standards should be told to the tenant on the telephone, placed on the application, placed on your Craigslist ad, and told in person to eliminate those who simply will not qualify. The following four standards are commonly used by landlords on BiggerPockets:

Number-1-iconIncome Must Be Three Times the Monthly Rent

Tenants rarely know how much they can afford. By giving an exact minimum income requirement, you can keep out those who might believe they can afford to pay the rent but really can’t. Requiring income to be three times the monthly rent has been used by landlords for many years – as well as banks and other financial institutions that supply loans.

Number-2-icon Tenant Must Have Good References

The references you receive from past landlords are the best indication of the way the tenant will behave for you. A bad review from a past landlord is a huge red flag for most landlords. Also – bad references from personal friends or family are also huge red flags.

Number-3-icon No Evictions

A tenant who recently faced an eviction is unlikely to ever rent from me. I realize that many people change – but I’m not willing to take that risk.

Number-4-iconClean Background

I want tenants not problems. If a tenant has a background filled with criminal activity, I am very hesitant to rent to them. Again – people do change, but it is not a risk I’m willing to take.

Pre-Screening Potential Tenants

You’ve begun advertising for your property and have begun receiving calls. Contrary to popular opinion – screening doesn’t begin with a background check or an application – it begins with the initial contact. This is known as “pre-screening.”

As you can probably tell by the length of this guide – screening is not a flippant activity that you can do in a few seconds. Screening can take a considerable amount of time – and you don’t want to waste that time on every person who shows interest in your property. This is why pre-screening is so important. Think of the screening process as a funnel – like the kind you would use to pour oil into your vehicle. At each step of the process, you are able to narrow down the pool of applicants until only a small few – or just one – match. Pre-screening is the widest part of that funnel and will help to keep away those who obviously won’t qualify.

Pre-screening Through Your Advertising

Your pre-screening efforts begin with your advertisement. Whether you are using the newspaper, Craigslist, Zillow, or another service to market your property – the information in your advertisement can help to weed out time wasters. For example, by placing the location in your ad, you are able to screen out individuals who are looking for another location (don’t worry – if you don’t feel comfortable putting in your exact address, just put a general location or a nearby landmark.)

Also – putting the price in the advertisement also helps to keep those who can’t afford that price range from calling. I often see ads with no monthly rent listed – and have to wonder how many wasted calls they are receiving or how many potentially great tenants they are missing out on?

Pre-Screening Through Your First Phone Call

phone-iconThe initial phone call is the next logical step in screening tenants. The first thing you hear is often an indication (though, not proof) of the kind of tenant they might be. If the first words you hear after saying hello is a voice yelling into the phone

“How much do I have to have to move in?”

you can assume the tenant might not be a great fit. After all – they are more concerned with getting in anywhere than even asking to look at the property.

When a tenant calls about a property I have for rent, I like to ask them “What can I tell you about the property?”

This open ended question allows the tenant to begin talking and asking questions. The typical questions are generally,

  • “How much is it?” (Even though I always include it in the advertising)
  • “What’s the address?”
  • “Do you accept Pets?”
  • “How much is the security deposit?”
  • “Will you work with me on my security deposit” (No.)
  • “Can I get inside to see it?”

The kind of questions asked by the tenant are great indications of the kind of tenant they are going to be. I’m not suggesting that you judge a tenant solely on their ability to ask good questions – but it does help point me in the right direction as to the type of person they are. Are they orderly? Do they care about where they are going to live? Do they sound broke?

In the conversation, I also always include a few of my minimum requirements, as we discussed earlier. Usually, this is easily worked into the conversation such as, “Now, the property does have a minimum income requirement of $____ per month and we do a full background and criminal check to make sure we only rent to upstanding people.”

Many, many times I simply get a *click* after stating this information. If not, they usually will volunteer how much money they actually make and re-assure me that they have never done anything bad in their entire life.

This simple two-minute phone call does two great things:

  1. Get’s rid of 80% of the “bad apples” and prevents them from wasting my time.
  2. Let’s the good tenants know I am not a slumlord and only rent to good people.

In both cases – a win for me. This is what makes pre-screening so important. It allows you to save time, avoid nuisances, and project a good image. I’d also recommend leaving your minimum requirements on your voicemail as well – so when you can’t get to the phone, your tenants still get the message and your pre-screening still works.

Screening a Tenant In Person

The next step of the screening funnel is to meet with tenants and show them the property. This is also a great opportunity to screen the tenant before any paperwork is done. I always re-state my minimum requirements to the tenant in person, just in case they didn’t understand (or chose to ignore) when I told them over the phone.

At this point, many tenants will admit that they don’t quite meet the requirements but ask if I’ll work with them anyways. If I need time to think about it – I always tell them that I will have to check with the owner (or partner, or any other higher authority) and let them know. If I know they immediately won’t qualify, I let them know why but still offer the opportunity to apply. Why? I don’t ever want to be accused of being discriminatory for any of the protected classes. Let’s talk about those now.

Protected Classes

It’s okay to screen people upon some criteria but not other.

For example – discriminating against someone who won’t pay rent is acceptable, as is discriminating against someone with a violent criminal history. However, discrimination against someone in a protected class is not only morally wrong – it’s also illegal. This section will let you know what those protected classes are.

Federal Fair Housing Lawsblack_house

The following was taken directing from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing Website, which states (emphasis mine):

In the Sale and Rental of Housing: No one may take any of the following actions based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap:

  • Refuse to rent or sell housing
  • Refuse to negotiate for housing
  • Make housing unavailable
  • Deny a dwelling
  • Set different terms, conditions or privileges for sale or rental of a dwelling
  • Provide different housing services or facilities
  • Falsely deny that housing is available for inspection, sale, or rental
  • For profit, persuade owners to sell or rent (blockbusting) or
  • Deny anyone access to or membership in a facility or service (such as a multiple listing service) related to the sale or rental of housing.

In case you missed it, here are those classes again:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Familial status
  • Handicap

While it is vitally important that you don’t discriminate against those classes, it is also important that you don’t even ask questions about those topics. This means don’t ask what their race is, how many children they have (you can ask how many people will be living there,) or if they have a husband or wife. Save yourself the legal trouble and simply do not ask. This also applies for advertising: DO NOT advertise for “no kids,” “great Hispanic neighborhood,” or “home great for families.” This is against federal law.

State and Local Fair Housing Laws

In addition to Federal Fair Housing Laws – your state may also have landlord-tenant laws that must be followed regarding fair housing, which might include:

  • marital status
  • sexual orientation
  • gender identity
  • age
  • participation in the Section 8 Program or other subsidy programs

Be sure to check with your State and local laws to ensure compliance to your fair housing standards. A simple Google search for “your state” and “fair housing” should give you the answers you need.

A Note on Age and Children Discrimination

As mentioned above, Federal Fair Housing laws prevent discrimination against family status and it is illegal to prohibit children. However – there is an exception to the law which states that certain properties that are designated as a “55+ Community.” According to HUD:

In order to qualify for the exemption, the housing community/facility must
satisfy each of the following requirements:

  1. At least 80 percent of the occupied units must be occupied by at least
    one person 55 years of age or older per unit;
  2. The owner or management of the housing facility/community must
    publish and adhere to policies and procedures that demonstrate an
    intent to provide housing for persons 55 years or older; and
  3. The facility/community must comply with rules issued by the
    Secretary for verification of occupancy through reliable surveys and

In other words – if 80% of the units in a community owned by you have someone older than 55 living in them, and your visible intent is to provide housing for an older age bracket, and you abide by the laws that govern this exemption – you have the ability to exclude a familial status to include only those who are 55+ in age – thus discriminating legally against those with young children.

For more information on Fair Housing laws – see How to Market Properties without Violating the Fair Housing Act and speak to a qualified attorney.

The Application: Six Must-Include Sections for Proper Tenant Screening

The application is the window into your tenant’s life. It is important that you ask the right questions – and don’t ask the wrong ones (see Fair Housing, above.) The following is a list of must-have sections to include and ask on your application:

  1. Name, address, phone number, driver’s license number.Apps-accessories-text-editor-icon
  2. Social security number and date of birth.
  3. Current and past landlords with contact info.
  4. Employer and job details with contact info.
  5. Have they ever had an eviction filed upon them or broken a lease?
  6. Release of information signature

These questions are the most important for knowing the past history of your potential tenant. A good strategy to use is to not ask “have you” but instead “how many” or “when.” This makes it tougher for a tenant to lie. For example, by writing “have you been evicted” a tenant will more easily write “no” than if it said “how many evictions have been filed against you?”

Other Questions to Ask

The following is a list of other questions you may want to ask your tenant to find out more about them:

  • Requested move in date?
  • How many animals do you have and what kind?
  • What may interrupt your ability to pay rent?
  • Are you on Section 8?
  • How much money do you have?
  • How many felonies do you have?
  • Do you have enough cash to pay the first month’s rent and security deposit?
  • What kind of car do you drive?
  • Do you have a checking account? Savings Account?
  • How many people will be living here?
  • Emergency contacts?
  • How is your credit? Explain…
  • How did you hear about this listing?

The application must be completed completely. If it is not, I send it back to the tenant and ask them to finish it. Obviously, if they forgot one small section, I can make a phone call to find out – but I believe training your tenant to follow your policies begins here.

How to Run a Background and Credit Check

Let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of running background and credit checks – but first, allow me to explain the difference.

A background check looks at the tenant’s criminal and eviction history, as well as looking for fraud or deception.
A credit check looks at the tenant’s ability to pay their bills and obligations responsibly.

Several years ago, a law was passed in the United States that made checking the credit of a tenant much more difficult and cumbersome. Where before any landlord could simply enter in the applicant’s information and get back their credit report – there are now several hoops a landlord needs to jump through, including an on-site inspection. If this is an approach you want to take, there are several reputable companies you can use.

However, at BiggerPockets- we recommend using a screening service to avoid that hassel. A popular company is called SmartMove, they provide the following:

  • No site inspection is needed
  • Includes BOTH criminal and credit background
  • The Tenant applies and pays online
  • The vital information from the Tenant’s report is sent to you, the landlord.
  • No application process, no site inspection, no waiting period

To run a background and credit check through SmartMove you’ll need to set up an account with the service which should take less than two minutes. Next, you’ll enter the property information and the potential tenant’s email address.

Your potential tenant will receive an immediate email prompting them to head to SmartMove and set up an account of their own which, again, should take them less than two minutes. They will be required to enter their name, current address, social security number, and a few other pieces of information. After doing so – they will submit their credit card number for processing (though – as a landlord, you can choose to pay for this service rather than the tenant.)

Almost immediately – you’ll receive an email letting you know their information is ready to view. At this point, simply log into your account and search for the tenant via the property address. You’ll see the following screen, letting you know SmartMove’s recommendation for renting to the tenant, as well as links to their Credit Report and Criminal History.

smartmove screening

The image above has two things I wanted to quickly point out, labeled with a blue and a red arrow:

  • Blue Arrow: This is the recommendation given by SmartMove. I’d recommend adding this into your determination – but don’t solely rely on it. It’s important to dig deeper and find out what else the Credit and Background Checks have to say
  • Red Arrow: This is the area where you can access both the credit report and the background check. Notice it also lists their credit score here as well. We’ll look at both these areas, separately, next. Notice also that the above photo says “current address mismatch: input does not match file.” This means that the address that the credit reporting agency TransUnion has on file doesn’t match the address that the tenant entered for their current address. This is not uncommon – but be sure to verify what their current address actually is.

The Tenant Credit Report:

The tenant credit report will contain a wealth of information related to the tenants credit history, including a detailed list of all the tenant’s open or closed credit cards, car payments, monetary judgements, late payments, and more. This information can be overwhelming, but I recommend looking for the following items:

  • Credit Score: Depending on your criteria, you may establish a minimum credit score for your tenants. The particular score may depend on your location and cliental.
  • Current and Former Addresses: Often times, a tenant may conveniently “forget” a past address. Verify that the addresses given by the tenant on the application match the addresses on the credit report. The credit report may not include all the addresses, but any listed should be verified. You can ask the prospective tenant about the addresses or simply do a Google search for those addresses and, if it belongs to an apartment complex, you can call the apartment to see if the tenant ever lived there.
  • Public Records:This part of the credit report will list any judgments levied against the tenant -which includes garnishments or evictions that have a monetary claim. Note: This does not included evictions without a monetary claim. To find these evictions the process can be a little more complicated. Each state and county has a different way of finding out, but it should be public info in each county. You should be able to search (if your county has online records) for your tenant’s name and/or all previous addresses listed on the tenant’s credit report. Look for any cases that involve a rental company or have the words “eviction” in them. It’s not an easy way – and most landlord’s simply rely on the credit report findings- but it is possible. You’ll also find out when you talk to previous landlords.My policy is to never rent to a tenant with an eviction on their record, though some landlords put a time limit on it such as “no evictions in the past five years.” This is a personal choice and depends largely on your risk tolerance level and the current demand for rentals in your area.
  • Vehicle Repossessions: Having a vehicle repossessed is strong indication that a tenant cannot handle their money very well. If you notice a vehicle repossession – definitely ask more questions about this. An important note about screening a tenant using credit: In the United States of America, a law known as the Fair Credit Reporting Act states that:

    “Anyone who uses a credit report or another type of consumer report to deny your application for credit, insurance, or employment – or to take another adverse action against you – must tell you, and must give you the name, address, and phone number of the agency that provided the information.” Source: www.consumer.ftc.gov

    In other words – if the tenant’s credit history causes you to deny your tenant – then you must tell them why and give them the name, address, and phone number of the credit reporting agency you used.

    The Tenant Background Check

    At this point, you can check the second report generated by SmartMove – the Background Check (See the Red Arrow in the photo above.)

    The photo below shows what the background check looks like with SmartMove. Background Check DropShadow

    In the photo above, the prospective tenant does not have any criminal background; if they did, it would show up here.

    Advanced (and Sneaky) Tools for Tenant Screening

    You’ve already learned about pre-screening through your marketing and over the phone. We then looked at the importance of screening a tenant in person and the rules of Fair Housing. Next, let’s look at

    Screening on Social Networks

    facebook-iconIn today’s world, people often put more information publicly on their Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or other social network than they would even tell their own mother. I always do a search for my potential tenants and see if I can find any information that would help me make an informed decision. For example, a young couple once applied for one of my apartment units which does not allow pets. However, upon checking her Facebook profile page, we discovered she had a brand new puppy that she did not disclose and was attempting to hide.

    Drop By Their Current House Unexpectedly

    For extra verification as to the tenants cleanliness – you can drop by their home unexpectedly to ask for an additionally signature or to drop off a form. This surprise visit will often tell you interesting things about the way they live and can help you decide if this tenant is worth renting to or not.

    Calling Previous Landlords

    One of the most important things, if not THE most important verification, you can do for your prospective tenant is the previous landlord verification. In general, the way a tenant has behaved in the past is probably the way they will behave in the future.

    It’s not enough to simply call their current landlord – because many times, a landlord of a problem tenant will lie and give a stellar review just to get rid of a bad tenant. It’s always worth talking with their current landlord, but it is important to take their words with a grain of salt. Always call their previous landlords as well.

    As discussed earlier, be sure to take notice of any addresses on their credit report and ask the tenant or simply search Google for the owner of their previous addresses to discover any deception. Additionally, keep in mind that sometimes a tenant will give you the name and number of a friend or family member – with the intent that that individual will lie and claim to be their landlord, just to give a stellar review. To combat this, it is a good idea to call the current landlord first and ask if they have any vacancies. If the person has no idea what you are talking about – you can assume you are being tricked and you can deny that tenant immediately.

    When talking with their landlords, there are a few questions you might want to ask, such as:

    • When did the tenant live there?
    • Did the tenant always pay on-time
    • Did you ever have to serve a legal notice?
    • Did the tenant have any pets?
    • Did you ever have any trouble or damage?
    • Did the tenant give you proper notice to vacate?
    • Did the tenant leave the unit clean?
    • Was the tenant asked to leave by you or your company?
    • Would you rent to this tenant again.

    You may find that some landlords, especially larger property management firms, will require you to fax them over the tenant’s release of information (which you should have on your application) along with your questions.

    Tenant Screening Through Employment Verification

    It is also important that you verify your prospective tenant’s source of income. Just as when talking with their previous landlords, you will also likely need to fax over the “release of information” signature from the application before they agree to discuss the tenant. Always be sure to speak with the supervisor or human resource manager when verifying employment – not simply an employee (who are often willing to lie or stretch the truth for their friend.)

    When talking with the employer, you may want to find out:

    • How long has the individual been employed there?
    • How much does the individual earn?
    • Is this part time or full time?
    • Is this position temporary or expected to continue?

    To help speed up the process, you can also ask that your prospective tenant submit recent pay stubs with their application, allowing you to ask fewer questions to the employer.

    What If the Tenant is Self Employed?

    Obviously, if the tenant is self employed you cannot call an employer. In this case, you can ask for and verify income through the prospect’s tax returns. It is recommended that you ask for at least the previous two years, to ensure consistency. Keep in mind, however, that many self-employed people deduct a large amount of expenses, so it can be helpful to have someone knowledgable with tax returns to help you look over the results.

    Calling Personal References

    Finally, it can be a good idea to call the personal references put on an prospective tenant’s application. While the tenant is able to hand-pick those references, thus making them extremely biased, it still is a good idea to call. While a good reference probably won’t help your decision process much (due to the inherit bias) – a bad reference can help immediately disqualify a tenant. After all – if the tenants own family or friends can’t give a good reference, what kind of person do you think you are dealing with?

    Should You Allow a Cosigner?

    A cosigner is an individual who agrees to become legally obligated for the payment and condition of an rental. A cosigner is used when the tenant can’t qualify by themselves, usually due to income or a lack-of-rental history. Whether or not you choose to accept a co-signer to help bolster your potential tenant’s qualifications is up to you, but if you do, be sure to:

    • Screen The Cosigner Like a Tenant – background, income, employment, etc.
    • Be sure the cosigner owns property in the county in which you are renting (so they can’t simply disappear like a tenant might)
    • Require an application fee from the cosigner as well
    • Fully explain to the cosigner that they are financially responsible for the property and you will hold them responsible should the tenant cause damage or refuse to pay rent.

    No matter how great the cosigner, they cannot stop a bad tenant from destroying a property. Don’t use a cosigner as an excuse to put in a terrible tenant that will cause you headaches.

    Denying an Applicant

    ID-10086052 (1)If you decide to deny an applicant, it is vital that you document your reasons why so there can be no question as to whether or not there was discrimination involved. By having carefully defined standards (see above) you have the ability to easily deny a tenant that does not meet your standards.

    When I deny a tenant, I like to avoid complication by having the tenant “disqualify themselves,” a trick I learned from Landlording on Auto Pilot by Mike Butler. If a tenant doesn’t qualify because of a bad landlord reference – you have two choices. Which sounds easier to you:

    1. “I’m sorry Jerry, but your landlord gave you a terrible review and I can’t rent to you” or
    2. “Hi Jerry, I ran into a bit of a snag in getting positive feedback from your previous landlord – so what I need you to do is go and speak to that landlord and get him to call me with a positive review and we can move on. Can you do that for me Jerry?”

    Jerry will, most likely, mumble “oh – okay, sure” and then disappear, never to be heard from again. You never disqualified Jerry – he simply gave up due to the work you needed him to do.

    When you do disqualify an individual, I always send a letter to them stating exactly why they were dismissed. This can be as simple as a form letter which you check a box stating why they weren’t approved.

    Typically, if a tenant applies for a property and fails to qualify – they forfeit their application fee due to the time and cost associated with working their application through. However, if you deny them simply because someone else came first, then you must return their application fee to them.

    Final Thoughts

    This has been the BiggerPockets ultimate guide to tenant screening. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below or jump into the BiggerPockets Forum and ask questions to receive back responses from dozens of qualified and seasoned landlords.

    At this point – you will have learned the exact process for screening tenants. Customize this guide to fit your own style and location, but refer to this guide for reference if you need a reminder or refresher on how to screen your tenants.

    Finally – for more information on landlording, be sure to check out:
    How to Rent Your House: The Step-By-Step Ultimate Guide
    How to Be a Landlord: Top Ten Tips for Success.

    Leave your comments below! Am I forgetting anything? Do you do your screening differently? Let me, and other readers, know how you screen your tenants.


About Author

Brandon Turner

Brandon Turner is an active real estate investor, entrepreneur, writer, and co-host of the BiggerPockets Podcast. He began buying rental properties and flipping houses at age 21, discovering he didn’t need to work 40 years at a corporate job to have “the good life.” Today, with nearly 100 rental units and dozens of rehabs under his belt, he continues to invest in real estate while also showing others the power, and impact, of financial freedom. His writings have been featured on Forbes.com, Entrepreneur.com, FoxNews.com, Money Magazine, and numerous other publications across the web and in print media. He is the author of The Book on Investing in Real Estate with No (and Low) Money Down, The Book on Rental Property Investing, and co-author of The Book on Managing Rental Properties, which he wrote alongside his wife, Heather, and How to Invest in Real Estate, which he wrote alongside Joshua Dorkin. A life-long adventurer, Brandon (along with Heather and daughter Rosie) splits his time between his home in Washington State and various destinations around the globe.


    • Brandon Turner

      Hi Shanequa,

      Each state and county has a different way of finding out (it should be public info in each county, but the method for finding out is different.) You should also be able to search (if your county has online record system’s) for your tenant’s name and/or all previous addresses listed on the tenant’s credit report. Look for any cases that involve a rental company or have the words “eviction” in them. It’s not the easiest way – and most landlord’s simply rely on the credit report findings- but it is possible.

      You’ll also find out when you talk to previous landlords.

      Hope that helps!

      • If you are searching court records, many jurisdictions will refer evictions as “Forcible Entry and Detainer” actions if that is the language used in that jurisdiction’s laws. So the cases may not necessarily be identified as evictions. Most commonly, such cases are Forcible Actions or FED cases.

        If available in your state/county, online search engines to look at past court cases are usually found on the Clerk of the Court’s website. Most of these search engines require an exact match to pull up the relevant records, so be sure to try a person’s name with/without a middle initial etc. Two things to be aware of: (1) These database are also subject to their own internal mistakes – so a search may produce no results if a party’s name has been entered wrong. (2) Some jurisdictions only allow online access to pending cases (usually scheduled for a court date within 7 days) while others allow a search of all court dates in a certain period (for example, all cases filed after January 1, 1990). So, your results may not be comprehensive.

        If you have questions about searching court records online, you should call the Clerk of the Court in that jurisdiction.

  1. Great Post, I am a rookie Owner occupy of a Duplex, I currently have great tenants that were rented by previous owner. Their lease is up in two months, I was looking for guide on screening and this post give me a sense of what I need to pay attention to. One question though if any can answer, when is the right time to ask tenants if they will be renewing the lease or not..lets say the lease is up in April, 2013
    Thanks again!

    • Brandon Turner

      No problem Allan! On my annual leases, I always ask about a month or so before the lease ends – and I tell them I have to know 20 days before the end of their lease. This gives me three weeks to advertise and/or arrange new tenants.

      Hope that helps! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  2. Nice post. We’ve always been biased to applicants with email addresses and even those who can scan an application in. One thing I really like about the screening service you’re promoting is that it requires that the applicant get on line to complete the application. I understand having to meet applicants to show the unit, but I really don’t want to have to give them an application in person, then meet them again to receive the application and then again to complete the lease. I can facilitate usage of electronic signatures and have started doing so much more in the last year. I’m don’t think people who don’t use the internet are a protected class, but I suppose that could be argued 😉

  3. Thanks Brandon, I have another question that I am hoping you or any of the cool folks can comment. crooks are usually clever, in the case potential tenant mislead you on the application and you come to find out after lease is signed and they have moved in, can you evict them based on that? of course if they lied about some requirement that should not be overlooked

  4. Allan brought up a good point, which is why I never tell people just how much info is online, or how easy it can be to find {hint: Search “(your state’s name) courts” Many states are free to search online}. I never tell them what I find online, since I don’t want them giving a fake name to the next guy. AND, I always get a copy/photo of their drivers license before I let them move in, and verify all names and info. You never know…

    I use an online application, with PayPal link to pay app. fee, and deposit. If I’m sitting by my computer when they call, I search them while talking. Then I ask “Do you have any criminal issues…evictions on your record I should know about?” I get habitual felons saying “no,” and I’ve had several callers WHO HAD EVICTIONS FILED ON THEM IN THE PAST FEW DAYS deny it. I send them to my online application, and that’s the end of it.

  5. Forgive me if my questions are too basic/general, I am brand new landlord and also new in RE, but I very interested in giving it a shot., i read millions of comments daily on BP the more I read the more I see there are a lot to be learned/more questions keep poping up.. Here are my questions
    1: Is it against the law to deny a tenant who has filed for BK
    2: What happens if tenant was not BK when they moved and file for BK after they have moved in?

    • Brandon Turner

      Lol, no worries Allan! No question is too basic in this game. Except maybe “what is a house.” Then I’d send you away 😉

      As for your questions – I don’t believe #1 is against the law, as they are not a protected class.

      If they file afterwards – there is really nothing you can do as long as they keep paying their rent. A BK isn’t grounds for an eviction, and most people with BKs will pay rent just fine. It’s just a big red flag, which is why I don’t rent to them unless I have to.

      Definitely jump into the Forums on BiggerPockets and see what others think about these issues. It’s one thing to get my opinion – another to get the opinion from Dozens (or more) experienced investors.

      Hope that helps!

  6. A Superb post! I’m really considering using SmartMove but I have a small question.
    Can SmartMove’s tenant screening work when screening for lease option tenant-buyers?
    If possible, what are some recommended tweaks to make it work for screening tenant-buyers?

    • Brandon Turner

      Sure, the process really is identical. With a tenant-buyer, though, I would pay much more attention to the Credit Score and the items on a Credit Report – since that is what the bank is going to care about when they go to apply for a loan. Look at how much debt they have compared to their income also.

  7. Thanks for the great article; I’m preparing to be a landlord for the first time.

    A couple of questions:

    From the article, I see that I can’t ask how many children a potential tenant has, but I can ask how many people will be living there. Is that a valid reason for denying an application (e.g. a tenant wants to move 6 people into a 2 bedroom house)? Is it legal to put into the contract the maximum number of people who can live in the house, and is exceeding that a valid cause for eviction?

    From the infographic (“check out their car, appearance, attitude, etc.) – If a tenant passes the background/credit/previous landlord/employment/etc. checks, but I have a bad feeling about them (e.g “This guy really looks like a creep, and his girlfriend has a bunch of bruises…I don’t want him living here”) how can I go about legally denying his application?

    Thanks again!

    • Brandon Turner

      Hey Jim –

      I’m no attorney, but I believe there is nothing wrong with limiting the number of people, per bedroom, that can stay in a home. At least in Washington State I know that’s true.

      As for denying an app – I am going through that EXACT thing right now. I had a guy come and look at my rental – and everything checks out okay, but I know the guy because I once bought a flip that he had lived in and HE USED A CHAINSAW TO CARVE UP THE INSIDE OF THE HOUSE WHEN HIS PARENTS WERE BEING FORECLOSED ON. Yep. A Chainsaw. So how do I deny him? I’m still working on that one myself 🙂 I think you have to be careful, but everyone has something in their past you can deny them for. Whether income, credit, background, or something – there usually is. If not, honestly -I’m not sure. I think this would be a great Forum discussion in the BP Forum if you feel like starting a thread. Tag me in it, and I’ll jump in too!

      Anyone have a good answer for this here, as well?

      • Hi Brandon,

        It’s been a while since you wrote the comment above. Did you find a way to deny that prospective tenant? If so, how?

        Also, is there a screening criteria that can be applied to anyone but can be passed by almost no one?
        Say, a credit score of 850? Would you then have a right to deny anyone because they don’t have a credit score high enough without telling them the real reason? And you can always make an exception and accept a lower score for whoever you like 🙂


  8. Brandon-

    Great guide to tenant screening. I follow…or try to follow…most of the guidelines you mention but this is the best summary of the important info I have seen. I recently did a post reviewing a service that I use. I am definitely going to go back and add a link to your article. Great work. Thanks!

  9. Awesome article!

    My question is, how do you verify that their income is 3x the rent? Would a simple call to their employer work? It seems to me like the employer might not disclose that information.

    • I usually ask for a copy of their last 2 check stubs as part of the screening process. You are correct that trying to get this info from the employer is problematic. Having them provide check stubs has worked great for me.

  10. 3x rent income requirement is throwing me off a little bit, I have rented many times before, never I have been asked for pay stub. Some people may make 10x of the rent, but poorly manage their money or they are in deep hole. I would think makes more sense to validate the emplyment and the leghth of the employment and pay closer attention to Credit History. I like to believe people are smart enough to know what they can afford

    • Allan – Unfortunately, many are not smart enough, which is why landlords have to evict so many tenants for non-payment of rent. That’s why they need to be cautious when screening. Established and experienced landlords are typically good at doing this, but many novices often fall prey to their lack of expertise, sadly.

    • Brandon Turner

      I agree with Josh. Most of my potential tenants say they can handle their finances, but if I ever let anything slide, it burns me every time. I’ve learned that people generally don’t know how much they can afford – which is why banks also do such tight tests. Sure, some people can handle their own (like you or I) but most aren’t as responsible. That’s why credit card debt is so crazy high in this country!

  11. Using SmartMove, and the potential Tenant is paying for the service, do you collect a non-refundable Application Fee, can a Landlord collect this fee, if the Tenant is paying for the service? In this situation, if you can collect, how much do you collect since a portion that you are collecting is not going towards the background checks?

    • Brandon Turner

      Hey Geoff – I would set it up so the landlord pays the charge, and then take the application fee from the tenant for whatever amount you want. For example, I charge my tenant $35 for an application fee, but SmartMove is just $25 – so the $10 cover’s my time for calling and verifying people. I suppose you could also have your tenant pay both online and pay a little extra to you, but that complicates it a little. Thanks for the question – I hope that helps!

  12. What about the inherited tenants? I never thought of not believing what the seller said about his tenants. One turned out to be a deadbeat, another a drug dealer, and a third one had a cat whose fleas infested the whole building. The fourth and only apparently decent one was a little old lady who moved out a few months later because I wouldn’t let her install a washer and dryer in her kitchen. (There is a laundry in the basement.)

    Oh well, I managed to get rid of them in due course and they have provided me with several lessons about tenant screening… and countless anecdotes!

    • Brandon Turner

      Hey Gina, I also don’t generally believe what people say about their tenants once I take over. I generally just deal with the issues when they come up, and remove people when it becomes a problem, but I suppose running a background check for existing tenants wouldn’t be a terrible idea if you can convince your new tenant to allow it! Thanks for the comment, and good luck to you!

      • Sam Trevino

        Here’s a possibly crazy idea:

        Some lines of credit will periodically run your credit again (some revolving trades do it annually) to ensure you still meet their credit standards (this can be either a hard hit or soft hit depending on the terms). If you fail to meet their credit standards they may reduce your credit amount, close the account (you still can make payments, but no longer have available credit), or raise your interest rate.

        I’m wondering if this concept could be adapted by landlords to make selling investment properties more attractive (not really sure if it would be value add or simply overly complicated). Effectively as the landlord you’re saying I’m confident my tenants you will inherit will perform, and here’s there current credit report to allay any concerns.

        For example, include in the lease terms that if the property is to be sold tenant’s credit report may be pulled again by a buyer under contract; by signing the lease tenants agree to this action. Obviously there’s some issues with this idea. Of the top of my head what happens if the sale fails to go through? The tenants might not be real happy if you pull their credit multiple times with multiple buyers, but there may be alternative solutions to mitigating that issue. It could backfire on the seller if they find out their tenants credit has degraded since initial leasing, and potentially cause the sale to fail. I’d be interested in what lawyers and experienced investors think of this idea, or some version of it.

    • re: GINA

      “The fourth and only apparently decent one was a little old lady who moved out a few months later because I wouldn’t let her install a washer and dryer in her kitchen. (There is a laundry in the basement.)”


      If your little old lady was forced to move because she couldn’t make use of a basement laundry facility — accessible only by staircase, presumably — then perhaps you unknowingly failed to accommodate her by refusing to allow her to put a washer/dryer in a more accessible location. In my state, anyhow, the law says that if someone needs a reasonable accommodation and can pay for those changes — and restore the place to original condition when they leave — you can’t forbid it. If your tenant was aged (a senior), chances are she had some mobility/health issues that your response failed to accommodate.

      • Wendy Hoechstetter


        While you are quite correct that a landlord pretty much has to make such accommodations, when requested (there are some exceptions, but they are few), but it must actually be *requested* as such, unless he feels like being proactive about it.

        The tenant must also be willing to document it appropriately (a note from a doctor on his letterhead explaining the “functional limitations” and the need for the requested accommodation), unless the disability is patently obvious. The landlord is, again, free to waive this if they wish, but *may* request it.

        Bottom line: If the tenant doesn’t actually ask, no landlord is the least bit required to make any accommodation.

        It is also allowable to make them pay for it – and require them to return the property to its original state when they move, as you said. In point of fact, however, a landlord might actually wish to retain certain modifications such as grab bars in the tub, and is also free to pay for any changes himself, if he wishes, although that is not required.

        This is federal law – the ADA and the Fair Housing Act. ADA governs the public areas in an apartment building or complex, FHA the individual apartments. States (and individual landlords) can certainly add additional protections if they wish, and landlords are free to preemptively provide accommodations if they want to, but this is the baseline minimum standard.

        In a situation such as this, I would ask the tenant *why* she wants to install the W/D in her apartment when there is already a laundry facility in the building. If she says she is having difficulty with the stairs and can’t manage them any more, you can go from there. No one is allowed to ask what the disability actually is, however, but with questions like this, you are on safe grounds legally, while still able to elicit the information you need.

        • Wendy Hoechstetter

          A big exception here: if the building code (including the ADA and FHA requirements as well as state and local codes) requires laundry facilities to be accessible, and they are not, then in fact the landlord could in fact be held liable. *Maybe*.

          In new construction, they *will* have to be accessible, but with existing housing stock, there are a myriad of potential exceptions, including if it is too difficult or too expensive to do given the nature of the building and/or the landlord’s resources. Many older buildings are actually pretty much grandfathered in. The cost factor is slippery, though, and can often be greatly mitigated by things like grants and tax credits when the physical building can be adapted.

  13. Several months ago while looking for tenant screening programs, I came across this site so I decided to give SmartMove a try. Here are the following Pros/Cons IMO:

    1) Easy to use and user friendly – for both landlord and tenant
    2) Offered by a trusted company (i.e. TransUnion) resolves tenant hesitancy over potential identity theft/fraud/abuse
    3) The software keeps both parties in the loop, sending updates on the status of the process

    1) If the tenant’s employer does not report income – the income the tenant supplies SmartMove will be unverified. (e.g. The tenant can claim to make $1 million dollars a year and the program has no way to verify this – and will still recommend tenant acceptance based on credit score). I still ended up having to ask for a copy of the tenant’s W2 etc which basically shows the tenant’s private info – defeating the purpose of SmartMove’s of tenant privacy.

    2) If you sign up for SmartMove using the BiggerPockets link, the BP logo will appear for the tenant to see. While I find BP to be a valuable resource, I don’t like the tenant seeing the logo, as the word itself “Bigger Pockets” showing up on the screen kinda reinforces the greedy landlord stereotype. Yes, I like money but I also value my tenants as people rather than having them objectified as a revenue source. Upon a tenant’s first encounter with me, this could possibly be off putting. Maybe the BP logo should be concealed on the tenant interface.

    • Chris –
      Thanks for the feedback. After thousands of customers have used the service via our partnership, this is the first time we’ve had someone make such a comment. I can certainly see your point about not wanting to appear to be greedy, however, we’ve got a lot of people using the service every month for their tenant screening (thousands of screens in the past years); it works, and our company is far from a site for greedy landlords — in fact, quite the opposite. Through our partnership, you save $5 per screen, but if you like the service but don’t want our logo attached, you can go to the portal directly. Either way, good luck!

      BTW – We have no control of the interface, and I’ll say personally, I don’t see you losing any tenants because you ask them to use a tenant screening product co-branded as “BiggerPockets.” If they decide not to do the screen, it isn’t because of our brand, but because they don’t want to be a tenant for a landlord who actually does their homework.

      • Joshua, I just want to be clear that I don’t think your site is for “greedy landlords” in any way shape or form! In fact, a lot of meaningful information & dialogue are available free of charge which is pretty amazing. I wasn’t worried about losing the tenant, and the tenant used the service with no complaints at all. I was more concerned with the subliminal impression on someone who is not familiar with your site; so please consider my critique as a minor quibble.


        • re: “subliminal impression on someone who is not familiar with your site”

          Totally agree, I was horrified to see the huge “BiggerPockets!” logo on the screenshot and decided to use another service strictly because my initial impression might also be that of my prospective tenants.


  14. Very detailed, Excellent Post! I have a good size rental portfolio and I am planning to hire an assistant to manage my properties. This is going to be good reference to set up the process.

  15. Brandon another solid article! Great information as I try to decide whether to self manage or get a property management company since I’m investing part-time. Has anyone written a guide on selecting and working with property management companies? Sure this topic has been discussed extensively in forums so I’ll check there.


  16. Thank you for the article it was a big help.
    I do have a question as to how you stop wasting your time showing the apartment when people call and don’t meet the criteria during a pre-screening call. How do you politely deny showing them or tell them they don’t meet the criteria?

    • Brandon Turner

      Hey Tori, thanks for reading and commenting! I wrote a WAY more definitive guide to the actual process, called “How to Rent Your House: The Definitive Step by Step Guide” so definitely check that out for a lot more – but to quickly answer your question, I always make sure I let them know of the criteria on the phone and ask them point blank “does this work for you?” and I just refer to the “policy” (that’s how to politely do it! No one questions “the policy.”) I also schedule group showings, knowing 50% of people won’t show up. I’m also a big fan of not letting people know I’m the owner, so it’s much easier to turn people down cause I’m just doing my job. For more on this, check out How to Be a Landlord. Hope that helps some!

  17. I’m not a big fan of the SmartMove product for the simple reason you need participation from the applicant in order to get the completed report. In my history of using it I’ve had about a 50% completion rate from the applicants.

    • Brandon Turner

      Makes sense Tom, but I get about the same (maybe less) with paper apps. I’ve kinda decided that people either want the place or they don’t – and they’ll do what it takes if they want it. Thanks for the comment!

  18. Be careful about fake pay stubs, or proof of employment. I got hit by that from a renter of mine, who ended up being decent, but, did not in fact have a job, and had kids, who were always there in a garage apartment, who then complained about how hot it was. A person who works all day, doesn’t worry about the midday heat. I can’t remember the name of the site, but, i think it was http://www.paycheckstubonline.com or http://www.paystubsdirect.com I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, it was a site online that makes realistic looking paystubs.

    Be careful of your tennants… they are smart about these things.

    • Thanks for this info. I’ve always asked for pay stubs and called to ask about length of employment and other questions. But now I’ll be sure to confirm income as well.

  19. This is a great post, thank you. The infographic is superb for laying it all out in a simple manner.

    Regarding the application collection process, I wonder if you could speak to both the ethical and legal parameters for deciding who will be your tenant in the fortunate situation that one has 10 good applicants for one apartment. After screening as you suggest, is it ok to collect all the applications, run the credit reports then choose among the best of them? Or should landlords be approving then accepting in a chronological manner?
    And in the event you are choosing among the best applicants, how do you inform applicant A that they did not get the apartment because their “score” was slightly less good than applicant B?

    Thanks for considering my inquiry,


  20. Brandon,

    Thanks for all of the great info. We recently purchased a home that we planned to live in but our plans changed and now we’re planning to rent it out so this is very helpful.

    I have a question for you though in regards to screening renters and your 3x income rule… We have a couple interested parties that are in their 50s/60s and are retired or partially retired. How do you screen these renters differently from someone in their 20s/30s who is working full time?


  21. Great article!
    Here’s a scenario for you: senior female on disability, owned their own house for 20+ years, credit report shows delinquent pmts/chargeoffs – but not for anything related to house or utilities etc., makes only 2X rent (net) in SSD payments. How would you screen this person?
    BTW, credit reports (TransUnion included) are many times incorrect, with errors impossible to rectify.

    • Rosie, yours is an old question but for the benefit of others with a similar situation, here’s how I would handle it:

      You do not wish to appear to have discriminated on the basis of age/disability status. If you would allow a working person to rent at 2x rent (net), don’t give undue consideration to the source of the applicant’s income (disability vs. employment). If anything, even though the applicant’s “income” may be on the low side, social security and SSD payments are consistent whereas conventionally-employed applicants in “at will” states can lose their jobs in a heartbeat. Whereas a disabled/retired applicant may not be all that impressive based on quantity of income, the source of that income may be higher in quality (reliability).

      I will add: TransUnion is consistently the most inaccurate credit reporting bureau among the big three. I have seen cases where a spouse is reported to have lived at their partner’s (pre-marriage) address(es) even though they did not. Credit reports are highly inconsistent when it comes to identifying whether an account is joint vs. individual (authorized user). Accounts that are individually held by the spouse may appear to be held by the other party and vice versa.

  22. Thanks for the article I enjoyed it. I am curious though, you mention about making a surprise stop over to a potential tenants house to drop off a form. If the tenant meets the criteria you set out financially, credit, good reference checks, etc but you notice that when you swing by they are slobs and believe them to be not a good fit. Can you say this just will not work out or how do you turn them away in this example? There are a few times throughout the article i thought about this and wondered how you would go about doing this. Thanks again for the great article.

    • Brandon Turner


      I suppose there are a few options. One, if everything else worked out fine – I wouldn’t be as quick to disqualify unless they were REALLY bad (cause they might just be messy cause they are moving.) And if they were really bad – I’d probably just flat out tell them that they were too messy. Messy isn’t a protected class! But honestly, I’ve never quite had this happen, usually you can kinda tell, by the cars they drive and the way they look (messy people usually dress messy.)

      • What would you say to someone you denied for having a messy car or someone that’s just a messy person? Or what if you can tell they are a hard partier, lots of drinking and drugs on a social media page. Or what if you see on social media that they might be into illegal activities? Do you just say I’m denying you for being messy? Or I’m denying you because of your facebook page? Is there a blanket statement you can use to deny them?

  23. Well hello Brandon!

    I read this article and must compliment you, it is concise and common-sense and has just about everything a successful landlord/property manager could think of. I also have Mike Butler’s Book, “Landlord On Auto-Pilot” (one of the best “down in the trenches” landlord books ever), and the venerable classic Landlording by Leigh Robinson, plus of course many others. We have been landlords here in Maryland for many years, and know the laws well, and understand that landlording is a people-centric business, if you will. I wish someone would start a seminar on it! There are plenty of seminars on how to BUY property, but how about one on how to MANAGE it? I would gladly pay for a seminar on Landlording! Best wishes! *jimmy and alexandra bethany crystal

  24. I LOVE MySmartMove! We’ve used it for screening potential roommates, live-ins for my elderly neighbor, & of course tenants. My rental is in a depressed area, where good tenants with jobs are at a premium, & $25 is a big deal. I’ve copied another landlord in the area in that the MySmartMove fee is applied to the first month’s rent if they are approved. I warn ahead of time “this search is extremely thorough –is there ANYTHING that is likely to show up that I should know about?” If I eliminate them for something criminal that they neglected to mention they would lose the $25 fee. The MySmartMove is the last step of the process, after calling references, etc. I will often look up their name in the local court records before I even return a prospective renter’s phone call. It’s a small town. In my case I after I’ve done some of the preliminary screening I call one of the neighbors (law enforcement officer) to check to make sure that he is comfortable with them living nearby. In one case he had a restraining order against a prospective tenant’s relative — she was a great potential tenant & I would dearly have loved to rent to her, but I wasn’t willing to create a situation that would encourage the relative to break the restraining order.

    • Brandon Turner

      Great question Kyle. I’m no lawyer, but I’d assume no on the application. The laws are to prevent someone from not providing housing – not to change the way we communicate. If applications were required, then they’d also have to require all landlords to speak all possible languages as well. But very interesting question – I’ll have to look more into it.

  25. Love your site. I am learning so much from it.
    My husband and I are closing on our first rental property on December 9. It is a single family home (4 bdrm 4 ba).
    I have access to court records so I can check eviction/foreclosure notices as well as liens. But am interested in what the cost is to use Smartmove screening? It would be nice to be able to tell applicants what the cost will be ahead of time if we are asking them to pay.
    Thank you,

  26. Very good article and I have a question about the “criminal history”. Other than public records in your state, how does one go about getting a felony record out of state? The police department would be my first guess, but thought I’d ask.

  27. I rented to a tenant with stellar credit and a clean background and had nothing but problems from damage to arguing with me about everything. I waited out his lease and rented to a single woman just out o a divorce in the middle of bankruptcy. She was the best renter a landlord could ever dream for. She payed on time, kept it clean, gave access when needed and never complained. I actually lowered her rent the second year so she would stay. I preer to follow gut feelings sometimes although there is no perfect way to screen. Everyone has there story in life and need to be treated as people, not just a click of the mouse pointer.

  28. Leslie Kirkpatrick on

    I have a question on the other side of the coin and am using this forum as my search for tenant rights and solutions has led me nowhere. I work at a University in one city during the fall and winter, and work in another part of the country during the summer so I cycle through apartments seasonally. I have most recently been renting an apartment in a fairly large, outwardly decent appearing complex that unbeknownst to me until after about one week of moving in, was so badly infested with cockroaches that within a few days were running down my walls, out of kitchen drawers and across my skin at night while I laid in bed and that was only the beginning of the problems I have had in this place. I plan to write a review as I honestly feel I owe it to prospective renters. Do landlords check negative reviews from renters against references from past landlords when researching their rental history?

  29. As a recent landlord, I am still learning the ropes of the do’s and dont’s of renting and one of the most important things i learned recently was calling previous landlords. Wish I read this article earlier and I wouldnt have had such a crazy few months.

  30. Exactly what fields does SmartMove require the tenant to fill out? I’d like to better understand what all of the questions they ask are (given it doesn’t seem to let you as a landlord choose or define any questions you would like included).

    • IMO smartmove is only one piece of the screening process. Why wouldn’t they ask basic screening questions along with the credit profile, so we don’t have to requite tenants to fill out two separate forms and go through separate processes? And who would approve a tenant solely on the credit profile this service provides?

  31. Just some more info on “ability to afford the rent”. I had an applicant make about 4 times the rent but when I pulled up the credit history, the was maxed out on all 16 credit cards and was making the minimum payment on each of them. When I added up the total of all the debt, if that tenant made the minimum payment on all the debt, that tenant would have had less than 20% of the rent left.

    My point is don’t just go by “making 3/4 times the rent”, check the outstanding debt and make sure they can pay the rent, utilities and have some money left after paying at least the minimum payment. Too much debt is a red flag for me too because you’re probably spending way more than you make anyway. And any hiccup means I won’t be getting my rent.

  32. When verifying previous rental history, it is rare today for landlords (especially property management companies) to “talk” with you. Most, as I do, require a faxed or email letterhead form they can fill out. This way whatever information is communicated can be properly documented in the event of litigation. It also confirms that this person is who they said they were. It could be anyone one the other end, how would you know? If the request is legitimate, they will send you a form.
    Most forms will include this question:
    Would you rent to this person again? If the answer is no, that’s a red flag.
    Another common question is: How many times was the rent paid late? If it’s not zero, another red flag.
    In effect, these answers constitute a negative reference with fact based information that is already documented.
    I would advise any landlord to always request a form and never give any kind of a negative reference over the phone. Always think about mitigating your own risk first.

  33. This is the best article on tenant screening. I want to add that when you try to verify employment, do not trust the employer number provided by tenant. Use a trusted source (Google, WhitePage) to get the employer number and then make the verification call.

  34. Great post. I’ve forwarded 3 first-time landlords to your infographic over the past couple weeks to help them get a handle on what they should be looking for in a tenant’s background & application. I appreciate you adding the little bit of info about sending a letter if you disqualify an applicant. In some states, this is required by law – though many do not abide by the requirement. It’s very helpful to the disqualified applicant so that they can look into their own records and shore up problematic issues.

  35. Christian Bors on

    Wow! What a great article. I bought my first rental, fixed it up, and I am currently screening tenants. I was unsure how to properly screen them, but this article enlighted me. I will certainly use this as my guidelines for my first property and for any others I may accumulate in the future. Thanks Brandon!

  36. I would not give a landlord most of this information. We simply would not be able to do business. My job, income, and past relationships (should there be any) with former landlords is my own business. I pay my rent each year in full for the entire year, and that’s all that they need to know.

  37. Finding the perfect tenant can certainly be a challenge! There’s a really great tool out there that not many people know about yet called AlterRent. AlterRent saves property managers hours of time by making it easy to search for renters looking specifically for your property. You can filter out renters by credit score, earnings, etc. Check it out.

  38. Larry Schneider on

    No matter how through you are in screening tenants, the one wildcard is drugs. I have had perfect tenants for 2-3-4 years and suddenly I learn the electric bill is unpaid. Then the gas bill, then sewage and water. Finally the rent gets unpaid. What happened? They got on drugs. . I evicted one tenant while she was still in the living room watching TV and spaced out. She had no Idea why the marshal was forcibly making her move out. Another retired person was sleeping on the couch and totally surprised to see the marshal. This tenant was A1 for three years.

    If anyone knows a solution to this problem pleas tell me.

  39. Should I deny an applicant that says she has no previous landlord on her application but stays with her aunt and says on the application the reason she’s leaving is because she’s tired of picking up after her aunt ,should I deny this applicant before she pays her fee and what should I say to her?

  40. mathew gunkel

    I am continually amazed by the quality of the content on this site. I’m set to close on my first duplex within the month, and I am actually excited to screen tenants after reading this guide. I had no idea how much I didn’t know. Thank you so much for putting this guide together, Brandon!!

  41. Thank you for the great post. I appreciate your time. Unfortunately, the screening service you are advertising is a horrible system and I recommend landlords to avoid it. Here the message I had to send to their customer service:


    I tried using your SmartMove product today (user: XXXX), and I’d like to share my horrible experience.

    After signing up via a link from a different website, I first could not log in. It took me half an hour to realize that because I used that partner website , I now have to always use https://biggerpockets.mysmartmove.com and a www prefix does not work.

    Then, before asking prospective tenants to deal with your system, I luckily created a test rental application (test tenant: XXXX). I have completed the “application” using my personal details, double-checked everything and paid. It took me to the “person verification” page which I also completed and double-checked, and had another person double-check. Afterwards, I clicked on the Submit button, and nothing happened. I clicked several more times – nothing. I reloaded the page and ended up at the very first step again. I tried logging in as the test user again, and it says that the account was locked.

    Finally, I called the support line specified on your site (1-866-775-0961). It took me to some unspecified conferencing system where I was asked to provide some kind of conference ID code. After a while, it disconnected.

    In summary, I am glad I tested your system, so I can avoid exposing my prospective tenants to this “service”. Please immediately refund my test application fee.

    Good Bye.


  42. Just so you know, MySmartMove is the worst service for tenant screening. I’ve had so many issues with it. Of the dozens of applicants I’ve tried to use it on, only a few have ever made it to the end because of technical errors like it saying they’ve already reached the maximum number of attempts even though it was their first try. It’s causing prospective tenants to go elsewhere because they don’t think I’ve got my act together or “it’s a sign I shouldn’t rent from you.”
    When I went to the website to complain and ask for technical assistance, of course there’s no number to call, only an email form, so I filled it out. Hit submit, and it says I haven’t filled everything out that’s required even though every single field is filled.
    DO NOT USE MYSMARTMOVE. It is awful. If anyone comes across another tenant screener that actually works, I really need one. thanks

  43. Had no real idea how wide open I left myself. Even though I was aware of most of these things in one sense or another, I never considered how important the wording and the absence of wording could be to what the perception of meaning could reasonably be presumed.

  44. Chau Cao

    I use CT credit check. I have used it for about four years with no problems. The price is actually cheaper than the rest ($20). I normally charge $30 per application. It also comes with eviction with the price. Hope that helps.

  45. Larry Schneider

    I use………. Google: Landlord Service Bureau- North Huntington, and have been pleased with their service. The one thing that I like here is that they make a recommendation to rent or not to rent, As a land lord it allows me to say that I would really like to rent to you but the Service Bureau will not allow it.

    I did try Smart Move in early 2014. Nothing worked and it was total frustration.

  46. “discriminating against someone who won’t pay rent is acceptable”

    I just about choked on that one.

    The author is saying, in effect, that if one half of a prospective couple (renter) is retired, disabled, unemployed or chooses to have a traditional lifestyle for religious/family reasons — which is to say there is only one breadwinner in the household — it is LEGAL to discriminate against the party that won’t be paying?

    How common is it to assume that if a spouse/partner isn’t working, it’s okay to reject the application even if the primary income earner meets all other rental criteria?


    The assumption that fair housing laws do not apply to adult applicants who will be nonworking members of the household begs the question: Must someone who is married to a retired, disabled or traditional stay-at-home spouse disclose a protected reason for doing so, otherwise face the presumption that the non-income earner in the partnership is “high risk”?

    Seriously. I never see this question addressed: Is it necessary to volunteer a protected status in situations where the rental application mandates that ALL parties over 18, even a nonworking spouse, completes a separate application?

    Is it presumed that even if a married couple can afford rent and has decent credit that it’s better to pass over those who will be paying rent on one income?

    It ought to occur to the author that bypassing a single-income couple in favor of a couple who have a dual income (all other factors being equal) may be DISCRIMINATORY if, in fact, an applicant’s perceived “unemployment” pertains to age (retirement), disability (ADA) or religion/familial status!

    Now for a final question: Why is it LEGAL for landlords, real estate agents and property managers that show rental properties and process rental applications only to refuse to give an answer for why an application is subsequently rejected? If no names are named, is it not allowable to say “We found an applicant with better credit?” or “Your savings is inadequate”? or even “The owner decided to accept an applicant without pets”?

    It sends the wrong message when, as a rental application processor/landlord, your prospective tenant attempts to follow up and the sum total of your reply is: “We found a stronger candidate”. Because many would-be renters are paying as much as $50 per adult per application, and because credit inquiries are DAMAGING, it should be within the rights of anyone who applies for rental housing to receive the report (background check, credit check) along with a valid reason the application was denied. (I would argue, also, that this is a necessary option because applicants, whether they are accepted for housing or not, should not be forced to leave a trail of personally-identifiable financial information sitting in office filing cabinets, dumpsters outside of the property manager’s office and the like because identity theft has become such a rampant problem.)

    Let’s be perfectly honest: Failure to provide a specific response to a specific request on the part of an applicant who wishes to receive notice of the outcome of a rental application sends the wrong message. A dodgy answer suggests you may have been engaged in some form of housing discrimination or are simply not confident that you were within your rights. I realize that some people who rent would rather allow days or even weeks to pass until they “take the hint”, but if your applicant sincerely wants to learn from the process a vague or evasive answer does them a HUGE disservice. Worse yet, it paints you as being either unprofessional or as someone with something to hide. (It’s important to remember that even your unwanted applicants will ultimately talk to friends/family/coworkers about their experience. As a property manager, real estate agent or landlord you have nothing to gain by leaving a bad impression and instead have everything to lose!)

    In summary, I believe there should be a law mandating that applicants have the option to check a box on a rental application form to receive copies (if not originals) of all rejected materials, including the outcome of a background/credit check, back — per a dated/signed request. Prospective renters often pay you to be screened, even as they take a hits for inquiries on their credit. To protect against identity theft if not also to provide a valuable educational experience, even a rental-app reject deserves to be able to learn from the experience.

  47. Hi Brandon, Have you run into potential applicants who have an “emotional support” animal and claim they have a medical reason to have a pet in a non-pet apartment? Is that enforceable under the ADA? We don’t allow pets for sanitary reasons and to maintain the quiet environment which was the reason our non-pet tenants moved into our facility for.

    • Wendy Hoechstetter

      Jodi, you are allowed to request documentation from their doctor that the animal is medically necessary. If that is forthcoming, you do indeed pretty much have to rent to them with the animal – *if* you own three or more rental units or use a property management company to manage them even if you only have one.

      It is not the ADA which governs housing and service/emotional support animals, though, but HUD and the FHA.

      That said, you do not have to tolerate the animal becoming a nuisance. You are also well within your rights to require that the tenant (or their security deposit) pay for any damage the animal causes – but *only* if you also require *all* tenants to pay for any damage to their units. Noise? You do have a noise restriction clause in your lease, don’t you? That applies to *whatever* source of the noise, be it loud parties or barking dogs, etc.

      There are some exceptions to the requirement to make these accommodations, but they are pretty rare, and HUD *will* investigate thoroughly and hold your feet to the fire. They’ve gotten really aggressive about enforcing this aspect of the law.

  48. kyle knapton

    Hello Brandon,

    This was a great article and we appreciate your time to help educate us! I understand the requirement of having the tenants income be atleast 3x rent. We are wondering how we would handle a situation with roommates. Is it understandable for us to require one, maybe both tenants to each have 3x times the rent?

    Your input is greatly appreciated.


  49. G Marks

    One issue from anyone who can answer or comment: If you have multiple applicants that are interested, and pass your criteria, you obviously need to make a choice. Now whether they are “exactly” the same criteria wise or one is slightly “better” than the other. Does anyone have a comment on whether you need to take the qualified applicant who applies first ?
    That is, if say 3 people apply at … say a day or 2 apart from each other and you PREFER (not due to protected class) the last person, can I take that person and deny the first 2 ?
    Not because they didn’t or wouldn’t qualify. Just because you needed to choose 1 and they all came in at reasonably that same time during the application review process. Tough question but I say I can choose whoever I want. Some will say take the 1st in line but there always seems to be some subjective (and objective) reasons to choose one over another. What say you ?

  50. Jim Hoffmann

    To G Marks – Best practice from a risk mitigation point of view is to take the first applicant that qualifies under your screening criteria. It’s very important to be consistent and to have a verifiable set of screening criteria in place. If you are having difficulty making a choice, you could consider revamping your screening criteria. Yes, you certainly can choose whomever you wish. The question is, could you successfully defend your choice if it were necessary to do so? How you handle your denials will also play an important part. Having solid policies and procedures in place and consistently applying them will help in removing indecision from your screening process.

    • G Marks

      Jim. I agree you need to try to maintain consistency. The problem I normally run into is that there are multiple people interested at the same time and/or people have different criterias as tenants. Such as move in dates.and available funds. They normally will say one thing and push comes to shove do another. Obviously I can reject for that but don’t want to pass on a good tenant for one that is marginal at best. Therefore my comment about being able to choose the right tenant if applications are put in at reasonably the same time. trying to be perfect in a non perfect tenant world.

    • I would, because I don’t want illegal substances on my property (and here they are illegal, and the cops are very anti-drug of any type). If I had property in California, Oregon, Colorado – I might overlook it, as long as everything else about the tenant checked out.

  51. Totally bummed – had a tenant lined up for my house in another city that I am trying to either sell or rent to keep cash flow high enough to maintain mortgage payments.

    Tenant checked out great! References were verifiable, everyone had good things to say.

    A few days before we were supposed to sign lease and collect deposit & 1st month, I texted with available dates/times for signing.
    No response. Follow up text, no response. Wait two days, follow up text, no response. Email – No response. Facebook message – no response.
    In case phone was out of minutes or there was another reason that tenant couldn’t receive the 3 other types of communications, re-contact one reference to ask whether tenant has backed out – no response.

    Disappointing, because tenant was GREAT on paper – income, references, past rental history, maturity level – everything checked out perfectly. This was the kind of person that I would have expected to proactively reach out and say, “Hey, I changed my mind,” or “Hey, I can’t move in on the first after all, but I can on the 15th. Can I pay the deposit now and you hold the property for me?”

    Instead, there was just … nothing…. And now I have to go through the screening process all over again.

    It’s a business relationship folks – You don’t have to worry about making me mad if you back out. That’s your prerogative. If I can’t rent it to you, I will find someone else. That’s one of the hazards of being a landlord. But please be responsible enough to let me know, so that I have those extra days to look for a new tenant, instead of just not showing up or responding at all.

  52. Franco Urbaez

    Fantastic article! I learned a lot! I am about to put in an offer on a 3 unit property that is 100% occupied. The tenants are paying consistently and fine but when I walked through the units, they are a mess. The property itself is beautiful but the clutter and uncleanliness leads me to believe that the people living there are not quite the type of tenant I am looking to rent to.

    I want to properly screen tenants so I would love to use the SmartMove link but everytime I click on it, it says there is a proxy error. Nothing comes up. If the link has changed, can you post the updated one so we can take advantage of SmartMove?

  53. I have no faith in the eviction search done by any of the online places. I would be delighted to find an agency that I could pay and they did a thorough search. The problem is in Oregon there are several different types of courts so in just Douglas county there are at least 3 one in Roseburg you can go in to run a check by applicant name for evictions or other court “events” criminal or eviction. However there is one in Drain and one in Myrtle Creek (could be more) that do not report to OJIN (Oregon Judicial Inter-agency) Network. I have called the Drain court and they refused to give me the names of the people involved in evictions. I hoped to call in every month and keep a list of my own. They said I can call in and ask for a specific person BUT they list them by the landlords name. So if I have a list of landlords names I might get lucky.

    I have “run” names of people I evicted and they did not come up. I have tried to find a location where Oregon evictions can be reported to and inquired of, no luck. If I “ran” a couple names of people I evicted and got information on them being evicted, I know they were, that would be my new go to for all of my rentals service.

    Any ideas?


    Hey all. with regards to contacting past landlords. i have found 1 question pretty much covers all the bases. it is:if given the chance, would you rent to them again? if yes, then they were good tenants, if no, then i deny.

  55. Excellent evergreen article and fabulous infographic. I have shared it today and hope it helps so many who do not realized what steps to take. This applies to both residential and commercial properties. The difference is with commercial, there may or may not be a corporation involved. Many businesses are sole proprietors so this method would apply + the review of the health of the business. If the owner of the company has bad credit and bad personal references, I would pass on them! Thanks for doing such a great job on this complex topic!

  56. Sherry McQuage

    I have a family member that owns and manages two four-plex apartments. They have a real estate agent screen applicants (she receives 1/2 month rent if they move in). Long story short: the agent sold a woman’s house, “screened” her as acceptable for my relative’s apartment, and moved the lady in. The lady heard “voices” and tried to kick in the neighbor’s door…neighbor called police.
    Luckily, my relative had a policy in place that all prospective renters must sign: “If law enforcement is called to premises, it is grounds for eviction.” My relative paid out of pocket to get the woman moved out asap. Turns out, the woman had a criminal incident where she shot into an occupied house. Unfortunately, the four-plex apartments are in a “poor” county where good renters are hard to find.

  57. Great article. Please describe the amendments/additions to the article there would be if you were renting a room in your own home versus one just for profit. Consider these two categories especially: 1 qualities looked for in a tenant and 2 legal differences, esp wrt ‘discrimination’ based on personality or whatever. what rights does resident landlord have to reject sketchy personalities, esp based on hunches?

  58. Rene Brown

    Awesome guide Brandon Turner!! My husband and I are negotiating the purchase of our first single family rental home. There has been a lot of controversy over the smart move tenant screening via TransUnion. Can you elaborate as to why it does not work for so many people within the comments? We plan to manage the unit ourselves and I thought that this online process would be a great tool. But if it doesn’t work correctly then I could render as useless. I really appreciate all of the other great information within this article! Looking forward to this week’s webinar also!

  59. Kelli Boone

    Great article and super helpful! Sorry if this question was already asked… When using SmartMove for the credit/background check, the application fee goes directly to SmartMove, not you as the landlord or your business. If multiple prospective tenants complete the credit and background check within a short period of time (let’s say, 3 people completed it in the same day) and all 3 meet criteria – but you can only choose one – Do you refund the other 2 the application fee? This would be a loss to you/the business. Just wanted clarification on that. Thank you!

  60. Jackie Botham

    Wow, great article! I have a question if anyone has an answer:
    I just signed up for turbotenant and realized that potential tenants cannot fill out an app without going through the paid screening part. I was hoping to review apps and then only screen those who would qualify otherwise. I want to do all of this online and not deal with paper apps. I am afraid I will have a lot of tenants get rejected and then be upset because they paid the fee already.

  61. Devon Hicks

    This guide is simply incredible. I’ve never seen such a thorough piece of work on this topic and it inspired our company to write an article about tenant screening for our customers.

    Tenant screening is probably the most important thing for Property managers/Landlords to do well.

    I really liked the section about setting your minimum requirements. I feel that’s one of the most important steps because if you don’t know what your comparing your applicants to than you won’t end up with quality tenants.

    Thanks again for the great content, Brandon!

    • Derek P.

      Great stuff! I highly recommend taking the time to scour the county court websites for possible case information. When checking into the current landlord (I didn’t trust the contact they listed in the application), I found the actual current owner’s name and number online. The actual owner told me he was in the process of evicting someone from that address. It turns out the “landlord” listed on the application was the name of the person that was being evicted. The “landlord” was also a coworker of the applicant. Doing an eviction search by address helped reveal this.

  62. Adam Kessler

    This is great information! Ryan Barone (on Bigger Pockets) developed an app called RentRedi to automate steps 2 through 4 in the Infograph in this article. His platform makes the process completely seamless for both the landlord and the tenant, with application/screening being performed in minutes, all from your mobile phone. It will allow landlords to get the tenants they want quicker and minimize vacancy costs. Check it out!

  63. Johan Praats on

    SmartMove just raised their fee to $40 per tenant. For those of us making an effort to provide affordable housing, that doesnt work any longer. The value of this product is about $19-$25, not $40! Shame on TransUnion.

    • Dillon Reilly

      Is that a one-time fee or a monthly subscription service? If it is a one-time fee, I had a thought that you could have the applicant pay it and then make the first month’s rent less the $40. It’s kind of a win-win-win: the applicants who aren’t confident in their background/credit checks won’t waste your time, the ones who are confident pay for themselves, and you only pay for the one who becomes a tenant.

  64. Matt Osolinski

    I have noticed through the course of writing insurance policies for landlords that many do nothing in the way of screening tenants prior to accepting them into their property. Obviously that can lead to some issues and in the insurance world, it can lead to avoidable claims.
    Mitigating the risks that strange and unverified tenants represent by running a background check, credit check, and/or requiring them to provide proof of an active renters policy is a great way to not only protect your assets but it will also save you money on your landlord policy because it shows good practices on your part.
    You can save in a different way on a landlord policy by notifying your agent that you have any of the following pieces equipment installed at your property: smoke detectors, fire alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers, centrally monitored alarm service, dead bolts on doors, bars on windows.

  65. howard rutiezer

    And one more thing about previous post about renting to student/s.
    The place being rented is often furnished, sometimes including “everything”: pots, pans, silverware, linen, pillows, blankets, lamps, TV. radio, etc. — as if the person/s were going to stay at their grandmother’s house for an extended time period.

Leave A Reply

Pair a profile with your post!

Create a Free Account


Log In Here