16 Big Red Flags to Watch For When Looking for Tenants

by | BiggerPockets.com

Screening tenants for so called “red flags” begins with that first point of contact.  Usually this is a phone call or an e-mail in response to an ad.  That however is only the start.  Your screening process should continue until that lease is signed, they have the keys and are moved in.

You want to keep your screening process in motion because red flags may not show themselves right away.  Potential tenants may sound great on the phone while raising concerns at the showing.  They may even make it all the way to the move in walk through before you decide to reverse course.  Seems a bit harsh, but it is better to reverse course at the last minute than be stuck with a problem for a year or more.

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16 Big Red Flags

Here are some of the red flags that have caused us to think a bit harder about a potential tenant.

  1. If they have to give you the back story before they answer your simple questions.  If the response to questions like “Do you work” or “Have you ever been evicted or filed bankruptcy” does not begin with a simple yes or no but with a back story. Red Flag!
  2. If they are past college age, have a job, can qualify on their own and still have to come to the showing with their parents.  Red Flag!  Are they responsible?  Can they make their own decisions?  Do you want to deal with the high maintenance helicopter mom for a year?
  3. If they come to the showing with their parents and the parents do all the talking while the kid seems indifferent.  Red Flag!  What problem is the parent trying to get rid of?
  4. If this is their first home away from home.  Red Flag!  You do not want your place to become party central.  Get references and verify everything.
  5. The guy that moves every year.  Red Flag!  He will leave you in a year too.  Remember tenant turnover is a big cash flow killer.
  6. If they complains about their current landlord.  Red Flag!  Maybe they are justified but you may also have a complainer on your hands that will never be happy.
  7. If they can’t focus on you or your call. Red Flag! If they are talking to others, screaming at their kids or someone else it could be trouble.
  8. If they are obviously under the influence.  Red Flag!!!! Yep, people call us drunk or high or whatever more than you would imagine.  Big Red Flag, especially if at noon!
  9. If they are rude anytime throughout the process.  Red Flag!  Is this their true colors showing through?
  10. If they are evasive.  Red Flag!  What are they trying to hide?
  11. If they cannot tell you or are vague about who will be living there.  Red Flag!  Does their boyfriend, girlfriend, brother, uncle, or whatever have a criminal record or other problem they are trying to hide?
  12. If they ask if utilities can be included in the rent.  Red Flag?  Can they not even get it together to pay their utilities?
  13. If they are calling “for a friend.”  Red Flag!  It might be nothing, but you should be a bit more cautious.
  14. If they are filthy.  Red Flag!  Unless they work at the dump and have just come to meet you after work they should be relatively clean and that includes the car.
  15. If they can’t seem to make an appointment or meet you on time.  Red Flag.  If they can’t get it together to meet you, how will they get it together to pay the rent?
  16. If they lie on the application.  Red Flag!  Actually, this one will likely get you disqualified.

I am not saying all of these automatically equal bad tenants, people can be having a bad day, or be distracted or whatever.  These items just make us take a closer look.  Remember the Red Flag is not screaming “NO” but “WATCH OUT.”  So, be diligent and do some extra checking.


Whatever you do, treat everyone equally and fairly.  Ask everyone the same questions.  Tell everyone about every apartment you have available.  Let everyone know you will be checking credit, criminal and work history.  That will take care of most of the Red Flags.  But some are pretty good at concealing them, so if you sense one, dig deeper!  Remember it is much more expensive and time consuming to get them out than to not let them in at all.

What “Red Flags” have you seen or experienced that caused you to think about a potential tenant differently?  Let me know with your comments.

Photo: fedewild

About Author

Kevin Perk

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


  1. Actually one applicant came to a showing high and smelling like weed. I didn’t know this myself, he just seemed really happy. It was actually my mom who was there with me who pointed this out. (I did not ask her how she knew what weed smelled like.)

  2. Kevin – 16 great red flags!
    Want to make it 17?
    How about a girlfriend that shows up without the boyfriend, that is supposedly working during the showing. Turns out, she intentionally came alone and presented herself very well. However, the boyfriend turned out to be a bike club member and I don’t mean a “bicyclist”. I mean a hardcore club member, and I am not against bikers. It was pretty obvious he was a club member when he showed up on moving day after the lease was signed with all of his friends. You can only imagine who was in and out visiting as well as the noise from all the bikers coming over pretty much every night. I will always want to meet EVERYONE moving in ahead of time that will be listed on the lease….

    • Kevin Perk



      Did you run a background check on the boyfriend? We check every adult over 18. To do that we would need a signature and an ID.

      If so, what did it show?

      Good advice though.

      Thanks for reading and commenting,


      • Yes, I did. Most live somewhat normal everyday lives, hold down good jobs and have good credit because they have to financially support the club. They don’t all have a rap sheet and can stay under police radar. They are people you and I meet as landlords and hire to do work for our properties. They are also both white collar and blue collar people that you run into every day, but you might never know until it’s time for their personal life to come out. You would be really surprised to know who you DON’T know is an outlaw biker. They can hide it pretty well, including hiding the tattoo’s until they put their colors on and with the “rocker” that shows what club they are affiliated to. Not every club member is fully tattooed either, nor is everyone who has a tattoo a club member, as we all should know. I’m not downing every club member, as some really are decent people. The tenant’s and their friends were actually nice people, but I wouldn’t want to cross them. Also with that, also comes the ones that are not so nice and trust me, they are not just doing the good deeds such as toy drives for children that we see. I learned more than I ever wanted to know. They eventually moved. I have to say in defense so I am not downing every club member, that some really are decent people. There’s more to this story, but I’ll leave that part out.
        I just feel it’s important to meet any entire family moving in – you could even have a nice set of adults with a teenager who looks nice, but is your local drug dealer and the parents don’t have a clue. I’ve learned how to recognize those as well – I just love being a landlord!

  3. In a handful of states, including utilities in the rent may afford the tenant a small tax break, and I hate to leave dollars on the table especially at tax time.

    For example, Michigan has a property tax ‘circuit breaker’ which is also extended to renters, for whom 20% of rent is eligible to be applied to an income tax credit formula.which rebates property taxes above a specified percentage of income. That’s a flat 20 percent regardless of the actual property tax – or whether utilities are included in rent – on the rented residence.

    So including utilities in rent allows the tenant in Michigan to apply a larger amount to the tax credit formula. The flip side is that tenants who actually qualify for this income tax credit will generally have low income and/or high rent, either of which for many landlords is a different red flag.

    • In PA a low income tenant can apply for a rebate of one month. I charge $10 to fill in the landlords portion of the form, just so they forge my signature and leave me alone each year. Nobody checks, a tenant a few years back applied for the rebate of on one of my vacant units under her brothers name. The copied their lease whiting out the address, and sent the info along to the State. Nice $650 Christmas present, I found out when the unit was filled by a tenant who applied for the same rebate and was turned down due to the other tenant applying twice.

      Good work if you can get it.

  4. What about the person who has the inside of the car dirty and absolutely filthy when they come to look at the property! Or if they look like they have been living out of it for the last year and now want to rent one of your places. Again, not a tell all but a “red flag” for sure. Thanks for the post.

  5. If someone calls me more than two consecutive times, I will not rent to them. To me, it shows entitlement and a lack of understanding that other people have important things to do. If they blow up your phone for a showing or application, they are definitely going to blow up your phone over every little issue that arises. I have had people call 15 or 16 times in a row before. I just let them know that the property is no longer available. Always watch out for people who expect you to drop what you are doing and accommodate them. They will be nightmare tenants!!

  6. casey kleinhenz on

    I take care of independent living senior properties. Prospective residents and their families can be very sly about hiding dementia. If the family is overly involved in the application process or the prospective resident keeps calling with the same questions then you should suspect that they might not be fit for independent living.

    • Kevin Perk


      Thanks for the informative post.

      I’m going to call that #1 for independent living senior properties, which is certainly a growing field. Do you have standards that you can use to disqualify? I would suspect that it might get muddy at times.

      Thanks again for reading and for commenting,


  7. What about middle aged couple with kids, and say they are living with parents? I think they just trying to avoid giving away current or past landlord info so that their bad pasts can not be traced.

  8. Nice Article, as a landlord our fantastic property manager deals showings, but as a parent me and my husband are guilt of #2 and #3 🙂 I will think twice the next time junior ask if we can take a look at a place with him.

    • Kevin Perk


      It is OK if you go with your children. We have had some really great experiences with parents encouraging their children and helping them get to “know” the real world. We understand that and were there once as well.

      But yes, 2 and 3 are warning signs for us that there are perhaps problems we do not want to deal with and we should dig a little deeper.

      Thanks for reading and commenting,


      • Kevin, I just love this article – it has really sparked everyone! Can’t wait for another article from you!
        I just love it when a couple brings their young children, so I can see how they behave during a showing. Had one couple with two kids that were bouncing off the walls running from room to room while I tried to talk to the parents. Once I saw the kids push out the screens of the upstairs bedroom windows, I crossed them off the list as potential tenants. I could only imagine what they would have done if they moved in and I’m sure all of you landlords can imagine as well!

        • Kevin Perk


          #24 – How do prospective tenants treat their children. Watch them and learn what life in your property will be like. Not saying all kids are bad and we certainly rent to folks with kids, but the family dynamic can be quite telling.

          Thanks for the kind words and for reading and commenting,


  9. Great list!
    Just had an applicant bring a puppy to the showing. Really? I was tempted to tell them to leave as soon as I saw it. I should have. I wasted 20 minutes showing a house to people I wouldn’t rent to because of their nerve to bring a peeing machine with them. Maybe they thought I’d fall in love with the cute little monster. This is funny, because I actually love dogs.

  10. Great post Kevin and great list! I have a question though, how much screening do you typically do on the phone before scheduling a showing. Seems like way to many times I get to a showing and 5-10 minutes later there are enough red flags to know that I’m wasting my time. I need better pre-screening skills on the phone. Do you have a list for that?

    • Kevin Perk


      No list, but basically we try to determine if they can afford the place and let them know of our background checking criteria (credit, criminal, work history, etc.). That usually lets them take THEMSELVES out of the running for the place. Problem is, if they really want to see the place, you need to show it to them or you could be accused of being discriminatory. You can’t really base your showings on a conversation because you really have not begun the screening process in earnest until they apply. In other words, you have not verified anything yet to take them out of the running for the property. I know of some companies who make people apply before they show their properties so perhaps you could do it that way. But that seems like a bit too much trouble to me.

      Hope that helps you.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I also appreciate the kind words,


  11. I’d rather have them bring the “peeing machine” to the interview rather than have it appear a week later.
    I also have a slightly different opinion on the “bringing the parents” scenario. I would RATHER have the parents of 20-something renters come along. Shows that maybe they have a decent relationship with their parents (enough to be asking their opinion), which could also mean financial back-up from parents if things go south later. I’ve had great tenants who needed (and received) help from family. I didn’t worry about the rent, since they had back-up if they needed it.

    • Kevin Perk


      I guess it would be best to see the machine now rather than later. 🙂

      I hear what you are saying with the parents. We have had the same experience where the kid obviously has a great relationship with the parent and values their opinion. When that happens you see a well adjusted young adult who will likely make a good tenant and if something happens and they hit a road bump, they likely have a back up plan (parents).

      Thanks for writing in and sharing your experiences,


    • I agree with bringing the parents as a good thing for those just starting out; parents are the most likely ones to be guarantor (or co-signer if you prefer that term). For somebody older and more established, who knows – the parents might be living there too if that child is a caregiver for them.

    • Kevin Perk


      Good point! We tried to help some of these folks as well. They were backed by a non-profit and had support. The problem was the things that made them homeless in the first place caught up with them again and again and we had to end it. It is such a vicious cycle for some folks to get out of.

      Thanks for reading and commenting,


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