12 Tips I’ve Learned From Screening Close to 500 Prospective Tenants

by | BiggerPockets.com

Do you know when you’ll find when you search for “screening tenants” on the BiggerPockets search bar?

Over 2,000 results!

Screening tenants is probably one of the most important topics for buy and hold investors who self-manage their portfolios. It really does not matter if you have 5 or 50 units. Screening tenants and choosing the best qualified tenants from the beginning is critically important to the long term success of your rental units and portfolio.

I do have a confession to make: When my husband Matt and I began investing in property many years ago, we were simply so excited to be real estate investors and have ANYONE interested in our properties. As a result, we accepted anyone who wanted to rent from us. If they were breathing, interested, filled out a simple application and had a job, we accepted them. Unfortunately due to our lack of knowledge, we experienced more of a “revolving door” early on with tenants.

Well, if you don’t learn in this business, you can’t stay in this business!

Ten year later, we are still not perfect; however, we have learned a lot and have made improvements. Over the last several weeks, I have been training our new in-house “property manager,” and we have been busy screening a lot of applications for our units. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to share the best strategies we take to ensure we bring strong tenants into our units. I hope this list is helpful for both the newbie and seasoned vet as you strengthen your screening process!

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12 Tips I’ve Learned From Screening Close to 500 Prospective Tenants

1. Have written “rental standards” that you use consistently.

I can’t stress this one enough. Although I am not a lawyer (and not even close to being a lawyer), I am pretty sure this is a requirement by law. I am pretty sure you have to have written rental standards in case anyone ever takes you to court for discrimination. We have a written list of 30 standards that cover the following topics that every single prospective tenant is measured against: income, credit history, rent history, applications, co-signer.


Related: The Landlord’s Guide to Effective (& Legal) Tenant Screening

2. Use a scoring system that measures each prospective tenant on the same exact criteria.

I am a big fan of making decisions like this more objective. You become more objective as a result of having a consistent scoring method that is based on your written rental standards. In a nutshell, we took our rental standards (discussed above) and created a uniform scoring evaluation process where prospective tenants score into three groups (deny, accept, and above standards). This has been tremendous for us, as it has helped us remain consistent.

3. Use a strong and detailed rental application.

Most landlords use some type of application. However, I have seen a lot of landlords not always include the following (that in my humble opinion are incredibly important):

  1. Ask for permission on your application to contact previous and current landlords (a very important detail you don’t want to miss!)
  2. Always get written proof of the following:
    • Driver’s license or picture ID
    • Voided personal check (to verify bank)
    • Two weeks of most current pay stubs of each income source listed
    • If prospective tenant is self-employed, you should ask for the most current Schedule C tax return and proof of current income
    • Child support, alimony, pension check or other sources of income
    • Proof of car insurance

4. Call previous and current landlords.

I can tell you from experience that previous landlords are MUCH more important than the current landlords. The reason being that current landlords might be telling you what you want to hear (the prospective tenant is wonderful) just to get rid of them!

5. Call to verify employment.

Sometimes it is hard to get through to employers. Some don’t want to talk to you. However, here are the sample questions we use when speaking with employers:

  • Is this person employed here?
  • How long have they been employed by your company?
  • Can you verify the income they have listed?
  • What are the expectations for future employment?


6. Ask for bills if they don’t have a credit score.

If prospective tenant does not have credit score, ask for a few bills that show that they are current and that they pay on time. The bills we have asked for include electric and gas bills, cell phone bills, cable bills, etc.

7. If the prospect does not have previous/current landlords, ask for three references.

I have to tell you, this is a new part of our process we have been implementing. It has been super helpful, and I would highly recommend you ask for references!

Here are the sample questions we use:

  • How do you know this person?
  • Tell me about your interaction with them.
  • Share with me a few words to describe them.
  • Were they reliable and trustworthy?
  • If a neighbor, were they good neighbors? Quiet? Respectful of their neighbors? Did they keep their property clean?

8. Use a third party screening system that runs credit, criminal, eviction and credit checks.

I can’t stress the importance of this step. There are so many helpful screening systems out there. We have used various companies over the years. The one we use now and are very happy with is ScreeningReports.com. Any report system you use, make sure you get a credit score, criminal background (both on a local, county, state and national level), sex offender information, eviction history, and collections and public records. It helps that they have a customer service arm. We have had to call with questions on many screening reports, and the company is always there to answer our questions.

Related: 10 Not-So-Obvious Ways to Thoroughly Screen Potential Tenants

9. Absolutely require an application fee (cash or money order; NEVER a check).

Whoever is doing the showings for you, make sure they are telling these prospective tenants there are no guarantees that their application will be accepted, and the application fee is NON refundable. We charge a $35 application fee per person for EVERYONE above the age of 18. I would highly recommend you run the credit and criminal background on all adults, even if the lease is only going in one person’s name.

10. Call the new tenant a week after move-in to check in with them.

This is a simple step that most landlords forget to do. It is important to check in with the tenant and make sure they know you are there for them and happy to assist to make their tenancy as good as possible. Also, you can use this follow up to ensure they have transferred the utilities in their name!

11. Once you accept a tenant, require them to put down at least one month’s rent (immediately).

This is a HUGE point. You do not want to stop marketing the unit until you have a deposit from the prospective tenant. Remember, without any skin in the game, prospective tenants will have no problem walking from the unit and finding somewhere else to live. We had this happen recently even though we know better. Don’t stop marketing until you have money in your hand!


12. Look for stability in a person’s job and stability in where they lived previously.

This one might seem obvious; however, I have found this to be increasingly important over the years. In our rental criteria, we score a prospective tenant much higher based on longevity of employment and previous residency.

I hope these suggestions have been helpful to you.

[Editor’s Note: We are republishing this article to help out readers newer to BiggerPockets.]

I would love to hear from all of the newbie and seasoned landlords. What are your secrets? What are the best strategies and steps you employ to screen for the best tenants?

Let’s get a conversation going in the comments section!

About Author

Elizabeth Faircloth

Liz Faircloth has been managing and investing in real estate since 2004, along with her husband, Matt. We have built our business from scratch and now own over five million dollars in residential and commercial assets. We love to help and educate investors. Our YouTube Channel, The Landlord’s Chronicles, offers short, yet educational videos that covers topics such as flipping houses, rentals, rehabs, property management, and lessons learned along the way. http://www.youtube.com/c/DerosaGroupTrenton


  1. Daniel Alegre

    Hi Liz,

    Hope the family is well. We have been meaning to get in touch with you guys and catch up, so you will probably be hearing from us soon.

    Great Article, i have spoken to people who tell me how being a buy and hold investor is a nightmare because of tenant turn around. When i ask them how they screened they do not have a very clear or consistent answer. We found that screening process starts with the first call, before we answer questions about the property we let them know our requirements from income to background and credit checks. Doing this we had alot less people scheduling a walk through and not showing up, they would just say they would call us back and never did.

    Scoring system as mentioned above is a great too, I think a big hurdle of being a newb investor is separating business and compassion. Alot of times you find yourself wanting to give people chances that if you were in their position you would want yourself, but when you do it often gets taken advantage of. Having a clear set of rental standards that you adhere to allows you push the guilt that you may have onto the standards and not your own personal decision making. To further protect myself from feeling guilty i let them know that the screening reporting company gives us a recommendation that we use in large part to determine acceptance or denial.

    Thanks for the great write up and i hope to touch base with you soon,

    • Elizabeth Faircloth

      Thanks so much Danny for your post and comment! So nice to hear from you! Yes, I completely agree with you re: compassion. That is why I really appreciate the scoring method and objective approach. Over the years, we have been burned way too many times with accepting marginal tenants. So we have learned our lesson over the years. I think it is great that you tell folks ahead of time your standards – we do the same. Please do keep in touch!!

  2. Curt Smith

    Nice high level list Liz. Lower level involves the face to face discussion and watching for body and verbal queues. This is as important as the credit check in my view.

    – Credit report: I want the full credit report in the form of a matrix showing red, yellow, green for on time payments as mrlandlord.com and it’s sister company http://www.ctcredit.net/ deliver. Mrlandlord is a PIA to get setup, a home inspection and fee. I won’t use a service that requires the applicant to get an email, set their side up and enter their SSN/DL etc. My app gets personal contacts, relatives phone numbers, SSN, DL, birth date etc. All useful stuff if they MIA or you need to do collections.

    – face to face
    – “why do you want to rent this place?” Deceptively simple question, yet very telling. You want sticky answers. I’m moving back to be near my father (some relative) or I want my kids in this school district. I do NOT want to hear: yours is the cheapest, I like this place, it was the only place available…. The later can all change weeks after they move in, they they MIA. I only do rent to own, seller financing, 95% of my renters are moving back to be near relatives or to be in a school district.

    – Drive by their current address if it’s a house. Check the yard out.

    – Walk out to their car. It has to be neat. Old and dented is actually prefered. Messy is not. Brand new and expensive says they make poor financial decisions.

    – Ask “so tell me about your last landlords, how did they treat you?” the point of this is NOT to find out about some landlord. You are baiting the applicant to “go off” or are they reasonable people? You don’;t want a crazy nut in your rental who is going to make your life living hell. This type of questioning will help ferret the nuts out. Don’t depend on calling past landords to tell you this!

    – do you have a bank account? Oh great you do, how much savings do you have? So many weak candidate have no bank account. Savings well in excess of the move in shows a “planner”. You want planners who make good financial decissions.

    – I’ve always found that when the face to face goes marginally, or the above issues don’t look good, the financials or last landlord call will also be weak to bad. Meaning the above are not criteria you can put on your Renting Standards list (has neat car), but in the end if your written scoring shows a weak candidate my subjective face to face findings can swing a weak candidate over to the NO pile.

    Your face to face in my view MUST result in you trusting the family and believing they will be great for your rental, as well as your written scoring system show the same.

    • Elizabeth Faircloth

      Thanks so much Curt for your comment and posting here! I completely agree with you on the importance of “face to face.” We have a leasing agent who shows all of our available units. She typically briefs us on her interaction with the prospective tenants which is important to us. I really love the points you made and will be reminding our leasing agent to ask these questions when she meets folks. Love the car suggestion as well!

    • sara n.

      @Curt Smith –I really like your point about asking ‘– “so tell me about your last landlords, how did they treat you?” That’s a new Q. I’m going to add to my bucket list. This goes along the line of identifying ‘picky, fussy’ tenant that’s not going to come to you w/every single small problem & complaints. If a perspective tenant starts asking too many Q. about the property at the showing, it may be an indication they’re just too high maintenance. Totally agree that meeting the person face to face and just watching them reveals a lot.

      • Jennifer T.

        I also like this question and am going to add it to my repertoire. I made the mistake of signing a lease with a couple who, during the showing, went on and on about how much they disliked their current landlord and place when I asked them the simple question of, “Why are you moving?”

        Even before moving day, they were an enormous PITA and texted me at least every other day. Asking me the same questions they had already asked me and seemed to get upset if I didn’t text them back within the hour. Then move-in day comes and they change their mind about moving in. There is a whole long story with that, but even though I lost money over it, I was SO relieved they never moved in. That would have been 10x worse.

      • Jennifer Streamer

        That’s a great suggestion. We’ve had a few people rant and rave about how awful their current landlord is. They don’t realize we’re quietly ruling them out – now.

        In the past, we handled things differently. Our first rental property was a personal home that was too underwater to sell. The first day we posted it, we had a couple show up and said they needed to move in within 24 hours because their landlord was poisoning their cat. We were so excited to have someone want our place that we agreed. There was no screening, no calls, no bank account checks – nothing but a minimal application. That night, they gave us the deposit in cash and moved in.

        Fast forward 9 years. They’re still renting the place! The cat is fine. Rent has never been late and they’ve never caused a problem.

        I don’t recommend that strategy to anyone and we are certainly running a different operation, now. All screenings are thoroughly conducted 😉 It must have been beginner’s luck. And maybe landlords really are poisoning cats, sometimes.

  3. karen rittenhouse

    Hi Elizabeth:
    I so agree with all of your points and we do the same. Anyone landlording full time and with more than a few properties knows how important these steps are.

    We also sit down with every tenant and go over each part of the rental contract. I tell them to plan an hour to go over it. We have them initial all the main points. Then, when they contact me to say they were never informed of a policy, I photo copy the page with their initials and send it to them. This step really helps their memory.

    Screening is just part of professionalism. After all, we’re turning over a very expensive asset to a total stranger with very little financial investment from them. We have the right to do what we can to know who we’re dealing with.

    Thanks for your post.

    • Elizabeth Faircloth

      So nice to hear from you! Thanks for taking the time to comment here. Adding a spot on our lease agreement for tenants to sign their initials on each page was one of the best things we did! I love when tenants say “I did not agree to that” and then we send them where they initialed!
      Thanks again for your comments!! Hope all is well with you!!

    • william scharf

      karen, the initials on every lease page are crucial, not just the signature on the last page.

      we also have folks sign the written explantion we give them for the application process, application fee, and deposit.

      you can never be too bulletproof 🙂

  4. Kimberly H.

    Great post! I have a couple questions:
    – why is it a good idea to get a voided check to verify a bank account?
    – proof of car insurance…is this to see that they are a rule-follower?
    – on references in lieu of landlord references…lack of landlord references is one we struggle with sometimes in the case where someone lost a home to foreclosure or short-sale, but wouldn’t all of their references they give be glowing??

    • Elizabeth Faircloth

      Hi Kimberly:

      Sure, happy to help clarify further!
      – why is it a good idea to get a voided check to verify a bank account?
      It is a good sign to see a prospective tenant that has both a checking and savings account. Savings account because it is a positive sign if they have money saved up for rent just in case they lost a job. Checking account because it shows some responsibility on their part.
      – proof of car insurance…is this to see that they are a rule-follower?
      Yes another way that a prospective tenant shows that they are financially responsible.
      – on references in lieu of landlord references…lack of landlord references is one we struggle with sometimes in the case where someone lost a home to foreclosure or short-sale, but wouldn’t all of their references they give be glowing??
      Yes, good point. This is something we struggled with at first as well. However, we have found this to be more helpful in many situations. The fact that someone gives a prospective tenant a few references (beyond family members) is a positive sign. Recently, we had a prospective tenant give a church member, neighbor, and work colleague. Each of them had a lot of positive things to say about the prospective tenant and each shared specific examples. Sometimes you can tell if the reference is “making things up” but that was not the case in this situation. I agree with you – you have to be careful with references and take them with a grain of salt!!

      Hope this helps!
      Good luck Kimberly!

        • richard rogstad on

          Enjoyed the article. Am evicting a tenant who we were too nice to.. could you email your list.



        • Neema Nene

          Thank you for posting this article. I am a landlord tired of using “professional property managers” to manage my properties for various reasons and so started managing a few of my student tenant properties myself and now am doing regular SF properties and was looking to screen them and found your article very helpful. I would be very grateful if you would send me your copy of the rental standards that you use at [email protected]. I am a realtor and a believer in rental properties. I also renovate them and looking to flip some and keep some until I have enough to retire on rentals. Thank you so much for sharing. If there is anything I can do for you please shoot me an email. – Warmly, Neema

  5. Guy Granlund

    Thanks Elizabeth. I haven’t bought my first property yet and I appreciate all the help and Intel I’m getting here on BP . It took almost seven months of reading and learning about all the niches of the industry just to make the decision to go with buy and hold. I found this post to be very helpful. Thanks again.

    • Elizabeth Faircloth

      Thanks Guy for commenting! Good for you to decide on a “niche” to focus on. That was something I wish we had done a better job of doing that ourselves when we began. We learned the importance of this over the years!! All the best to you. My recommendation – become a master at your niche before you move onto something new! Good luck to you!!

      • william scharf

        i think everybody wishes they had done a better job of everything when they began. there’s no way to prepare for some of the stuff that this business will throw your way. every time i think i’ve seen it all, somebody will do something (usually something the opposite of good) that i never anticipated in a million years. your tenants will be your best teachers 🙂

        19 years in, still in continuing education.

  6. Joseph Benedict

    I try to create a timeline of the places that the tenant(s) have lived and why they have moved. People tend to repeat what they have done before. If they are accustomed to moving every year, they probably won’t stay long at our place either. My goals of the application process are to answer two main questions: 1) Will they pay rent on time. 2) Will they keep my house in good condition. The latter is the most difficult to answer.

    In regards to the contract, I have the tenant initial each page after we have reviewed together. The inventory checklist and pictures of the property before they rent is also very important.

    • Marsha Wernick on

      My expectation is that tenants keep the PROPERTY in good condition, not just the house. The property includes the front and back yards. I also require that they hire a gardener. Not an extreme expectation!!! I rent beautiful properties at below market prices and responsible applicants are well aware that they are getting a good deal. They will bend over backwards to pay on time and to maintain the property. There is not enough money in the world to make me accept an ongoing headache. My tenants tend to stay a long time – one is going on her 19th year.

  7. Most of the comments are common sense, but the one thing I wouldn’t agree on is the $35 application fee. We habitually get 50 – 60 applicants for our homes whenever we advertise – so many in fact that we typically take down the ads after a few days because of the sheer volume – and we always make a point to give every one of them a fair shot at presenting their case for the house. It’s getting to be a highly competitive market out there for renters, and the simple fact is that many of them are going to have to sift through dozens of properties before they find a place to live. At $35 to $50 a pop for each application fee they could soon be up for hundreds, perhaps even four figures, in app. fees before they even get a foot in the door. That’s simply unfair, especially for a family burdened with the costs of trying to find a home. It’s one thing to expect them to have the deposit and rent – adding to that burden with such a multiplicative figure just doesn’t seem right – at least to us. Our rule of thumb is that when it’s all said and done after sifting through the paperwork we’re usually left with 2 – 3 applicants we feel good about and who seem to tick all of the appropriate boxes. Only then will we ask for application fees, and then to simply cover the cost of the background check. Sometimes we’ll just ask it of the person who’s top of our list and work down, or we’ll ask it from each of them to help us determine who ‘gets it’. Invariably we end up wishing we had more homes to rent because we end up having to give the crushing bad news to the remaining people who we know would make good tenants.

    • Terri Pour-Rastegar

      Hi Timbo. First of all, let me say that if your current system is working well for you, then stick with it. However, there are several reasons why I require a $45 application fee from each occupant 18 years and older. First of all, if a prospective tenant is serious and committed to renting your property, they will happily pay the application fee. If they balk at having to pay that relatively small fee, imagine what’s going to happen if you raise the rent $25 or $50 or more one year. Secondly, if they are submitting numerous applications, you need to ask them why. I always ask the pre-screening question, ‘have you applied to rent elsewhere?’ and if so, ‘why did you not rent that place?’ or ‘were you turned down, and why?’. Thirdly, if I did not charge a fee to run an application, everyone and their uncle would be sending me applications–I’d be overwhelmed, sifting through many unqualified candidates, just to find a couple of good eggs. Fourth, and final, my time is valuable and quantifiable. If I am going to take the time to seriously consider you as a tenant, you should be willing to make the relatively small effort of compensating me for a portion of the costs involved in screening. FYI, my $45 application fee is exactly what it costs me to run the reports–I make no money on them. Just my 2 cents.

  8. Donald Cooley

    This is a great article. I’m glad I came across it as my wife and I just purchased our first property and are getting ready to find a tenant. I’m definitely use a lot of this as our guidelines. Thanks again for the article.

  9. Alan Brown

    Wow Timbo, you are lucky to be in such a competitive area for renters.. (maybe not for the renters!)

    I like your attempt to be so gracious to potential tenants; I too, tend to not want to gouge people, but I always have to remind myself, as Elizabeth magnificently explains, this is a business. When I am managing my own property, I need to cover my time, especially if it’s being wasted!

  10. Michelle Fenn

    Great post. I have one more tool that works for me, I inform all my potential tenants that I give preference to tenants that can direct deposit their rent checks. I has been a great quick screening tool. It means that must have a bank account, a computer or access to one and smart enough to figure out how to direct deposit or willingness to learn how.
    Another landlord once told me that the only acceptable reasons a tenant can give for moving are:
    to be closer to my job, my current place is to small, kids need a better school system, or my current landlord is selling where I now live. He also suggested that you schedule sign the contract at their current rental home.
    Finally pets, I find I can attract better tenants by allowing “approved” pets, but I also charge a non-refundable pet fee. My fee is $500.00 per pet. Do not call it a deposit, there is an expectation it will be returned. I will then allow the fee to be paid over a couple months.

    I would love to have a copy of your standards list. As a realtor and property manager having a consistent scoring system keeps you in alignment with Fair Housing Standards.

    • Elizabeth Faircloth

      Hi Kevin:
      Glad you liked the article! Yes, in order to take the apartment off the market, we have charged a rent deposit (one month’s rent) which is non refundable. This rent deposit goes towards either the security deposit (which is 1 & 1/2 months rent) or first month’s rent.
      Hope that helps!

  11. Michael Thomas

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Thanks for the great article! I am searching for my first property and this information is very helpful as I head towards becoming a landlord. It will surely help me not make the same mistakes as others before me!
    It is inspiring to hear of your success and what you have learned in a relatively short time investing.

    If you would be willing to share with me your rental standards and scoring template also that would be really appreciated!


  12. Michele Fischer

    Liz, great article! I don’t know many others who use a point system to evaluate applicants, that has been so valuable to us. Also agree that length of tenancy and length of employment are huge factors to take into consideration. We also look at how long they have lived in the area.

    Calling the employer is always and adventure, but we try. Smart employers will not tell more than that they do work there, but some have told us an earful.

  13. Kent Clothier

    Got here by clicking through another blog post… and I was richly rewarded with your thorough post. You spell out great systems to use to work with tenants — many of which I use and recommend as well. I particularly like the objective scoring system recommendation you made. I think too many investors base their rental decisions on “gut feeling”… and that can cause so much frustration and financial loss.

  14. John Murray

    Great points and I use most of them with a few caveats. I have tenets that are strippers and Recreational Marijuana growers here in Portland Oregon (Keep Portland Weird) . Never had a problem collecting rent or property issues. Others are millennials, gen y and gen x, the housing crises here dictates the be nice to your landlord or you will never find another rental to live in. I always have charged right at the top of the rental market and raise their rent depending on whether I want them to stay or get rid of them . Never had to do the latter and will continue with my doctrine. Portland is a unique market and the most affordable west coast city.

  15. Kimberly H.

    The proof of car insurance does make sense. The only problem tenant we’ve had so far, as it turns out in county records she had several times gotten in trouble for not having insurance. Clear indication she not a rule follower, she ended up smoking in the house and having unauthorized pets.

  16. This has been useful info. I am about to rent out my first place and have been nervous about the process of finding good tenants. Would you be able to share your rent standards and scoring process with me? Thank you so much.

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