4 Old School Tenant Screening Tips That Still Hold True For Modern Landlords

by | BiggerPockets.com

Tenant screening is one of those aspects of landlordship where many DIY landlords fall far short of doing enough heavy lifting. Some outsource the process by using services that return an “approval” or “decline,” but by doing that, they’re missing out on some easy-to-obtain and crucial information that you can only get in person.

4 Old School Tenant Screening Tips That Still Work

Peep Their Whip

The first easy thing you can do to establish a solid first impression of a given tenant is be at the curb when they pull up for a showing. Take a gander at their ride and consider:

  • If the thing purrs like a kitten and it’s obviously washed and waxed, you know that either they can afford it or they’re obsessed with it. Check their other financials to determine which is which.
  • If the outside is beat up, that might mean they’re not particularly responsible with their stuff (which is bad, bad!), but it might also mean that they got in a scrape and can’t afford the body work — which is completely understandable. Just casually ask for the story and pay attention to how long ago they got the dents. If it’s been more than a year (i.e. they could have, at the minimum, spent their tax return fixing it up), you might consider worrying.
  • On the other hand, if the inside is trashed, you do not want these people in a home you maintain. The inside of a car is the second best thing you can see to the inside of their current home. If they’re comfortable driving around with moldy hamburger wrappers on the floor and it looks like they’re using the back seat as a laundry hamper, don’t even invite them inside for the showing.


Drive By Their Current Residence

As part of the process, bop by their current residence. If you have to make up some information that you need to give them, it’s easy enough to print off some legal text from the internet explaining their rights. Don’t expect to or ask to be invited in; just look around at the doorstep, listen for evidence of pets or anything else that might make you consider their tenancy, and of course, get whatever kind of glance you can inside and pay attention to the smell. You can tell right away if someone is a smoker, has mold inside their space, and a whole host of other potential turn-offs just by smelling their home.

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

Don’t Answer Their Call

You’re busy! More importantly, if you have an answering machine or you use Google Voice or some such, you can listen to their message over and over again. Do it — and listen for background sounds and word choices that can give you clues. Yowling cats or kids, the babble of several people in the background, or other similar sounds can hint at a tenant that might be destructive to the home.

And of course word choices matter: Someone who tells you they work at XYZCorp is not the same as someone who tells you they work “in sales.” The second person might be a freelancer, self-employed, or unemployed — listen carefully, and ask yourself why they chose the phrases they did. (Just don’t let it get you too paranoid!)


Pay Attention to Their Concerns

A prospective tenant’s concerns can tell you a lot about them.

  • If they’re in a huge hurry to move — and it’s not because of a job — it’s probably because of a looming eviction. Get the full story.
  • If they’re concerned that the house isn’t worth the rent you’re asking, it’s almost never because of the house — it’s because they’re worried about paying the rent. Look over their financials with a fine-tooth comb. (Keep in mind, there are those people who just like to complain. Also keep in mind: Do you want a tenant who likes to complain?)
  • If they had a lot of complaints about their previous landlord, you might want to Google them. It may be that they legitimately had a horrible landlord — or it might be that they’re horrible tenants and don’t realize it.
  • If they’re weirdly focused on being able to pay online, or in cash, it might be because they’re getting their money from an awkward source. It might be as innocent as a telecommuting job (medical billing specialists are a common example) that pays via PayPal, or it might be that they sell drugs or worse.
  • If they’re concerned about the neighbors’ tolerance for crowds or noise, they might be looking for a party pad. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s something to carefully consider.
  • If they’re concerned about the neighbors being snoopy, it’s an almost surefire sign that they intend to do something that they don’t want discovered. That one is a deal-breaker, at least for us.

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

There’s a lot that a solid tenant screening company can do — but there’s also an awful lot that they can’t. Get personally involved, and pay attention. Your own senses and intuition are your best friends.

Landlords: What would you add to this list?

Leave all your tips in the comments section below!

About Author

Drew Sygit

While in the mortgage business, Drew rose to a VP position at the first broker he worked for and then started his own company. In the pursuit of excellence, he obtained several mortgage designations and joined mortgage & several affiliate association Boards. He also did WebX presentations and public speaking. It was during this time he started personally investing in single-family rentals, leading him to also start Royal Rose Property Management with two partners. He also joined the Board of a local real estate investors association, eventually becoming its President. The real estate crash led to an offer from the banking industry to manage a Michigan bank’s failed bank assets they acquired from the FDIC. The bank acquired four failed banks from the FDIC, increasing from $100M in assets to over $2B while he was there. After that, he took over as President of Royal Rose Property Management. Today, he speaks at national property management conventions and does WebX presentations.


  1. Curt Smith

    Good tactics I do myself. Especially the look inside the car and drive by the house. Good tips re phone call back ground noise.

    Agree re need to move fast, or offering cash for N months in advance. I’ve never had it work out where un related folks rent together. IE a married couple and a brother or sister or worse a friend. The brother or sister always moves out leaving the couple with less income and perhaps not enough to make rent.

    Use a good application document that collects the past 3 addresses, all current employer address, phone, boss info, SSN, DOB all personal info. This will be useful if you have to bill collect.

    Another tip is to ask how their last landlord was like? Took good care of you? Problem tenants often “go off” complaining.

    The over arching problem here is tenant law and not discriminating. Most states have; you must take the first qualified tenant. So disqualifying based on too messy a car is not legal. I’ve heard of secret shoppers calling landlord ads to test how landlords screen applicants.

    The solution is having a written list of requirements:

    – FICO over 680
    – income 3.5x of rent (take home). No seasonal or cash jobs.
    – no evictions period
    – no debt charge offs in the credit report, all on time payments (pays as agreed)
    – must have favorable referal from the last 2 landlords
    – must have all move in funds in hand preferably in a bank account.

    When you write it down and offer it to anyone who asks, you are safer.

    So what to do about the applicant that has a messy car and current residence messy yard?

    In my experience these applicants never make it past “2 previous landlord referrals” or credit check or …

    Do I accept tenants that don’t meet all my requirements? Yes all the time. After getting to know each applicant / family including the dog and kids via at least one face to face visit of the entire family, I hear why such and such happened in their past and why I shouldn’t worry about it. It’s about getting to know folks.

    A messy car, yard or crazy noise on the phone rarely works out I do agree, but you have to use consistent and preferably written screening requirements for every applicant.

    • Exactly, Curt! Helpful list. Here a tenant must be allowed to know why you’re refusing to let him even look at the house. “Your car is messy” ain’t gonna work. As much as I’d like to say, “Forget it; you look like a gangsta”, I would be accused of discrimination for denial based on most of the things mentioned in the article. Some landlords here will no longer tell you if someone is being evicted over the phone. The prospective tenant must sign a permission form.

      I have said, “Someone else is interested, I’ll let you know if it falls through.”, which is generally true. But, if it’s not rented, shortly after, you will probably hear from them again. And they may ask, “Have they paid a deposit?” If I have a good back up list, I may be a little selective about who I remember to call first. Legally, it’s supposed to be rented to whomever turns in an acceptable application first. But I also, go partially by whomever puts some refundable money in my hand first.

      Since I started having prospective tenants go to the police station to get their background check, a lot of them disappear. Just mentioning it over the phone thins them down pretty well.

      I’m having a problem with no-shows for appointments. They never call to cancel. They will even call back next day, wanting to reschedule. With lame excuses, like “I forgot”, or “My daughter had to go to a birthday party .” I told the last one she needed to look for something else. Then, apparently, she started calling and hanging up from a restricted number. If I call to remind them of the appointment, i can tell they’ve forgotten all about it. Then they may tell me they are coming, and still don’t show. So, I’ve started not calling, if I’ve got yard work or cleaning there I can do. If they need reminding, I don’t want them. I also, try to schedule several appointments around the same time.

    • Drew Sygit

      @CURT – thanks for the detailed comment! Landlords have to be careful with regulations, but as you pointed out, most subpar tenants won’t even submit the required information letting landlords off the hook. Theoretically, if you make an exception for one applicant, you could be required to make it for all, but the odds of a landlord being investigated and that being proved are pretty slim.

  2. Richard Guzman on

    If someone is negotiating the rent with you would you oblige to lowering it if they sign a 2 or 3 year lease? Provided all other screening requirements are acceptable??!

    • Drew Sygit

      RICHARD: A decent amount of prospects try to negotiate rent and yes we do offer a discount for a longer lease. The challenge is when to negotiate and with who.

      We NEVER negotiate without an application. Why waste time negotiating with someone that could be an unacceptable applicant? The best we’ll do prior to receiving an application is disclose that we MAY negotiate if they meet our requirements.

      Requiring an application before negotiating makes a lot of these issues go away as many that want to negotiate are doing it because they can’t afford it to begin with. Even if they have the income to qualify, if they have spotty credit or past evictions, why would you agree to a lower rent when they have a higher probability of default?

      The whole premise of trading lower rent for a longer lease is to increase income stability. So it only makes sense to entertain the swap IF the applicant has a high probability of fulfilling the lease and returning a property in acceptable condition.

  3. Jerry W.

    Oddly enough how they take care of their kids or pets tells me a lot too. If someone has a dog that runs wild and won’t come to them or won’t stop barking they go down many notches in my book. I have found if their pet quiets when they speak to it or comes and sits when they tell it to, it means that they take the time to work with them. I have always found that well trained pets means the yard is really cleaned up and doesn’t have feces all over. The same is true with kids, if their kids don’t mind them they tend to write on the walls with markers and tear stuff up. I am sure there are exceptions but that is my experience.

  4. Michael Boyer

    Like it! Great post and comments….Despite the high tech rental solutions and formulas, you may still have some clues in every applicant mystery to solve.. (For a less practical member blog piece in the same vein, see my post entitled, Landlord P.I.)…

  5. Richard Guzman on

    Wow! Thanks Joann– thanks Mindy for the tips — good to know. For some reason I thought long term leases equal long term tenants and if they break the lease then you keep the security deposit?! But I see there could be some other unexpected circumstances —

  6. Tyler Sherman

    Great article Drew. I will definitely use this for future potential roommates in my current live-in-landlord situation, as well as for my grandmothers rentals I am helping her out with! As we all know, taking a hit with having a couple weeks of vacancy sure can save you time, money, and frustration in the long run. Keep em up!

  7. Penny Clark

    Drew – Your article was spot on!

    We have done these “screening” techniques of looking inside a tenant’s car or coming to their current residence to check them out. If they are a good risk on paper (675 + credit score, 3.5 times income:rent, etc), I’ll offer to drop off a copy of their credit check report at their home and look for telltale signs of animals they may not have mentioned on their application. Viewing their facial reaction when I ask for their current and past landlord’s number for a housing reference is another reason.

    • Drew Sygit

      PENNY: all additional great tips! We typically reserve the surprise home inspections for borderline applicants or those that qualify, but have a suspicious issue – previous landlord responses didn’t match credit report or what was on application, etc.

  8. Arthur Banks

    That whole “look in their car” trick isn’t always helpful. I had an applicant come to view the home and she had a clean car. The home she rents from me… no so much. Not that it’s destroyed or has food all over she’s just not the tidiest person. Her prior landlord advised she paid on time but she kept a messy house. I know messy is subjective but I’m just saying a clean or even dirty car doesn’t tell the whole story. YMMV

    • Drew Sygit

      ARTHUR: to revisit the detective analogy above, everything about an applicant is a clue. In our estimation there’s a “smoking gun” clue or two 40% of the time that automatically means the applicant doesn’t qualify. Another 40% of the time an applicant is a slam-dunk yes. That leaves 20% that are borderline applicants where you want to gather as many clues as possible to get an overall feel of the big picture regarding these applicants. No one thing like a clean or messy car will make or break their approval. It’s the accumulation of evidence that will lead to their approval or denial.

    • Drew Sygit

      @JOHN: good point. You could also try asking those people open-ended questions to confirm the applicant’s info versus close-ended (Yes/No) questions.

      Ask: “How long have the rented from you?” or “How much is their rent?”

      Not: “Can you confirm they’ve rented from you for x years?” or “Is their rent $x?”

      Do this enough and you’ll trip up imposters!

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