Landlording & Rental Properties

12 Must-Ask Landlord Reference Check Questions

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Asking the right reference check questions of previous landlords is perhaps the most important of all the screening steps. A lousy tenant can disguise themselves in person and over the phone, but they can't hide from their past actions.

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Contacting past landlords is an art in itself. Current landlords of bad tenants might give a glowing reference to their tenants so that the tenants can get accepted at a new place. Even past landlords may avoid saying anything negative for fear of being sued.

Related: Should Landlords Run Background Checks on Prospective Tenants?

Generally, if you are not asking the correct questions when you check references, you will not get pertinent information. Don't ask about rent payments and skip asking about damage. Or police calls—but not squeezing extra tenants onto the lease.

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Beware of Fake Landlords

Here's a huge red flag: Some sneaky tenants will ask a friend to pose as their previous landlord. One way to find out if the person you are speaking with is really a landlord is by first calling and asking, "Do you have any vacancies?" before any reference questions. If it's a friend, they will quickly be thrown off, whereas a landlord will simply answer your question.

Ask for verification of the tenant’s rental specifics, such as the address, lease term, and rental amount. A friend posing as the tenant’s landlord most likely won’t have this information.

LISTEN: Real Estate Rookie Podcast—The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Tenant Screening with Lucas Hall

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Sample Reference Check Questions for Landlords

When calling the rental candidate’s references, be courteous and respectful of the previous landlord’s time. First, explain who you are and that you are calling with reference check questions. Then ask if they have a moment to talk.

Make sure to ask a consistent set of questions during every reference call. Standard questions keep you on the right side of fair housing laws—discriminatory questions may come back to bite you.

Related: The Fair Housing Act and Landlords: What You Should Know

Here are the best questions to ask.

  1. Did tenant stay for stated period?
  2. What was the monthly rent?
  3. How much of the rent did the tenant normally pay?
  4. Did the tenant always pay rent on time?
  5. Were utilities on and paid in full at all times?
  6. Did anyone else live with the tenant(s)?
  7. Did the tenant(s) ever receive any legal notices (late rent, noise, unauthorized occupants, notice to vacate, etc.)?
  8. Were there any pets?
  9. Was the home maintained in good condition (housekeeping, lawn, etc.)?
  10. Did the tenant give proper notice before vacating?
  11. Did the tenant receive their entire deposit back after vacating?
  12. Would you rent to the tenant again?

The answers to these reference check questions will tell you a lot about your applicant. And if you hear anything strange, make sure to ask follow-up questions.

Before ending the conversation, always give the previous landlord the invitation to offer any additional thoughts or comments about their experience with the tenant. When getting references from the applicant's previous landlords, always get a minimum of two so you can compare and check for consistency.

Related: How to Run a Tenant Credit Check

Current Landlords vs. Previous Landlords

Do not rely solely on asking reference check questions of a current landlord. You don’t know their motivation for giving a good or bad reference. A past landlord has nothing to gain or lose by being honest, whereas a current landlord may not want to lose a good tenant or may be overly excited to get rid of a bad one. Both situations may affect the legitimacy and integrity of their reference.

Some landlords or property management companies will require the tenant’s release of information signature before they will give out any information about that tenant.

Related: What Does a Property Manager Do? Here’s the Job Description

What to Do if Applicants Don’t Have References

Some applicants won’t have any—or limited—rental references, usually due to their age or being prior homeowners. Technically, this may not meet your qualification standards, because you can’t ask your standard reference check questions. Your options in this case are to:

  1. Decline their application
  2. Accept them without references and take the risk, assuming everything else about them is stellar
  3. Require a cosigner
  4. Require an additional security deposit if that is allowed in your specific state.

The option many landlords choose is #2—accept them without references, asking for an additional security deposit  f everything else about them indicated they would be a good tenant, we would simply require additional securities like those we just covered.

What do you ask when calling landlord references?

Leave your input below!

Brandon Turner is an active real estate investor, entrepreneur, writer, and co-host of the BiggerPockets Podcast. He is a nationally recognized leader in the real estate education space and has tau...
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    Erik Whiting Real Estate Investor from Springfield, MO
    Replied almost 3 years ago
    One “trick” I’ve started is to do an in-home inspection/visit at the tenant’s current residence. There are any number of reasons to stop by: to get their signature on a form, to take pictures of their pets, or just…honestly, to verify the address listed is their current home. It’s easy to stop by and then ask, “May I come inside for just a minute?” If they say, “No” or are nervous and have to scramble to come up with an excuse….warning, warning! Had one guy say I had no business coming to his home. I responded that I have EVERY business seeing how they treat their current land lord’s property. He was denied, no surprises. Good tenants have nothing to hide AND are cooperative! Then I will SEE, HEAR, and SMELL what MY property will look like, sound like, and smell like 2-3 months after I allow them to move in. Works great for in-town prospects. Out of town visit are a little trickier, but still doable. A qualified property manager or Realtor in the applicant’s current town might be willing to drop by for a 5 minutes visit fee of $50. Of course, to limit the expense of this technique, only do this step after everything else has checked out and they are otherwise approved.
    Lakshmi Mahali Rental Property Investor from Pittsburgh, PA
    Replied 5 months ago
    Great tip Erik!!
    Brad Collins Rental Property Investor from Winston Salem, NC
    Replied 5 months ago
    Erik, this is a fantastic idea and one I plan on implementing with our next tenants!
    Angel Lowe from Sacramento, California
    Replied over 2 years ago
    You know RenterInc allows landlords to request landlord references online.