Landlording & Rental Properties

The 6 Best Tenant Screening Services for 2020

Expertise: Landlording & Rental Properties
25 Articles Written
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Properly screening your rental applicants to find qualified, reliable tenants is one of the most critical steps you will take as a landlord or rental property manager—and choosing reputable tenant screening services ensures you won't make rookie mistakes. In fact, prioritizing strong screening practices is one of the best ways to maximize real estate profitability.

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Good tenants mean on-schedule rent payments, less chance of property damage, and fewer lease agreement violations. Bad tenants can reduce your profits and be extremely difficult to remove once they've signed a lease and moved in.

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Purchasing your first rental property is just the beginning of your real estate journey, because being a good landlord is almost as important as making good deals. BiggerPockets’ free guide How to Become a Landlord: Managing Rental Properties for Real Estate Investors will teach you everything—from setting rent to handling evictions.

Find the right tenants and avoid potential discrimination issues by educating yourself on federal, local, and state fair housing laws. In addition, create an official set of screening criteria that you apply equally to all applicants. Developing this will streamline your application process by weeding out potential tenants who do not meet your minimum criteria. It also minimizes the chances of a discrimination claim, as this process removes your subjective opinion.

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

Types of Tenant Screening Reports

Tenant screening reports should be used to discover potential tenants’ financial responsibility and rental history. These reports are usually accessed online and processed with information from the tenant’s rental application.

  • Credit reporting: Reviewing tenants’ credit history, FICO scores, and debt obligations will give you a good idea of their financial responsibility and ability to pay rent on time, every time. Poor credit can be a red flag, especially if their debt payment history is spotty. (However, there may be unusual circumstances indicated in the credit report.)
  • Criminal reporting: Criminal background checks can be tricky, because there's always a chance someone with the same name as your applicant has been convicted of something. Landlords can legally deny an applicant based on a criminal record if the past crime relates to a lack of respect for property or safety of other individuals. But be cautious—the Fair Housing Act prevents landlords from setting a blanket policy to deny all applicants with a criminal record.
  • Eviction reporting: Many tenant screening services or credit reports include an eviction report. However, be sure to verify rental history and references. Evictions are complicated and time-consuming—and they put you at risk of losing rental income.

Related: 12 Must-Ask Landlord Reference Check Questions

tenant filling out rental application

What to Look for in a Tenant Screening Service

Before you can confidently screen tenants, you’ll need to select a tenant screening service provider that fits your needs. The most essential considerations when researching services are customer service, speed, and quality of data.

  • Customer support: Choose a reliable service that cares about your needs and offers open, two-way communication. A provider with well-trained staff to support and educate you is essential.
  • Speed: High-quality, in-depth screening reports ensure you know prospective tenants well. However, a long screening process means you might miss out on qualified applicants who applied elsewhere.
  • Quality of data: Most importantly, the data from your provider need to be accurate. Look for tenant screening providers who get their credit reports from a reputable credit bureau and use high-quality background check and eviction history sources.
  • Tenant-friendliness: Some tenant screening services require you to type in your prospective tenant’s personal information, such as their social security number and any previous addresses. You may not mind this extra step—but if you do, look for a service that allows potential renters to enter all their information themselves.

Make sure you choose a service with a screening package that suits your needs.

Related: How to Run a Tenant Background Check

Best Tenant Screening Services

The BiggerPockets forums provide a wealth of information about everything from local markets to screening how-tos—and if you’re trying to decide between screening services, there’s no better source. Here are our readers’ top picks.

Cozy

A favorite of digital-native landlords, Cozy offers a full suite of rental management services. Accept rent, market your properties, and track expenses in-app. Our readers are fond of their speedy screening services: “I use Cozy, and am very happy with it,” says Dawn P., a landlord from Sumter, SC. "I had a lady apply Saturday afternoon, I got notification from Cozy a couple hours later—clean credit and background check. She signed the lease and moved in this week."

MySmartMove

MySmartMove specializes in tenant screening. (Parent company TransUnion knows a thing or two about credit scores.) No need for you to enter all the tenant’s information. The app pings them and ask them to complete the process themselves. “I like that the applicant pays them directly so I don’t handle any money,” says Ankeny, IA, investor Anthony Wick.

National Tenant Network

The National Tenant Network (NTN) provides a full suite of tenant screening services, including public records searches, eviction records, credit reports, and criminal history checks. It even lets landlords be a little sneaky—which can be essential when rental turnarounds are tight. “What I like about NTN is that once you accept a tenant, you report it to NTN and they monitor that person for you,” says Tomasz Banas from Brick, NJ. "So, if a tenant is looking for a new place and you don't even know about it, you would receive a notification that he or she is getting a credit check for the purpose of renting a new place, as long as the new place is also using NTN."

Tellus

Like Cozy, Tellus provides a full suite of property management tools—it even lets you submit work orders for your properties. Its free tenant screening provides a broad overview of each applicant’s financial status and background. Investor Thomas Hayworth is particularly fond of their efficient customer service, which is “on the ball,” he says. “I get responses to my questions super fast. A friend of mine (fellow landlord) uses a different [property management]software and has to wait a few days sometimes before his questions are answered. He might be making the switch soon.”

RentPrep

RentPrep offers credit check, background check, and screening services for a low price. Jacksonville, FL, investor Perez Leanne says she “highly recommend[s]RentPrep for tenant screening. They run criminal/eviction checks and call landlord and employer references.”

Buildium

While this fully-featured service may be overkill for newbie investors, seasoned landlords love Buildium because it handles almost every aspect of large-scale property management. Just be willing to put in the time to learn, even with their basic package. “They constantly come up with ways to better the program,” says Dawn Brenenger, a real estate broker in Raleigh, NC. “It’s not perfect, but I don’t really have any complaints other than my own inability to figure out all the details.”

AppFolio

Like Buildium, this mega-app targets larger landlords—and it can definitely be pricey. But if you're ready to scale, AppFolio offers an unparalleled suite of tools. “Everything just seemed ‘tight,’ from the website, to the generated ads for places like craigslist, to the backend,” says Kansas City investor Austin Freuchting. “It was the cleanest program top-to-bottom IMO when I was searching. The people that bought my business continue to use it to this day.”

None of these options suit your style? Your real estate agent may recommend a boutique local service that offers more customization.

?Related: How to Run a Tenant Credit Check??

budgeting-apps

Renter Screening Mistakes

Once you’ve started screening tenants, ensure your process remains consistent and effective. Here are some of the most common tenant screening mistakes:

  • Not screening every single tenant: Some property managers choose to only screen applicants they’re skeptical about. You can’t judge a book by its cover, so make sure you screen every promising applicant. A blanket screening policy also protects against discrimination claims.
  • Starting the screening process too late: Start the screening process as soon as you have an interested tenant. Otherwise, you risk an unoccupied unit and higher vacancy rates. Unoccupied units are the biggest income killer.
  • Ignoring subtle red flags: Sure, a history of multiple evictions or a lengthy criminal record are big red flags, but there are other minor warning signs. Did the tenant complain about the rental application process or complete the process incorrectly? Are their past landlord references verifiable? Have they had more than three addresses in the last three years?

Tenant screening is a necessary part of being a landlord, so find a system that works for you.

Are there any valuable methods of screening applicants I failed to mention above? 

Add them in the comment section below.

Aside from being a landlord and real estate investor himself, Nathan founded Rentec Direct, a software company that serves the rental industry. Today he works with over 13,000 landlords and proper...
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    James Free Rental Property Investor from Fort Collins, CO
    Replied about 1 year ago
    Editor's note; half of this advice is illegal now in Minneapolis! http://www.startribune.com/small-landlords-fear-limits-on-tenant-screening/560181422
    Cindy Larsen Rental Property Investor from Lakewood, WA
    Replied about 1 year ago
    I live in Washington state, and there are some restrictions on screening here too. And we have several landlord associations fighting back. All landlords need to know the laws where their properties are. Once you know the laws, you can develop legal screening criteria that will work for you. I screen by posting my requirements in my Zillow adds. Then, because so many people dont read the whole add, I put the tenant requirements in the email that I send to potential applicants if they want to see the property: Before you make an appointment please ensure that you (and any adults who will be living with you) meet the stated tenant requirements: 1. your credit score is at least 620 or you have a cosigner with at least 620 credit score 2. you have no Felonies in the last 10 years and no gross misdemeanors in the last five years and 3. your combined gross income (for all adults who will be living with you) is at least three times the rent. If income is a problem, a cosigner can help with this too. These tenant requirements help ensure that all of my tenants have good neighbors, and that no one has trouble paying the rent. I look forward to hearing from you. Cindy” This results in about 3/4 of people who click on “request a tour”, or “apply” never returning my email. That is great because I then can focus on applicants who believe they are qualified. Then I make them pay an application fee and run mysmartmove.com criminal and credit background checks on applicants, as well as asking for five years of rental and job history contacts. I then take the time to actually contact those references and find out what kind of tenants they are and if they are reliable people who are likely to continue having a job. It takes some time but I end up with great tenants. I document everything, and follow the exact same process with every potential tenant, and I tell them I am doing that, and that I make sure to comply with fair housing laws. So far, no complaints. And my tenants all pay first, last, and deposit up front. All that said, if the tenant associations ever outlaw criminal background checks, I will sell, and buy property in a different location. Doing a criminal background check once saved me from renting to a very nice couple: It turned out he was just released from prison. crime: running a meth house. Even with all the checks that you can think of to do, you’ll occasionally run into a situation that you can’t think of a check for ahead of time. I recently had a tenant break a lease with no penalties because her violent ex-boyfriend found out where she lived. The law in my state says: landlord loses with no recourse. The fact that she knew about the violent ex-boyfriend and did not mention it, and is a criminal justice student who also knew about the law before signing the lease, is just tough luck for me. The law wants to protect tenants who are victims. I am all for that. But the fact that I lost two months rent, due to the ex-boyfriend’s behavior was not fair. If the government wants the tenant to be able to break the lease, the government should pay the rent until the property is re-rented, or even better, make the criminal pay, not cost the landlord money. Landlord tenant laws full of things like that, where they are trying to protect the tenants and they don’t even consider the impact on the landlord. I think the basic assumption in the laws is that landlords are all rich evil people who can/should be penalized with impunity. What we really need is a nationwide landlords union, so we can stand up for what should be our rights. My first pick on an issue to resolve would be bogus emotional support animals. As the laws now stand anyone who doesn’t feel like paying a pet fee or pet rent can go online and fill out a form and get a certificate saying their pet is an emotional support pet. And if you don’t accept pets in your rental, well you have to accept their pet anyway. For free. And you can’t even increase your security deposit. Landlord tenant laws need to be revised to both protect tenants and be fair to landlords. If society believes that some people should be given monetary advantages that other people don’t get, then society should pay for the costs of those policy decisions, not landlords.
    Cindy Larsen Rental Property Investor from Lakewood, WA
    Replied about 1 year ago
    Sorry for the badly formatted post. must be an error with the bigger pockets site. I had a bunch of separate paragraphs. sorry it is hard to read.
    Katie Rogers from Santa Barbara, California
    Replied about 1 year ago
    Did the tenant complain about the rental application process or complete the process incorrectly? This should not be a red flag against the tenant. It should alert the landlord that maybe there is something wrong with their process. Too many landlords expect every blank to be completed on applications that ask invasive questions. When I was a tenant, I vetted prospective landlord. A landlord who groused when I left invasive questions blank is a red flag. One rental application even asked for mother's maiden name. When I asked the purpose of the question, the landlord said she needed it in case the bank refused to give her information about my account when she called. In other words, she planned to impersonate me.
    Wenda Kennedy JD from Nikiski, Alaska
    Replied 12 months ago
    I always screen my tenants no matter what. Once upon a time, I rented to a disabled little old lady with her "service" dog. She was on a walker. She had Section 8 housing. I didn't bother to put her through my normal process. What could that little old lady do? Come to find out, she was an ex-biker and was currently the king-pin of the local heroin trade. Her "service" dog was her guard dog who bit anyone who came around. She was on probation for bank fraud. That had gotten her on the charge they could make stick -- like they got Al Capone for tax evasion. Not my best moment as a landlord. I'm thinking about writing a book...