Posted almost 6 years ago

What Every NEWBIE Should Know About Tenant Screening

This is when I earn my paycheck. Being a stay at home dad has me busy enough on a normal basis that some days I forget my wife and I even manage rental properties. Between talking the kids to school, soccer practice, junior drill, and their many other activities, Sheila and I have been making offers on houses wherever we could. Finally our diligence paid off after we had an accepted offer on a house in Montesano, WA. We bought it at nearly a third of market value and will be moving into it shortly. We have quite a project ahead of us, and also have the work of filling a vacancy in the house we are moving out of; the one which was once our home for a short period of time.

Our strategy has been to buy distressed houses, fix them up while living in them, and eventually rent them out as we moved into the next. The process of screening possible tenants was about to start again. It is the most important factor to our success; one which could make our break our future in this business.

After hearing countless horror stories of tenants who destroyed homes and burned landlords out of the business, I understood where key failures had occurred. Many of these issues could have been solved before the lease was even signed. Many states have countless laws protecting a tenant once they occupy a residence, making it difficult for a landlord to take the necessary measures to ensure the integrity of their property and success of their business. The easiest and most efficient method of protecting yourself comes in the tenant screening process.

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My process of screening tenants has saved me from the headache and stress others have faced. I am not going to touch on the legal issues involved. As you take your own steps, ensure you are following any applicable laws. The following tips have helped me weed through the unqualified prospects so I can schedule the best possible applicants to view my properties.

Have a Friendly Chat

As people call in, I kindly greet them and have a friendly chat. You know, like a normal person would have with a friend or acquaintance. I believe that treating people with dignity and respect goes further toward my success than anything. I also believe that allowing applicants to relax gets them to open up and talk more. I answer any of their questions and begin asking open-ended questions on my part. It is amazing what comes out of their mouths when they feel comfortable to speak freely.

I have had applicants tell me about an impending eviction or reveal that they are moving from a great distance away for no apparent reason just from asking the question, “When are you looking to move?” Asking open-ended questions opens the channels for the applicant to tell their story. It is the details from this story which can make or break their ability to qualify. At the very least, it can give you better insight to the person you are speaking to and allow you to determine fit or eligibility for your property.

Run Each Caller Through Pre-Qualification

Managing your own properties can become overwhelming. Countless people call each day eager to get a showing. Typical phone calls go like this:

(me) “Hi, this is Dave.”
(applicant) “Hi, Dave. I was calling because I saw your place for rent and was wondering if it was still available?”
(me) “Yes, it’s still available.”
(applicant) “Ok, can I get in tomorrow to take a look?”

I used to show my place to anyone who showed interest. I was excited someone wanted to rent my property. I focused on filling a vacancy rather than finding the most qualified applicant. After paying out thousands of dollars in damages that an obviously un-qualified tenant caused to one of my properties, I knew I needed to make a huge change in the process. It began with pre-qualification.

Instead of allowing just anyone to view my property, I began running each caller through a screening process over the phone. This process has saved me countless hours in wasted time by eliminating unqualified applicants immediately and has probably saved me thousands in prevented damage or uncollected rent.

Here are a few examples of actual callers I have screened in the last week:

  • Applicant called in wanting to rent my place. Rent is $760 a month. After obtaining his income, he earned $740 a month on disability. After asking, he made no additional income and told me he did not qualify for subsidized housing because he had “too much money in his bank account.” I had to explain to him why he did not qualify making $20 less than rent, not to mention utility costs.
  • A mom of an applicant called wanting information on my place for her son. I asked for her to have her son call me. He called and said he was not available to view the place, but insisted that his mom could view the property and report to him. After feeling he was attempting to qualify for his mother’s unit, I insisted he be present at the showing. He said he was unavailable, so I told him to call back if his availability changed.
  • A woman called asking questions about my place. I answered those questions and she asked for a showing. I explained that I had a set of pre-qualification questions to ask before scheduling a showing to ensure the property was a good fit for her and to ensure she was qualified before moving further. She said she would think about it and call back. The next day, she called back asking for a showing again, stating we already talked and that I promised a showing. I reviewed my paperwork, showing I had not run her through the questions. After asking a second time, she declined to be asked pre-qualification questions.
  • An applicant called in wanting a showing on my place. After running through some pre-qualification questions, I found out she was moving from 2 hours north. After asking why she was moving, she explained that her “landlord is an idiot” who filed an eviction on her instead of a 20-day notice to vacate because he wanted to sell the place. She insisted she did no wrong and that the landlord filed the wrong notice. After multiple attempts to gain a credible story, I explained that we had to go off of objective information and that an eviction was an automatic disqualifier. She finally decided to move on with her search.
  • A guy called in, frustrated and in need of a place immediately. I asked him how his search was going and he explained that he was told he was getting a home to rent but was turned down at the last minute (after his background check) because “it wasn’t the right fit” for him. After digging deeper into his story, I found out the caller had a theft on his record, which he insisted was a false charge. Nevertheless, the charge was on his record. He insisted on applying, which I explained he was more than welcome to but would most likely be denied based off his criminal background. He got angry and hung up the phone and I never heard from him again.
  • A man called in wanting to rent my place. He mentioned he recently changed jobs and was going to be working in the area. I asked about his last employer, and he told me he was not currently employed. After discovering he was actually unemployed and not "recently changing" jobs, I explained our screening process required 4 weeks of recent income verification for eligibility. He began asking how he could possibly rent a place if he had to show income verification. I explained to him that we had to work off of what we know now, not what we are told might happen in the future.

The questions in my pre-qualification are designed to open up conversation, reveal information about the potential applicant, and help me determine if the caller is qualified to see the property in person. By asking open-ended questions and being welcoming and respectful, the caller reveals far more information than they ever thought they would have.

The Questions

The remainder of this article goes into detail to the questions I ask during the pre-qualification process and the reason I ask certain questions.

Rental

  • 1.  When are you looking to move?
    I couldn’t believe how many callers opened up to this one simple question. I used to think it was redundant since most people searching the property knew when it was available and could make an educated answer, but the reality was it eliminated more unqualified callers than anything. I was told of impending evictions, problems with landlords, problems with family members, and other issues which led me to believe the caller would ultimately be a problem for me. It provide one more piece of the puzzle I never expected by opening the conversation with such a simple, open-ended question.
  • 2.  Are you on a lease?
    I want to know if the caller is giving notice to their current landlord or not. If a caller is breaking a lease, the reason usually comes out here, especially with related follow-up questions. Many qualified applicants are on month-to-month agreements, living with relatives, or their lease is ending. This questions reveals if a caller is responsible with their current situation or not.
  • 3.  Where are you living now?
    When I ask this question, I am determining if a person has a logical reason to be living in my unit. Someone who lives in the area or is being relocated because of a job or family has a reason to qualify. Those who are moving from hours away for no apparent reason may be looking for any place they can find because they don’t qualify anywhere else.
  • 4.  What are you paying for rent now?
    This question is designed to determine the caller’s ability to pay and whether they are upgrading or downgrading from their current status. Many questions do not give automatic disqualifiers, but they help determine the overall picture of the applicant. I prefer to place an applicant who views their move to my property as an upgrade. Asking this question opens the door for many follow-up questions. A caller who is currently paying $400 in rent and wants to rent my place for $760 might spark additional questions on my end about affordability and motive to move. If they are going from an apartment to a single-family house, it makes sense. If they are downgrading, dig in further to establish why.
  • 5.  What has you looking to live in (city)?
    I only ask this question when someone is relocating from a great distance. One of my applicants moved because his high-paying job was relocating him. Another was moving because she couldn’t find suitable housing near her work, but insisted she would make the 2 hour commute daily. My place was not the right fit for her.
  • 6.  Why are you moving?
    If it hasn’t been uncovered earlier, this question may disclose information about the prospective tenant that they never thought they would share. Especially knowing you will investigate their rental history after submitting application fees, most callers will spill any reason they are moving during the pre-qualification process to save cash in case you consider those reasons grounds for disqualification.
  • 7.  Do you think you would receive a positive referral from your current and previous landlords?
    It is a simple yes or no question, but many times this digs up dirt from the past. Those who understand your diligence in the process will be afraid you will dig up information from their past. Many times, the stories of their past dealings with landlords comes out. Those who have nothing to hide confidently answer “Yes.”
  • 8.  Where did you find out about the house?
    This question is partially for determining your advertisement effectiveness and also for determining how much the caller really knows about your property. If someone saw your listing online, they should know all of the posted information. If someone drove by and saw a sign, this is the time to explain the details of your property and really sell it to them. It is better to spend this time with someone who has qualified so far.
  • 9.  How many people will be living in the house?
    You will want to know how many people will be living in your place. Not only understanding how many incomes will be provided in paying rent, but also for gaining an understanding in the living situation. You can’t discriminate against living situations, but you can use this information to gain an overall understanding of the personalities who end up qualifying.

Income/Employment

  • 10.  Where do you work?
    I like to know what business the callers work for and where. This question is partially for curiosity and also for determining suitability to the house. Someone who lives over an hour away from their current job, especially one which is not considered prestigious, may have less motivation to continue working in that same position or living in your place. Ensure the home-work situation is suitable for the candidate so you are not placing a tenant and setting them up for failure.
  • 11.  What is your total monthly income?
    Our standard is that the tenant makes three-times the rent in income. This ensures they can afford rent, utilities, and all other necessities such as food, gas, and bills. By asking the question before revealing your qualification standard, you are less likely to receive a fabricated response. Remember to ask about additional sources of income, such as a partner/roommate, child support, investments, etc. Anyone who doesn’t qualify anywhere in the process should be told immediately. I typically say, “Our standard for qualification is that you make three-times the rent in income. Unfortunately, you don’t qualify. There are probably apartments or other places you could qualify for, but unfortunately, you don’t meet our standards. Good luck!”
  • 12.  How long have you been working at (Job)?
    This reveals the caller’s level of responsibility and suitability to rent your place. An applicant with a solid work history will be less risky for you to place. Sometimes, this question exposes a gap in employment history which may affect the applicant’s eligibility. Be sure to ask about previous employment with a recently hired position.
  • 13.  Can you verify it later with pay stubs?
    I generally explain that we will verify three-times the rent with submitted paystubs before moving on with the pre-qualification process. Sometimes, this question brings up doubt in the caller. If they are uncertain, have them confirm their actual pay and give you a call back when they know they qualify.  Sometimes, this helps eliminate those who provided exaggerated responses hoping you would bend the rules for them.  Let the caller know you are serious about the screening process, but be as friendly and likable as possible in the process.

Credit/Criminal

  • 14.  We perform a credit check, criminal background check, employment verification, and rental history verification on every applicant.
    This statement alone weeds out the majority of my remaining prospects. Again, it sets the stage that we take the tenant screening process seriously. I explain that we are looking for major crimes and evictions which would be automatic disqualifiers. I also explain that I am giving them a heads up that way they don’t waste their application money only to be denied later. The follow up question is the most powerful.
  • 15.  Is there anything we should know ahead of time?
    Anyone who has made it this far in the process is not about to risk losing money only to be denied in the process. You are giving them a chance at honesty. If they have something to hide, their only chance of moving on with the process is to come clean now. They know if you uncover it later, they will be denied and lose out on their application fee. It is cheaper to find out if they qualify now. In doing so, you will hear more information than their background check may have ever revealed. Listen close and take notes. This is your chance to quickly disqualify an applicant or continue on with the process knowing what you know.

Pets/Smoking

  • 16.  Do you have any pets?
    Ask this question before you reveal your pet policy. I answer in one of two ways (because I do allow pets on my properties). If the caller says yes, I ask what kind of pets they own. Although I do allow pets, some properties may only be suitable for certain types of pets. My small duplex with a non-fenced shared backyard is not suitable for a large dog where my fully-fenced single-family home is. If the caller says no, I tell them, “Just letting you know, we do allow pets.  We just take a small deposit if you were ever interested."  This simple response has either brought no response (non-pet owner) or backpedaling responses such as, “well, we have a dog but we haven't decided if we are going to bring him yet or not."  I allow pets because I would rather collect additional deposit than force pet owners to sneak a pet in. Sometimes, leaving the question open reveals more about the caller’s integrity, especially after further investigation. Utilize all of your resources to gain a full picture of your possible tenant, and confirm these statements through your background investigation and previous tenancy verification. What a better chance than to ask if the current tenant paid a pet deposit when they told you they have no pets?
  • 17.  Are you a smoker?
    Most people are open and honest with their answers. If you allow smokers, ensure that they smoke outside and explain your smoking policy. Again, just because you don’t allow something in your rental does not mean the tenant will actually comply. Being respectful, open, and likable will cause more positive results than forceful behaviors ever will. We never eliminate smokers from our pool of applicants, but their habit does make an impact on our overall decision. Make the steps necessary to gain the information you need, and then use that information to make an informed decision. We have allowed qualified smokers into our places and they have treated it better than we ever imagined. We have also disqualified people in comparison to better qualified applicants based off their smoking history.

Money Needed to Move In

  • 18.  Would you have any problem coming up with the money required to move in?
    To finish the pre-qualification, I ensure the caller has enough money to move in. This is solidified with our $400 holding deposit policy. After explaining the required move-in costs, payable at the time of signing the lease, I explain our holding deposit requirement. Our applicants are required to submit a $400 holding deposit in addition to their application fees. This ensures the applicant is serious about renting our place and not wasting our time. The holding deposit is refundable if the applicant is not selected for tenancy for any reason. It is non-refundable if they are selected and withdrawal from the process for any reason before signing. At the very least, this final question has eliminated unqualified applicants from continuing on with the process because of their inability to come up with move-in costs in a timely manner.

I treat every phone call as an investigation. My job is to play detective and uncover any information about the caller which may disqualify them in the process. My job is to find any reason why I shouldn’t let the caller rent from us. If I am unable to find any reason through the pre-qualification process, I will schedule them for a showing. Only the top 10% of my callers qualify for showing, about half of them actually show up, about a third of those actually submit applications, and only one of them will qualify for tenancy. 


Comments (29)

  1. Thank you for providing this list of questions! It's a great resource for someone who's just starting out like me. It's so simple doing per-screening to avoid major headaches later on. 

    Being interested in psychology I am currently collecting questions which can't be simply answered with a yes or no because it makes it easy to lie.

    Do you have any pets?

    How many pets do you have? / How many pets are you bringing with you?

    With rephrasing the question the potential renter has to start thinking and it makes it a little harder for them to lie immediately.


    1. Thanks Anton! Rephrasing the questions to not allow a quick, easy dishonest response is brilliant! Glad you got something out of this and even more, you're working on making it better. Good luck!


  2. Great article, thank you!


  3. Great article. I'll plan on utilizing some, if not all and a few more, questions such as this to pre-screen our tenants.  Unfortunately, it comes late for me.  I was burned by a tenant in Wilmington, DE.  I would consider her a "professional renter".  I learned a lot about being the a landlord through the whole process, but it's experience that I wish I hadn't gained first hand.


    1. You paid for your education and will come out stronger in the end! This resource and others out there are all tools to add to your toolbox... just use a combination of what works best. Glad you enjoyed the article

  4. Good article and your screening process/questions are spot on. NO need to waste time with people who don't qualify. Always be professional but probe as much as possible. Good tenants have nothing to hide and typically don't mind answering a landlords screening questions. 


    1. Thanks!


  5. David, 

    Thank you for the tremendous article, and link to your website.  I am new to BP and looking at doing real estate full time in the Spokane WA area. Thank your for sharing. I will definitely utilize your strategic list when renting out my 1st property.  Do you own nwhomebuyers.com?  I'm really impressed with how organized your site is and I like your $500 incentive for people bringing you deals. Keep up your efforts, I look forward to following your steps.


    1. Thanks, Dan!  I'm glad you enjoyed the article.  My wife and I own the website, but have not utilized it to its fullest yet.  We have got most of our deals from MLS and craigslist.  We were able to snag one from a yellow letter also.  We were brand new a couple years ago and have been putting efforts in to turning this into a full time career.  Keep up the work!  One day it just clicked for us and got a lot easier, although we are always learning.  Good luck!


  6. Epic-good information! Thank you for sharing!


    1. Thanks!

  7. Excellent read.


    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed.


  8. This is genius. I rented my very first property a few months ago. I answered between 8-12 calls a day, scheduled 4-5 showings a night where only 1-2 showed up, had people negotiating my asking rent when they got there.. It was a frustrating experience. For sure I will be using these pre-screening questions on my next one. 

    Thank you!


    1. It can definately be a frustrating process. Hopefully your next experience is much better! It gets easier from here on out. Good luck!


  9. Danny, thats great! The process is definately not over with the initial phone call. We run criminal background checks, credit checks, prior evictions history, employment verification (which sometimes can be limiing depending on the company you speak to) and past landlord reference. We also check social media accounts and sometimes drive by their current address to check out their current conditions.  It's a lot of work but definately beneficial to your success.  Keep up the good work! Sounds like you have it down!


  10. this was Great I call there employer to find out if they show up for work or always late or out sick . They cant pay if ther not at work ! 


  11. Thanks great article. I will reference these questions when I get my first property.


    1. Good luck getting your first property!

  12. Great article David, really enjoyed it!


    1. Thanks!


  13. Ben, we haven't even bought our first property, but I realize that pre-qualifying tenants will be a MUST. Thanks for such a detailed explanation! I printed all the questions! What a great resource! I hope you enjoy your next remodel! Sounds fun, along with your busy household! Enjoy those kiddos! it goes by all too quickly! Did you use a template for the one your created in the photograph? I'd love to make one myself. 


    1. Hi Kelly!  The template I wrote about and included a picture of is the same I use with every caller.  You can download a copy of it at http://www.pnwhomebuyer.com/investors.html

      Enjoy, and good luck obtaining with your first property.  It is all a learning experience.  Each time we place a tenant, I feel our process only strengthens.  Good luck!!


  14. That's a good list!


    1. Thanks, Ken!

  15. David,

    First of all:  RIGHT ON!.  You get it.  The pre-qual is SO important.  With this investment on the front end, you not only save time, but you also 'teach' future tenants, and lookers, about how you do your business.  When a tenant better understands, they become a better tenant.  We have been doing exactly what you do for 20 years.  We actually do cheat a little bit now that we are all using technology more.  We try to direct people to our website where they can fill out these questions in a Free Rental App format.  You would be amazed at the number of people who simply self select out by not taking that next step.  Sure, we may miss some good tenants, but as most of us know, there are a lot of lookers (ex:  we have the same people just click on multiple properties for several days straight). 

    Keep going.

    Ben


    1. Thanks Ben! I will definately use that technology tip once my property portfolio builds. I'm glad you shared! I love speaking to each tenant and meeting them in person. It's a great process but could definately get overwhelming once the properties really build up. 


  16. Your rejects sound so...mundane! My property is small-town rural, so I've gotten to say no due to salmon poaching, firearms in public, frequent lose dog complaints, attempted airplane theft as well as the more usual evictions, repeated DUI & drug arrests. I've even got to reject a would-be applicant who want to use the place for his "organic cold-water hash/shatter processing operation" - apparently believing that such a profitable business enterprise would surely appeal to me as a landlord ("sorry" says I, "the house is within 1,000' of a school so that really won't work").


    1. The purpose of the rejection examples was to provide examples of the more common callers I get with with every property I market.  This is what newbie landlords would actually expect to come across and ones which could possibly slip through the cracks without being diligent in the process and refusing to settle to fill a vacancy.  Thanks for your contribution, hope you liked the article, and continue weeding out those plane thieves in your small town :)