Tenant Screening and the “Headache Factor”: A Real Life Story


One of the most important aspects (and probably the biggest pain point for many landlords) istenant screening.  Getting great tenants can be the difference between the successful landlord and the one who loses money, burns out and becomes a motivated seller.

BiggerPockets has created a fantastic guide for screening tenants and I recommend all landlords to read this guide.  It is comprehensive and hits all aspects of screening, from pre-screening through offering the apartment to the tenant.  The guide is generally in line with our screening process and I had my wife (who does our screening) review it when it was first published.

One aspect that I want to stress is what the guides describes as the “Stress Quotient”.  In our business, we describe this as the “Headache Factor”, but the general concept is the same.  Here is how the guide describes the “stress quotient”:

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The “Stress Quotient” – How Much Stress Will They Cause You?

The final quality of a great tenant is something I call their “stress quotient” or the amount of stress a tenant will cause you, the landlord. Some tenants are very high maintenance and constantly demand time and attention. Unless you are having a hard time finding quality tenants – these types will only cause more problems.

Our most important factor, and the final factor before offering an apartment to a prospective tenant, is the “Headache Factor”.  The best way to describe it with a recent example.

We had a 3/1.5 single family for rent.  This was originally going to be a flip but we have not been able to sell it.  Since we planned multiple exit strategies (which you should ALWAYS do), we turned it into a rental which may eventually become a rent to own.  Our most recent tenant was behind on rent and caused us a bunch of headaches (such as an $800 water bill).  We finally convinced him to move out and were in the market for a new tenant.  Here is how the events played out.

We ran ads for the apartment in all of our normal places.  “Sarah” (name changed) calls our Google Voice number and leaves a message.  Her speech is a little slurred, which we take note of.   She lives in a duplex and her landlord lives upstairs.  Due to medical issues, her landlord needs to move downstairs and they need to find a new place.  So given this, she is motivated to get a new place quickly.  Anytime someone needs to move quickly that is always a red flag, but in this case it seemed to be legitimate (but we also take note).

We called her back to schedule an appointment to see the place.  She filled out an application and dropped it off at once of our businesses and we let her know that our application process is 3-5 days but we will try to escalate this for her.  We review her application when we receive it and she meets our criteria.  We have a few other applications in the pipeline, so we way they against each other but believe we will rent to her.

Then the calls start coming in.  She calls us 3 times in the span of a few hours (11:15 AM, 3:17 PM and 3:32 PM).  We let most of our calls go to voicemail and call back at pre-defined times.  We call back and let her know that we are reviewing applications and that we will have a decision on 11/3 (this was on 11/1).  We then receive a call from my father saying that she stopped down to his business and was asking about the application and telling his cashier (he owns a wine/liquor store) about her problems and why she needs the apartment.  She then calls our number back and leaves the following message

 Hi. This is “Sarah”.  I came into the store yesterday and dropped off applications to be sent to someone, a Tom I guess. And I just call the father, Tom, and he gave me the number to the place in Rochester that gets the applications. I would like to get that phone number so I could give a call. Today is the first I have the money. And I’m talking about 32 Perry Ave, the 3 bedroom and Castile that we filled out the application for. I would like to speak to his son, and find out what they have found out. So if you can return my call  please at  xxx-xxxx I would greatly appreciate it. xxx-xxxx My name is “Sarah”. Thank you. Have a great day.

This voicemail starts to add to the red flags that we already have (slurred speech and wants an apartment quick).  She has called us several times and stopped back at my father’s store.  She calls my father, who directs her to our business number.  She calls our business number, looking for our home number.  She then reiterates that she wants to move quickly and has the money.  My wife calls her back and again leaves a message letting her know for a second time that we are reviewing applications and will have a decision in 2 days.  She then calls us again at 2:16 PM and again at 3:36 PM and leaves another message.

Hi this is “Sarah”. I got your message while I was out in regards to your 3 bedroom in Castile, the house for rent. And I understand you just said that you have another applicant looking at it. However, I really want to press the issue that we seriously need a place to rent immediately and we have excellent references about ourselves and the animals and um we are  really in dire need to get in some place before the 4th of this month. So actually I do need to know as soon as possible. And I would appreciate the consideration that we put in the application first and that we seriously need a place to be.  I can give you anything you want I have excellent references from a few people. So and we have the money we can afford it  and we’re ready to make some move. ASAP. So, please please consider us. We desperately need this place. xxx-xxxx Thank you.

Even though we have told her twice that we would respond back by 11/3, she calls again and wants us to expedite the process.  In the voicemail she says words like “desperately”, “serious need” and “dire need”.  She also states that she put in the application first.  She looked at the house first but we received 2 applications from other people between the time she looked at it and finally got us her application.  She calls back a few more times on 11/1 and again on 11/2.  We let all calls go to voicemail.  By this point, we have 2 applicants that passed our criteria; “Sarah” and another applicant.  We sit down to evaluate things.

  • Both applicants pass the screening criteria.
  • We let both applicants know the screening process and the timeframe for when we would let them know.
  • Applicant 1 did not call us during that time while “Sarah” called us several times.
  • We called applicant 1 up to get some additional information, which she provided without question and seemed friendly.
  • “Sarah” seemed very desperate and was already causing me a headache with the constant calls and hand holding that she needed.

In the end we ended up renting to applicant 1, for the sole reason that her “headache factor” was much less than that of “Sarah”, even through Sarah was going to move in immediately instead of in 30 days.  The funny things is, “Sarah” was our front-runner and we would have rented to her before the constant calls and voicemails.

We called applicant 1 and she accepted the apartment, so we then called Sarah.  We got her voicemail and my wife let her know that we ended up going with the other applicant as she was a better fit with the place.  She wished her luck on finding an apartment and her situation and told her that we would contact her if applicant 1 fell through.  When then receive a call back shortly after from “Sarah”.

This is “Sarah” again. I did not receive your message, and I need you to call me back. My number is, xxx-xxxx. We have everything that you need. I need to know the answer because we will literally be made homeless as of tomorrow and I just need an answer. I see that it’s still being advertised and I know that it’s been sitting there since July. So, I’m not quite sure that I understand how suddenly there is other applicants as I was told a couple of days ago. If there is a reason that we cannot have that, then I need you can call me back and let me know what that is  so that I can know for a further application because I wouldn’t be understanding why. Please call me back xxx-xxxx.

This message supports our initial decision.  She says that she did not receive our message, but clearly knows that we left one and is still acting like we will rent the place to her.  She pleads that she will be homeless tomorrow, like that is our fault or responsibility.  She then starts to criticize us by saying that we are lying about having other applicants since it had been “available since July”.  The house has been on the market, but we had a tenant in the property until a few days prior.  We also (landlord tip) continue to advertise the property until we have cash in hand and a signed lease.

My wife calls her back and explains that both her and the other applicant passed our screening criteria, but we chose the other tenant because they received their application first and felt they were a better fit for the property. “Sarah” then starts to go off and berate my wife, eventually hanging up on her.  And with that, the headache factor went to 10 and we knew that we have made the right decision to not rent to “Sarah”.

Important Takeaways

  • Screening is important, but it is not everything.  Trust your gut and use your own “headache factor” in your screening criteria.
  • Tenant’s problems are not your problems, so don’t take them on.  Although I personally feel bad for tenants with tough situations, I run my business from a business perspective and will not take on their problems.
  • Take a few days to screen tenants.  This not only gives you time to screen a few tenants, but also allows you to see how tenants act.  If we had not waited a few days, we would have rented to “Sarah”.
  • A better tenant is worth missing out on some rent for.  We would have made an extra month’s rent by moving “Sarah” in a month earlier, but I’m not sure if her headache factor would have been worth it.
  • Using something like Google Voice allows us to see who has called us and at what times.  This allows us to go and search for a number and have a complete history of interactions.

Do you have great tenant screening stories (all landlords do) or your own “headache factor” criteria in your screening process? If so, lets hear them.
Photo Credit: Lynne Hand

About Author

Tom Sylvester

Tom is a serial entrepreneur and real estate investor from Rochester, NY. His real estate investments primarily target multi-unit properties. Along with his wife Ariana, they run a blog called Entreprenewlyweds, which helps couples understand how to manage being real estate investors/entrepreneurs while also maintaining a great relationship and family life.


  1. You are very lucky that Sarah showed her cards to you and not after moving in!!!

    Not nearly as good as your story or even the same league. An applicant drove up during rehab, oddly I always rent my places before the paint is dry. She leaps out of a dented econo box saying she woke up this morning and it’s “my lucky day”. She flipped a coin on whether to go and up grade her car with a “Jag” or up grade her digs, and Digs won, lucky me!! I smiled, thinking I’m just sick of Jags, Excursions, Lincolns etc in the hands of hourly workers… I gave her an application knowing she’d never be back. It’s 2 pages of detailed stuff after all. 🙂 I doubt I can add to my written renter’s acceptance criteria, the type of car I won’t rent to, but it would contain a list of what you see alot of folks spending their limited funds on instead of paying rent I’m sure. LOL

    I will share I a few very effective tactics that are subtle:

    1) make a showing appointment for a group of applicants at an odd time: 2:15 and be there only 1/2 hr. The disorganized late rent payers will self select. Just like Sarah self selected.

    2) ALWAYS look in the applicants car. It can be old (preferably) and dented but it has to be neat. A trashed or even slightly messy car will be how your apartment will look.

  2. William Shaffer on

    I agree with your concept but want to raise a concern with your approach.
    Some folks feel compelled to take the first (first means the first one to get a COMPLETE application to you) qualified and here is why. If you take a pool of applicants and then rent to the one you like best out of a number of qualified applicants, what if one of the non-selected is from a protected class? You can be accused, and can’t prove otherwise, of being illegally biased. Just something to ponder in your screening process.
    Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean you can’t keep taking applications so that you can move on to the next when they don’t qualify or decide they want another place.

    • I would not think you would have a problem if you didn’t rent to someone from a protected class with this approach.

      I think if you are consistent and keep detailed notes during your screening, you pretty much cover yourself. When I first started I was under the impression that you HAD to take the first applicant that met your criteria. I learned otherwise

    • William – Just because someone feels compelled to rent to someone doesn’t mean that they need to. Doing this will get a landlord in trouble quick with poor quality tenants.

      In the example above, I actually DID rent to the person that gave me their application first (it was not Sarah). With that said I often times do not rent to the first applicant. The key with avoiding discrimination charges is to have a defined screening process and following it. Our rental applications are thorough and ask a lot of questions, but none of them give us information on the protected classes (ex. Are you over 18?). We have the defined criteria for renting like I said, similar to the BiggerPockets guide. Below are some of the reasons that we deny tenants.

      •?Another applicant qualified and rented the property
      •?Criteria: Incomplete/Inaccurate Rental Application
      •?Criteria: Prior Eviction
      •?Criteria: Income < 3x Monthly Rent
      •?Criteria: Poor references (personal, work or past landlords)
      •?Criteria: Criminal History
      •?Criteria: Poor Credit History

      When an applicant gets denied, or when we offer it to another applicant, we send the applicant a denial letter with the reason for their denial. This makes it very clear on why they did not get the apartment. We also have a "paper trail" of our interactions with the tenant through Google Voice and our tenant screening system if we ever did have to defend ourselves. Not to say this won't happen someday, but it hasn't happened yet in our 6+ years.

      Another thing I love is letting an applicant deny themselves, also mentioned in the guide. Often times we won't hear back from a previous landlord. We will let them disqualify themselves.

      “I’m sorry Jerry, but your landlord gave you a terrible review and I can’t rent to you” or
      “Hi Jerry, I ran into a bit of a snag in getting positive feedback from your previous landlord – so what I need you to do is go and speak to that landlord and get him to call me with a positive review and we can move on. Can you do that for me Jerry?”
      Jerry will, most likely, mumble “oh – okay, sure” and then disappear, never to be heard from again. You never disqualified Jerry – he simply gave up due to the work you needed him to do.

      I wrote a past last week about the market that I invest in (https://www.biggerpockets.com/renewsblog/2013/11/04/invest-rural-markets/). Part of the reason that I picked this market was because I knew the market and the people. Because it is a small rural area, we often do not see "professional tenants" like some other markets do. Additionally, all of the landlords look out for each other, so if a bad tenant comes from another landlord, we often know about it.

      Another tip to help self-screening is to advertise where the tenants are that you want. Ex. If you advertise online, only people with internet access will find your advertisement. If you are in a large market, posting for rent ads in the local supermarket or in front of the house will most likely get local people and not people from another area. These are just smart ways to advertise .

      Thanks again for the comments. It is definitely important not to discriminate. At the same time, landlords should not feel like they need to rent to someone or get sued. Understand the protected classes and what right you have as a landlord and you should be fine.

  3. A better tenant is worth missing out on some rent for. We would have made an extra month’s rent by moving “Sarah” in a month earlier, but I’m not sure if her headache factor would have been worth it.

    So many landlords make this mistake.

    • Robert – Agreed! (I’m one of them). We actually had a tenant recently that we put in because it was winter and they have several months of cash up front, but then they were consistently late with rent each month and we had to constantly stay on top of them until we were able to get them out. We ended up losing rent when they did not pay for their last month and then had the additional costs to get the place turned around to be re-rented. It is counter intuitive for most investors but it is such an important lesson.

  4. I don’t think looking in a car can give an accurate picture of how they maintain their house. I have seen men that keep their “baby” looking like new but live like a pig. I have been in cars that make me wonder when the last time I got a Tetnus shot, but the home is very clean and organized.

  5. Hi Tom, Hear ya re exceptions to a rule. I think it’s rare for Dr Jeckle and Mr Hyde re neat car, pig pen rental. If a normal car, not a show car, is neat I’ve found neat rentals. I’m not willing to take chances on obvious signs of poor judgement; overly expensive car, messy car and that poor judgement carrying over into treatment of rent payment and my rental. Just a statistics thing IMHO, yes not a certainty and I don’t need it to be a certainty like the “Sarah” decision was ballpark based.

  6. This is great advice! I brought my first investment property at a young age and got desperate to get renters in right away and ended up becoming a desperate seller because I had chosen my tenants poorly. Fast forward to now, and here I am, ready to invest again and I’m grateful for the suggestions and advice from experienced successful investors like yourself!

    • Tom Sylvester

      Amalea – It is unfortunate that you had a bad experience, but it is awesome to see that it did not make you quit. You got back up, realized the issue and are working to avoid it the second time around. Awesome! I would say good luck, but we make our own luck, so go out and make your own luck as you jump back in.

  7. Tom,
    I absolutely could not agree with you more! Gut feelings and red flags are HUGE! Stability is a big factor I think. You can see that stability in credit, income, jobs, past places to live, etc will be a good forecaster of stability in a future tenant. If they need a place IMMEDIATELY, big big red flag. I’d always assume they were in the process of eviction and that it had recently been filed and would not show up in court records yet. Otherwise, they have made some bad life decision–> bad choice in relationship and bad breakup, in trouble with somebody and needs to get out (perhaps criminal activity). I can completely empathize with those whose lives go through tough times, because it can happen to all of us. I always hope those people at least have some family to fall back on through tough times. If they do not, then they have probably screwed over family, and if they can do that to family then they will have no qualms in doing that to a random property owner! We can feel bad for people in unfortunate circumstances, and we can even help in other small ways by offering advice if we choose, but we do not have to rent to them. It just makes their problems now ours.

    If a prospective tenant starts off with excuses and sob stories right off the bat (usually comes out like word vomit after you say that you run background checks), that’s the biggest and sometimes only red flag you need. 🙂

    • Tom Sylvester

      Thanks for the comment Jen. Stability is really the goal and you provided a few great ways to judge that. I really like the following sentence.

      “We can feel bad for people in unfortunate circumstances, and we can even help in other small ways by offering advice if we choose, but we do not have to rent to them. It just makes their problems now ours.”

      I’m big on this. I will provides recommendations to people, but I will not willingly take on their problems.

  8. This article really rings true for me. I just had the following exchange in response to my ad for a SF house I have for rent:

    Her: I’m interested in the house.
    Me: Thank you for your interest in the house,…,etc, etc,…If you’d like, I’d be glad to forward an application in advance of the showing next week…, etc, etc.
    Her: I will NOT be providing any personal information until I see the house.

    OK, I know that’s not anywhere near enough information to judge whether she’d be a good renter or not, but her immediate defensiveness puts her at the back of the pack – especially when I have at least a dozen other interested candidates who manage to communicate civilly. It never ceases to amaze me what people reveal about themselves by the way they communicate, not to mention the details of their lives they post on social media.

    Thanks for a great article, and thanks to everyone on BiggerPockets for the education you’ve given me in this exciting business.

    • Tom Sylvester

      Pete – Right on. Prescreening starts with the first communication. The instant defensiveness is a red flag to look out for. I generally don’t force people to fill out an application ahead of time, but recommend that they do or at least bring it to the showing. We also schedule 1 showing with multiple tenants to reduce trips that we need to make to the property.

      Social media is also an overlooked avenue. Most people overshare and a quick google/facebook post usually shows a lot.

  9. Hey Tom,

    Great article. I’ve found a common thread with these types of “renters/ potential tenants”. They blow up your phone and everything is an emergency when they need something from you. And they will not stop until they get what they want. Something fixed “immediately”, etc. On the other hand, when you need something from them- say rent or to pay a water bill- they are no where to be found. Thank God I don’t fall for these types of people any more. Like you said, better to have some vacancy then let one of these headaches slip by.

    Thanks for the article!

  10. I find that if you put “Submit a fully completed application” as a written criteria you can pretty much deny anyone you aren’t crazy about… 🙂

    Seriously though I can count on one hand (after having a gruesome table saw accident) the number of applications I have ever gotten that had every line filled in.

  11. Maggie Tasseron

    I’ve been a landlord for the better part of 40 years and just had to tell you all about the time I had an applicant who was a priest, just back from overseas work. He arrived at the showing dressed in his collar, had some interesting priest stories from his overseas experiences, etc. etc. I rented to him and the trouble started almost immediately. I then ran his name through the Courts database (yeah, I know better now) and found he was a con-man with a rap sheet a mile long for similar offenses. He actually showed up in court and guess what, he wasn’t wearing his collar that day! Live & learn…

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