How to Get the Best Possible Tenants into Your Rental Property

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When you have a vacant rental, you will inevitable have to advertise and fill it. And unless you are extremely lucky, you will not rent to the first person who inquires on your rental — or at least the first person will not likely be qualified to live in it.

At some point, you will need to decline a rental applicant. This is one of the main problems landlords have: being unable to decline a tenant.

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Paying for Advertising & Having Rental Criteria

I generally do not pay for advertising.

I post ads on Postlets, CraigsList, and once in a while, on RentBits. They are all online ads, and I have a lot of pictures and a decent virtual tour video that I post on YouTube. I never use printed media; it is too expensive, and renters who do not have online access are generally low quality renters. If you have a solid marketing program, a decent quality rental, and are priced right, you will get lots of responses.

If you do not, you can look in the mirror at your problem.

Before you even start to advertise, you need to have rental criteria that will be the minimal acceptable standard for your renter in terms of income, credit score, criminal history and rental history. It is OK to modify the criteria along the way, but you should have a good understanding of the credit and income levels that you want your renter to have.

Related: 5 Ways Landlords Can Achieve Better Tenant Stability

If you do not have any criteria, you will by definition get low quality renters. If you have a property manager, they should know what criteria they have used to get successful tenants. If they do not, run away from them as fast as you can.

When creating criteria, you have to have a vision from your property. In a multifamily property, you can reposition your property to a different grade of renter. Increasing the quality of renter will increase the value and profitability of your property. You need to know about building classifications and what your returns must be to make yourself profitable.

Be Realistic About Tenant Quality & Location

In a single family home, you need to be realistic of your renter quality.

If every family on your block is making $35K a year, it may be difficult to get a renter making $100K a year. If you have over-improved or overpaid for your property and you need to have your rents very high to make a profit in a $35K neighborhood, you might need to re-evaluate your investment.

If your renter has to make $100K so they can afford it, it is not impossible, but will be more difficult to find a great renter. The same is true for renting in a higher priced neighborhood. Taking in a renter who cannot easily afford the rent will short change you in the profit section of your P & L statement sooner or later.

Real estate is all about location, but it is not physical location; it is about the income stratification of the neighborhood. That is why the largest house in the neighborhood is not worth much more than the average house in the neighborhood. Credit score is income independent and does not necessarily correlate with what the neighborhood income level or pricing is.

First, Exchange Contact Information

As I have written in my previous posts, once you start to advertise, you will get a lot of people who do not qualify for your rental. This is expected and almost guaranteed. When they respond, you need to have a standard response that you give to everyone, so you can separate the wheat from the chaff as soon as possible to avoid spending any additional effort.

Related: The Landlord’s Guide to Effective (& Legal) Tenant Screening

If someone calls my cell phone, I will attempt to answer any questions that they have. As soon as I can, I will ask them to give me their email address, so I can send additional pictures and more information.  I generally request that they text me the email address, so I do not write it down incorrectly.  The same goes when I get a text inquiry.  I will request their email address right away.

Of course, if I get an email response from the ad, I have their email address. Be sure to be careful of some of the blind email addresses that are masked by some of the websites. Get a “real” email address as soon as possible. And make sure you give up your own email address; if an ad is removed and you haven’t exchanged contact information, you and the tenants are unreachable.

With many of the online advertising venues, there is either a limit of number of pictures or text. Postlets has no limits, so that is my main ad. I can input a link to a virtual tour and have lots of pictures. Postlets, as well as some of the other advertising sites, send your ad out to other sites, but the number of pictures and amount of text is limited. Very seldom are other links allowed, such as a YouTube link to a virtual tour.

Have a Response Ready

My typical response from a tenant is something this: “I am interested in this property. Please set up a showing.”

So here is what I reply back with, and it is based on questions that renters have typically asked me in the past:

Thank you for inquiring. The unit will be available ~8/1. It will not be available any earlier. There are tenants currently in the apartment; the video and pictures in the ad were taken just prior to them moving in.

There are stairs to get into the unit. This unit is on the second floor, and there is no elevator. You have a private garage, which will fit two cars.

No Akita, Chow, Pit-bull, Rottweiler, or any cross breed with wolf are allowed.

I generally show the unit between 6 PM and 7 PM during the week, and on weekends between 11 AM and 4 PM. I have tenants in the unit, so I need to give notice.

I do not take Section 8. If you have had an eviction or you have had recent criminal activity including DUIs, I generally will pass on you. If you are not a legal resident of the USA, I will not be able to rent to you.

I will be looking for tenants with a 625+ credit score and a solid household income of at least ~$46,000 per year. If you are marginal on both of these items, I will generally decline you. Your criminal and rental history must be clean. If you have had a foreclosure, I can work with you a bit on this.

If you still want to look at the apartment, please let me know.

Additional Pictures

Postlets link here

Virtual Tour

YouTube link here

I am sure I lose some tenants who are qualified after they get this email back, rather than a showing being set up. I am sure I rule out tenants that other landlords would die for — and who would probably be great tenants. That’s OK; I am going for a virtually risk-free tenant.

If the tenant does reply back for a showing, I set one up. I have their email address, by definition, so I can set up an appointment in my Gmail calendar and invite them to it. I make sure to capture their phone number and name in the calendar entry so I can text or call them just before I meet them there, or if they are late. I also invite my current tenants to the showing, so they are notified as well.

With these simple steps, you have just declined 9 out of 10 bad tenants, simply by letting them know your criteria. The tenants did not have to give up any personal information. If you actually get an application from a tenant who does not pass, they can be declined with the letter from the credit check company. My background check company automatically generates an “Adverse Action” letter with text that is approved by the folks that approve credit denial letters. I can just print it and mail it.

Do Not Budge

Occasionally, you will get a renter who would not pass most checks, but they still need a place to live. And you have a vacancy. They may offer an additional deposit, a co-signer, an immediate move-in with money — or even their first born if you let them move in.

They may even cry on the phone and tell you that they are going to be homeless if they cannot find a place. They will tell you they had some trouble when they were “younger,” yet they are only 23 years old now. They will tell you their credit is bad because they are young and are still building it. They just got a divorce and their “ex” was to blame. They were a victim of corporate downsizing. They will ask, “Can someone just give a person a chance?”

I do not care what the story is; I go by the facts I can get on paper.

Rather than feel sorry for them, ask yourself why no one else wants them either. Do not fall for a hard luck story; just go back to your preset criteria. Blame your rejection response on an imaginary or real property manager, the “owner,” a partner, your bank — or any other excuse you need to come up with, but do not budge. Politely decline them, and wish them luck.

If you decide your criteria are too strict, do not deviate from your set standard with this renter. If you want to change criteria, do it with the next renter. Think about your criteria and the reasons for your change. Do not change them “on the fly.”

Do you have preset criteria for selecting renters?  Have you ever fallen for a hard luck story and got burned?

Please — leave a comment below! 

About Author

Eric D.

Eric is a 55 year old, soon to be former, computer professional. He started several years ago to replace his “work income”, with other alternate streams. He is well on his way to retirement at age 56, and is currently making more money at extracurricular activities, than he is working at his full time job. Whether that is Financially Independent, or just old fashioned entrepreneurial spirit, is in the eyes of the beholder.

50 Comments

  1. I fell for the sob story. Single mom living in garage with 2 boys, abusive boyfriend… After hearing her sad story, several times…I moved out of my primary residence..(yes I did)…and contracted with her to rent half the house until she could afford the full rent. (yes I really did) The red flag went up when I saw what she was bringing into the house.from storage..high end kitchen equipment, Expensive games and videos for the boys, every toy know to man.
    Things went from bad to worse. Broken windows, ripped off screens. Late rent , no rent.
    My business partner commented “No good deed goes unpunished”

    • Thank you for the comment!

      That is the way it starts. A person who truly needs help, but cannot change the ways that got them into the situation.

      Th root of most peoples problems can be found when they look into the mirror.

  2. I have done the same thing, sometimes it worked out and sometimes it did not. I needed to rehab the house but the next renter was the prior renters friend and wanted it just like it was, bad move.

    • Thank you for the comment!

      Never use a friend, or previous renter’s referral without a thorough background check. Even a new roommate should be run through the process. And without a solid unit, priced right, you may be only attracting sub-par tenants.

  3. I have been extremely unlucky with single mothers that bring in “guests”. Its usually not single mothers that are the issue, but future boyfriends. If there is potential that someone else may move into that unit in the future, its important the tenant knows that new person will have to pass all the same checks as they did. If the guest do not pass, they are not welcome in our units. (and its easy to tell from something as simple as water bills). We start the eviction process immediately on guests and tenants. I was slow enough that it took three destroyed units to figure that one out.

    Jason

    • Thank you for the comment!

      Maybe you need to evaluate your initial background criteria and avoid people that hang around with people that cause issues…

      If you stick with a higher credit score limit, perhaps 625+, these issues will be avoided. credit score, and personal behaviors, go hand in hand.

  4. Great ideas! I would never have thought of enforcing such stringent criteria, even though it’s exactly what I want to use. Your “Do Not Budge” advice is priceless! Isn’t budging the main reason “landlords” get in such potential trouble with bad tenants? Thank you for your words of wisdom!

  5. I am evaluating one applicant right now. She has a FICO of 481, but just got a decent job with $70,000. She separated from the husband, and raising two kids (2 and 11) herself. The low FICO comes from 3 judgements, and many collections of medical bills. BUT she is very pleasant and professional and reasonable. I am puzzled by the facts and her image. She only has $1000 as saving. It will an issue when she has any temporary problems. The monthly rent will be $2100.
    To Rent or not to rent?

    • I would not rent to her. She has only saved 1/2 of one months rent, she has no long term job history, and poor credit. When push comes to shove do you think she will pay you or another bill. I submit the judgements answer that question.

      Jason

    • Thank you for the comment!

      You want to avoid this woman like the plague, even if she makes a million dollars a year. I would guess she wants to move in right away, and her current landlord gives her great references and will let her out of her lease when she needs to go.

      Only 2% of the population has a credit score below 500, so you know she is in the bottom 2% of renters, by definition. She is VERY high risk. The BTK killer and Ted Bundy were very likeable too. The two murderers I know personally are very nice people. And if you are a woman, these two murderers are very dangerous. Only one is in jail forever, the other got probation for murder. (good stories on my blog…)

      She says she only has $1,000, which is another red flag. Odds are, she has plenty more but does not want to give you the money because she will lose it. You need to have enough money in the bank to cover your rent while you are evicting a tenant, nothing less. This tenant needs a double deposit, not a 50% deposit, but do not take her.

      Credit score is also a personality test. She fails on all counts. I have had renters with both bankruptcies and foreclosures and they still have a 600+ FICO score.

      This woman is where renter horror stories start from. Move to the next applicant.

  6. I’ve had success targeting military folks. I also set lease terms so they turnover in June/July. Again, targeting military folks because many PCS in the summer months….usually late June or July. I use militarybyowner.com which is obviously targeting military folks. Military families are familiar with moving. Their income/housing allowance is easy to document and if they don’t pay and their superiors are notified, it can impact their reviews and future promotions. In short, they pay.

    I manage and own properties that rent for a minimum of $2,000 per month. I’ve found it easier to attract high quality renters in that price range. Also, I maintain the properties and keep them in top shape. I am picky about the condition of a property and if an owner wants to go cheap on improvements and repairs, I routinely pass. It’s not worth the time and effort to deal with a marginal property or an owner that refuses to spend the funds necessary to properly maintain a home.

    I also talk to the tenants supervisors, coworkers and past landlords. It takes time but well worth it. It is much easier to reject a borderline applicant than it is to evict. Last but not least, I qualify them as if it were a mortgage. Good credit 620+ credit score and adequate cash flow. No higher than a 40% back end ratio. (Income to total debt)

    Those are my criteria and I am sticking with them.

    • Thank you for the comment!

      You have found out the secret to being a successful landlord. Have successful tenants. Military folks are great. I am a disabled vet myself, and I appreciate their service. Whenever I am talking to them, it reminds me of my younger days…

  7. Thank you so much for this information. I only have two homes, so I am by no means a pro at this, but I enjoy the tips given on this site! Thank you so much for the example reply you give your prospective tenants. I have wasted so much time showing my homes to tenants I would NOT dream of turning the keys over to! Something so simple as telling them what I expect should help save a lot of time in setting up appointments for people I would never consider! I have begun telling people that I require 3x’s the rent in income (thanks to advise given on this site!). I will also copy your above sample reply and modify it before setting up any more showings of my home! Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience!

    • Here is some additional advice. Since you know the price of your rental, why not list the exact amount of income that you are looking for? Multiple your rent by 3, (or divide it by 30% like I do), and post that amount.

      Rent should be no more than 30% of income according to the Federal Government. With a hard and fast number, it is easier for prospective tenants to compare it to what they are making.

  8. The most common excuse for lousy credit that I hear from prospective tenants is “it was due to medical bills”, to which I respond (usually in my head): “if you didn’t pay the guy who saved your life, then why am I supposed to believe that you will pay me the rent when it’s due?”

    As far as credit scores go, my own personal experience has proven that 600 is the magic cut-off number between having a tenant that will always pay the rent on time, keep the unit clean, etc., etc. and one that will trash the unit and that you WILL have to evict. I once foolishly rented to a single mom (who also later ended up being full of drama, as well as mess) that had a credit score of 598 and I eventually had to evict her to get the unit back. When I went to re-rent it, I accepted an applicant with a credit score of 601, they have been there for almost two years and have paid the rent on time every month and kept the unit immaculate, they’ve turned out to be one of my best tenants in the building. I also whole-heartily agree that 3x the rent is the bare minimum of what they need make a month for income. That has never failed me yet.

    • Thank you for the comment!

      I too have found 600 to be close. I have had a few slightly over 600, even as high as 645 that were not as great. But under 600 you have payment and behavioral issues. Not always, but a high chance of issues.

      • Yeah, I have to admit that I have had a tenant that had a 680 score, made 4.5x rent and I ended up evicting them for non-payment of rent. They somehow just fell off the wagon.

      • Yes, there are no 100% guaranteed formulas, you just have to put the odds in your favor.

        I have seen a landlord take a tenant with a 390 score. He did have problems. And they took him to Court at the end to get trash they left behind on a over-night move out. The landlord won, but he had to take the time to go to Court. And get rid of the junk.

  9. This woman has no survival skills, and is trying to live above her means.
    Tell her that in a year (when she has saved up money from her $70k/year job) you will be delighted to hear from her again if you have a vacancy.
    Medical bills can happen to anyone (though why didn’t she have health insurance?), and “judgements”….would need more info on those.

  10. What can I say — I purchased a home with a credit score of zero before I got my first credit card (that was also my first loan of any sort).
    I’d say that WHY the person has the low score is more important that the score itself (foreclosesure – no problem. They made enough to qualify to buy a house at some point. Write-offs from CC companies? Uh, no way! This person can’t live within their means, and the CC company was willing to walk away from $$ because they figure they will never collect. Even if they are doing OK now they are likely going to get wiped out by any little thing that comes along (flat tire, car problems, “it’s Christmas”, etc.)

  11. Thank you for this useful information. I am just starting out I have two rental single family 2BR homes, both in the country. Each location is on over an acre of land with the ability to rent adjacent pasture. I currently only charge $600/$700 a month respectively. One home has a 30×40 metal shop, a insulated storage building, carport and one has a 30×60 metal shop & 2 car detached garage. My first renter is moving after 7 months and I will be in the market to attract a new renter. I am in Southern Oklahoma, would you still suggest your general email reply adjusted for my current rental amount for income and a 600+ credit score? These may be very rudimentary questions I appreciate your column and have learned from this site!

  12. This may explain some of my disappointments. I have a manager, I know what my expectations are, but I have not given them to him in writing. Therefore we have no consistency, and I have no set standard by which to hold him accountable. As a result we have had some misses!!. Big ones too!!.
    Thanks for the post.

  13. Great article and thanks for sharing. How did you learn how to put up a virtual tour link? How did you learn how to put content on youtube and post pics online? Did someone build your website for you? I would appreciate the info.

  14. We’ve always had some basic minimums but I’m going to take your advice and build a better, more complete ‘tenant specification’. The one time we deliberately broke our own rules, partly from feeling sorry for the couple, and partly because they could offer 2 months rent in advance, it went horribly wrong.

    They split up in the first week, and the person left never paid a single penny. They then got free legal advice and managed to legally stay in the property for another 5 months while we waited for slow UK court procedures.

    The damage was not too bad, but needed a complete redecoration, on top of the other costs. Sticking strictly to the criteria we had would have avoided this.

  15. Hello, thanks for the great post. I am curious about the statement that you can work with people with a foreclosure. What is the reasoning behind that? Thanks, in advance, for the extra explanation.

    • Eric D.

      Thank you for the comment!

      If a person had a foreclosure, their credit probably was good at one time. They owned a home and paid a mortgage for a period of time. They generally will still have a 600+ score.

  16. Nice article. I read your site a lot because one day I may get into the rental business. One thing I won’t have trouble with is falling for a sob story. I am a teacher currently and have heard every sob story under the sun…I always just say “Sorry that is my department’s policy. If you have a problem please take it up with my boss.” If you are too nice, then you end up giving yourself the shaft. Never a pleasant experience.

  17. Amy A.

    Careful about the legal status question. I know it’s illegal to ask that in California. My in-laws have rental property there and I read their landlord magazines. You can’t ask about immigration status. If you require a credit report, you must have an alternative for those who don’t have a SS#. California is a good example of why we need to watch our government closely and lobby. I have nothing against immigrants and understand that each situation is different, but we shouldn’t be forced by state law to violate federal law.

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