The Top 5 Questions to Ask Every Potential Tenant on the Phone

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The first point of contact with a potential tenant is often very routine, but it is also very important. It often goes something like this:

  • The phone rings,
  • You answer with your name or company greeting,
  • The caller inquires about a rental property she saw advertised,
  • You reply, “Great! Thanks for calling. That property is a 2-bedroom/1-bath renting for $750 per month. Can I ask you a few questions?”
  • “Sure,” she says.

Now, what do you ask her?

Before I answer that question, let me make a couple of important points:

First, as a landlord, your screening process begins with the very first point of contact. Remember that you are trying to attract and qualify good quality tenants and the questions you ask should attract the good while weeding out the not so good.

Second, be polite and articulate. Treat everyone who calls in the same manner and ask the same questions. Being polite goes a long way towards attracting good tenants, and a Fair Housing complaint is the last thing any of us need.

Related: Tenant Screening: The Ultimate Guide

The 5 Questions to Ask Every Tenant

So here are the questions I ask every tenant on the phone:

1. Can I get your name and phone number, please?

This is key. After all, you may need to contact them again later to set up a showing or just follow up. If you do not ask for this information on the front end, you may forget to ask later on as the conversation progresses.

2. When do you need to move?

You might be surprised at this question, but we get numerous calls from people who are looking to move three or more months down the road. While I applaud them for being proactive, we tell them that while we will be happy to show and discuss any property, we really cannot help them at the current time, as any rental they are interested in will likely be rented and off the market by the time they are ready to move.

We ask that they check back with us as they get closer to their moving date. (If I had a better tracking system, I might call them back.) Most are very understanding and do call back at a later date. This question saves both you and the caller time and effort. There’s no sense going through the motions at such an early stage.

tenant-funnel

3. Why are you moving?

This question is designed to find some tenant stability. Tenant turnover can be a real killer in this business, and the last thing many of us want is someone who will up and move after a year. So if the answer is something like “it’s just time to move” as opposed to “I have a job transfer,” it should be followed up with questions about the length of time they have lived in their current home.

4. Do you work or go to school?

This question is obviously designed to determine if someone has the income needed to afford the property and also, at least for us, to do a little weeding out.

First, find out if they caller has a job. Then help them determine if they can afford your property. For example, one of our criteria is that an applicant must have a monthly income of at least three times the amount of rent. Upon explaining this criteria and stating the monthly rent, many callers will withdraw themselves.

We also use this question to find out if the callers are students. We simply do not rent to undergrad college students (I only have to reflect on my own college career to understand why). We will rent to graduate students however if they have the income. So this question again saves us the time and energy of going through the motions with someone who cannot meet our rental criteria.

5. Will anyone else be living with you?

You must find out about all of the adults that will be living in the property. You simply must insist that all adults go through your screening process. Believe it or not, people will lie and try to slip someone in. It is a huge red flag to hear an answer such as “my boyfriend may be here some of the time.”

Be very careful and thorough here, as the last thing you need is a deadbeat, criminal, or worse in one of your properties.

tenant-screening

RelatedOne Question You Should NEVER Ask Your Tenants or Buyers

Other Questions for Tenants

So there you have the top 5 questions you should ask every caller. Hopefully you can see how these questions are designed to help both you and the caller save time and effort.

As a bonus, you should add other questions to your list depending on what your rental criteria are. For example, you may want to ask about pets or smoking depending on if you allow pets or smoking in your properties. There’s no sense in setting up a showing appointment, meeting the applicant, and then finding out she has a dog when you do not allow them.

[Editor’s Note: We are republishing this article to help out landlords who have found BiggerPockets more recently.]

What sorts of questions do you ask?

Let me know with your comments.

About Author

Kevin Perk

Kevin Perk is co-founder of Kevron Properties, LLC with his wife Terron and has been involved in real estate investing for 10 years. Kevin invests in and manages rental properties in Memphis, TN and is a past president and vice-president of the local REIA group, the Memphis Investors Group.

46 Comments

  1. Richard Guzman on

    Very nice posting! Thank you
    I would be interested to know the part II of this blog when it comes down to the face-to-face conversation. But definitely appreciate the top 5 questions to ask to start out with. Will print out and have handy when I need them. I know with time they will be easier to say towards all prospective tenants.

    Thanks

  2. karen rittenhouse

    Hi Kevin:
    Some of the first things I ask are:

    1. When do you plan to move?
    2. How much are you currently paying in rent?
    3. Why are you moving?
    4. How long are you hoping to stay?
    5. If you decide you like the property, do you have the first month’s rent payment plus the deposit available?

    Thanks for your post!

  3. Richard Guzman on

    Karen,
    I like that #2, that is good to know to see one if they can afford your property and two maybe gauge your property rent with the rent they previously were staying at; of course if they were near to each other. Thanks —

    • karen rittenhouse

      Hi Richard:

      #2 is a great screening question. We, for example, may have a property that we’re asking $1200 for and they say they’re paying $800 per month for rent. When I ask how they can afford $1200, I get answers like:
      I just wanted to see it.
      My boyfriend might move in with me.
      etc., etc., and it saves me the time of showing it!

      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Christopher Leon

    great tips @Kevin Perk. I personally like to ask open-ended questions. For example with #2, I prefer to word it as “who is the unit for?” I also ask, what kind of pets do they have? Assuming, they have some, that way, they cant just flat out lie to me by saying no. Interesting that you ask if they have a job or go to school, I never thought to ask that because that usually just comes out during the conversation. I do always tell prospective tenants that they will run a credit and background check and ask them how they think it will look when it gets pulled, and, if they are a student, I usually find out then when they say “well I dont have much credit cause im a still a student” or something to that effect. I guess every area is different though.

    • Kevin Perk

      Christopher,

      Open ended questions are nice too.

      Another good technique is to just stay silent after an answer. Callers hate it and will try to fill the void with all sorts of talk. You never know what they might say.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your insights,

      Kevin

  5. Christine O'Meara

    Hello Kevin,
    Thank you for all those tips. I usually never ask so many questions at first over the phone, except the #5. I usually have a good feeling, even with only a phone call. Then when I meet them in person, ( only if the contact is good ) I give them a form that they will fill out with all the necessary credit references & etc…I charge a certain amount for that work as well! It’s been working well for me so far!

  6. Jennifer Kurtz on

    I use the same questions Karen! Very good info here. When you ask when they would like to move and they say ASAP—–> usually not a good sign. Also their answer in the WHY- if they deflect some type of blame to the problem being with the landlord and drama—> also bad sign. They are usually being evicted for non-payment and need a new spot before the filing shows in an eviction search. They will come up with some nonsense reason that they will try to justify not paying rent, like not having a window or door… Really? You moved in without it having a window or door and dealt with that this whole time until now, but yet have not put your rent money in escrow??? Hmmm..

    How I act with all applicants: Be nice, be professional, but be a skeptic with any and all “stories”. Don’t rationalize it to make you feel better and approve the person. Wait to you have someone that meets all your criteria without anything that doesn’t add up. Make sure your criteria fits the market you are in but always strive to improve your property so you can improve your tenant base. 🙂

    • Kevin Perk

      Jennifer,

      Sound like you speak with some experience. You make some very good points. There are numerous red flags that can appear at any time during the screening process. And since the first phone call begins that process, we need to be looking for some of the ones you mention right off the bat.

      Thanks for taking the time to read the post and share your experiences. I do appreciate it,

      Kevin

  7. Frankie Woods

    Great breakdown of the essential questions to ask potential tenets Kevin! I find it difficult to talk to tenets, and I currently have a PM to do this for me. I’m really thinking of passing this article off to them. Do you think it would be a little too forward? Haha!

  8. Kevin, I do almost exactly what you talk about. My only addition to the post is this… For consistency I carry a sheet of paper or two every time I have a unit open and advertised. This paper is split into 4 sections (I use Excel). Each section has the 5-7 critical questions in the order I ask them and room for answers. I write answers in my own kind of shorthand (ie. M-FT @ Honda 2yrs means the Man works Full Time at Honda for 2 yrs, etc). I also print the back of the paper giving me 8 phone screening interviews per paper! I quarter fold it and keep it in my pocket always ready to speak to someone. If they are a no go (no income, big dog, etc) I put a big X over their section. If they pass then I fill out the last line – date and time of showing. Works great for me.

  9. I would be careful about asking if they work. It is my understanding that you are not allowed to discriminate against people on fixed incomes. You can have requirements regarding income and reliability of income but not the source of income.

    • Kevin Perk

      Gene,

      In some locales you may be correct. But I see nothing wrong with the question. It simply leads to a discussion about how they can afford the property. I do not care where the income comes from, I just care that they can afford it.

      Good point though, thanks for bringing it up and thanks for reading,

      Kevin

    • Kevin Perk

      Stephanie,

      I guess you could. I think many commercial landlords actually require it. There is a specific IRS form that you can get them to sign which will allow you to verify their tax returns but I do not remember the form number. Local laws will vary however, so check with a local attorney to be sure.

      Thanks for the comment and let us know what you find out,

      Kevin

  10. This is very timely as right now we are working on re-renting a single family home because the tenant got promoted out of state and had to break the lease. All our leases end in March so we can do any re-renting in summer because In our location this is a difficult time of year to fill a vacancy. Most good tenants move in summer as the weather can be quite miserable here for moving in Fall, Winter, and Spring.

    Anyway I have a list of questions that I ask all the tenants and keep the answers in a spiral notebook. They weed out a lot of people. Most people are proud of their jobs and can go into great detail. We weed out a lot of people who have animals that are insurance company does not allow. We also weed out people who are unwilling to do yard work for the single family home. Our objective is to find tenants that play nice with the neighbors, keeps the house and yard in good condition, and pays the rent and utilities on time.

    I usually ask them if it is a good time to talk (because believe it or not a lot of them call or text me from work! – I’m showing my age here. I never did personal business at my job when I worked at a W2 job.)

    Then I ask them if it’s OK if I ask them some questions that I ask everybody so they can get to know me and I can get to know them.

    What’s your name? Is this your phone that you are calling from? (If we make an appointment I text date, time, and address so if they can’t make it they can easily send me a text.)

    What kind of work do you do? (Looking for legal income. Social security, disability, child support, etc. are fine.) They usually tell me job title, place of work without prompting.
    How long have you worked there? (If they just started, I asked about previous work.) I know the basic wages that people in various types of work make so can pretty much estimate how much they are making.

    How many people will be living with you? If there’s another adult, I ask what kind of work do they do and how long worked there.

    Where live now, house or apartment? (I don’t really care what location they are coming from but a lot of people tell me that too.) How much paying for rent? How long lived there? Why moving?

    How’s your credit going to look? (Need rent & utilities paid on-time! Medical bills depends. No evictions within last 5 years.)

    Any pets? What kind? (Lose some people who have animals our insurance company doesn’t allow.)

    What kind of housekeeper are you?

    Are you handy? Like fixing screens and painting. You don’t have to be. We just ask everyone this question. (I am so tired of fixing screens but will keep doing it. I like to know if they are just going to let little things go without telling us.)

    Do you own a shovel, snowblower, or lawn mower? If they don’t have these tools, would it be a problem to get them? Then I tell everyone, “This is a single family home so you will be responsible for removing the snow in a timely manner, cutting the grass regularly, and taking care of the yard.”
    (If they are coming from an apartment I need to make sure they are aware this is a single family home and they are OK with taking care shoveling snow and cutting grass on a regular basis.) I lose some people here.

    Anyway this is just the first part of the screening process. So far it has been working for us.

    • Gloria Almendares

      Hi KG:

      I agree with all of your screening questions except for asking the tenant to do the yard work. 95% of all my tenants are military officers, and we always include the cost of the yard service in with the rent. We made the mistake once of allowing a reduction in rent ($100/mo) to a tenant who agreed to take care of the lawn. Long story short, the guy was off-island most of the time (he was a Navy officer) and when he moved out the grass was about 3 ft. tall! It cost us $1,800 to hire someone to put the yard and lawn back into shape, and an additional $400 to replace the dead plants, and $200 for dump runs. Not to mention the time it took to put the house back in shape, so we can start showing it again (loss of rent). We do not trust tenants to take care of a manicured landscaped yard. This is not what they specialize in, and most officers do not have the time, therefore, we don’t expect them to care for the yard. Also, these houses rent for $4,000 to $5,000 per month, so it would be very expensive to re-do the landscaping if the tenant neglects the yard. We pay between $200 to $400 per month for yard service for each house (this is Hawaii, labor is very expensive here!).

      • It really depends on your area. Your area sounds more upper class and probably your tenants earn more money. Our rental areas are working class and rents are significantly lower ranging from $995 – $1100 for 3 bedroom houses with about 1000 square feet. They are in older, friendly, working class neighborhoods with smaller yards that are neat and clean but not really manicured or landscaped.

        The lots are small and easily cut with a handmower. Most people want to do their own yard work and plant a garden with vegetables, etc. A few tenants do hire cheap local handymen, sometimes their neighbors, on occasion if they don’t want to cut grass or shovel snow.

        The yards are basically just grass (unless the tenant puts in a garden) with minimal landscaping of tough plants that crowd out weeds, don’t need to be watered, and can tolerate a lot of neglect. We generally drive by and do regular exterior checks, especially with new tenants. In the past we have texted tenants as needed until they are trained to cut grass regularly and remove snow in a timely manner.

        Landscaping for us involves over-seeding grass seed if needed. When we first get a rental house we cut back brush, plant tough plants, and put down free wood chips from the city yard.

        Once or twice a year depending on the tenant we might go in to clean out gutters, trim bushes, remove any weeds and unwanted trees. Sometimes we might weed and feed the front lawn depending on how the lawn looks. We also touch up paint and do exterior weatherizing, mostly caulking, for winter. If an area gets too weedy and it can’t be planted with grass, we landscape it with weed barrier and river rocks.

  11. Amy A.

    I hate talking on the phone! Most of the people who call are not qualified and waste my time and get angry at me. Therefore, I ask all these questions via email. Because people like to know there’s a number to call, so I’m not a scammer, I have a google voice number. In my message I tell them that in order to stay organized we are not taking phone calls but to please email me. Everybody who emails me gets the same email: (this info is in the advertisement too, but for some reason people don’t read the whole thing!)

    “Hello,
    Thank you for your interest in this property. We pride ourselves on renting clean, good quality homes.
    If after touring the home you decide to apply, we will require a credit score of over 600 for each adult, income equal to three times the rent, no evictions or criminal record, and good past landlord references. If you meet these minimum requirements, please drive by the property (or at least check it out on google maps) before we schedule a showing. Also, in order to schedule a showing we require the full names of all who would live there.
    Take care,
    Amy”

    Do you think that because I do it this way, that I am losing good potential tenants? I’m not having much success right now, but it may be the time of year.

    • It really depends on your area and potential tenants. Fall and winter can be difficult times to find renters with the holidays, lousy moving weather, sports activities, etc.

      Talking on the phone is not my favorite thing either. We generally answer the phone from 8am – 8pm every single day. Our area is kind of small townish where you need to build a relationship with the prospective tenant. I always ask, Is it OK if I ask you some questions that I ask everyone so you can get to know me and I can get to know you? I really listen to them. I probably spend more time on the calls then I should. Most people are pretty proud of their jobs and how well they take care of their homes. Sometimes I find it hard to ask the next question because some people can talk quite a bit.

      Our insurance company doesn’t let us have certain dog breeds or any other vicious animals on premise which we had to include in our pet policy. Sometimes people try to talk their way around it, but I am really apologetic and explain to them we do not want lose our insurance.

      Some tenants that are used to social media may be amenable to email and texting. Perhaps you can build a relationship if you respond quickly and in a friendly voice.

      I consider the phone call part of the winnowing process where we make the appointment. I don’t like to send people to the house without a shower because I do not want them disturbing the current tenants. Tenants have a right to their privacy and sometimes people are really forward where they talk their way in. I generally schedule one week night and late Sunday afternoon with the current tenants for showings.

      Most tenants do their best to make the house show well. I schedule the showings 15 minutes apart and send reminder text messages. It averages 10 minutes to show a unit and 5 minutes to ask questions. I also ask potential tenants to let me know if they can’t make their appointment.

      After the showing we ask them if they have any questions, how they like the house, have they looked at any others and how do we compare, will it work for them? If they decide they would like the place we give them the application packet, showing them the screening criteria, the application, questions we ask previous landlords page, and tenant screening page of company that we use. We tell them to call us if they have any questions or need help filling out application. We figure if they don’t call us back to pick up the application that they really weren’t interested, found a place they liked better, or didn’t meet the screening criteria. Paper is cheaper than paying the screening company. We don’t charge an application or screening fee because usually when someone fills out the paperwork they pass the screening criteria. We just consider the screening fee as part of the re-rental cost.

      Also check out your ad. Make sure you have good pictures, area advantages, list room sizes, tenant requirements, etc. Leave white space/breaks in between topics so it’s easier for people to scan and read the info. You’ll still get calls where people didn’t read the ad and a friend just told them about it. Those can be interesting. I always back down if someone starts sounding frustrated or upset. I always try to be professional and calm. I blame anything they don’t like on my partner/boss’s requirements. Apologize. Sometime I read the ad over the phone. If it’s too frustrating on both parts, I will schedule those people for an appointment if they just want to see the house. (Note: For safety always make sure someone knows who you’re meeting and when you are meeting people. Also arrive early so you can say hi to the neighbors who will also keep an eye out for you.)

      I’ve found it takes a lot of phone calls, then showings about 1-4 weeks worth, to end up with a handful that follow through. We take the first one that meets the screening criteria. We try to move fast to get a signed lease and security deposit.

      Hope this helps.

    • Tina Peters

      @amyarata. I think you are losing out on the most crucial time to “hear their story”. Prospective tenants will provide you with valuable information if you just open the dialogue. My mandatory question asked is ” what leads you to look for a place to move?”

  12. Janne Zaccagnino

    Kevin, I always love your articles! One of our mutual friends taught me to ask, “Do you have a 675 or more Credit Score (you pick your number)? It is surprising how many people know this. If they say no, you can thank them for their call, but get off the phone. You haven’t wasted the paper required to write their name and number down.

    Also, I state, “This unit rents for $1100 per month. Do you make $3300 in VERIFIABLE income?” If that answer is unsatisfactory, you can tell them goodbye and don’t bother to keep their name.

    The following idea is particularly good if you hate to talk on the phone or if you have a day job and need to call the prospective tenant back after hours. Because you need to ask every caller the same questions I suggest the following: Get yourself a Google Voice number for all incoming calls about your rental units and use this number in all your “for rent” ads. The google number rings through to your other phones (work, cell, spouse, etc.). Record a good outgoing google voice mail recording about your vacancy that states some of the criteria you are looking for (Credit Score of 675 and $3300 verifiable income, no smoking/no pets) as well as the unit’s description (3 br. 2.5 bath, 1 car garage), etc. Let all google voice calls go to voice mail so they can hear your message about the available unit. Never answer your google voice calls if you aren’t able to READ your screening questions (like while driving or if you are away from your script for any reason). This is a sure way for every caller to hear the exact same message! IF the caller is interested, they will leave a message. You can call them back when you are in front of your script so that you can be sure to ask the same questions EVERY TIME. They can never say they didn’t know the income requirements, or that it was a no-smoking unit. Google Voice is Free! It’s a cool tool!

    Happy Landlording!

    Janne

  13. Carl Mcknight

    Nice nuggets of info Kevin. With my market I’ll usually start with the following:
    1. Any evictions or Unlawful Detainers? If “yes”, no need talk any further.
    2. Why are you moving? If it’s cause “landlord harassing me or refuses to fix anything”, that probably a deal killer.
    That’s just a few warning signs they’ll be problems.
    To avoid east precious time, I email them the application, have them fill it out and then call to schedule a time to show the place. Prior to leaving I call and text them to confirm the meet, if no answer, then I don’t bother driving over there and move onto the next one.
    Thank you

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