3 Sneaky (But Legal) Ways to Screen Potential Tenants

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Let’s go over three advanced ways to screen your applicants that are a little outside the box.

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1. Social Media

In today’s world, people often put more information publicly on their Facebook, Twitter, or other social network profile than they would even tell their own mother. This information is a goldmine for landlords to discover more about their prospective tenants. We always do an online search on our potential tenants and see if we can find any information that would help us make an informed decision. For example, a young couple once applied for one of our apartments that does not allow pets. However, upon checking her Facebook page, we discovered the applicant posing with a brand new puppy with the caption, “My adorable new puppy!!! Isn’t she cute!?” Surprise, surprise. That information was definitely helpful.

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By searching social networks, you might also discover information about their current living situation, roommates, or whether they complain all the time. Or maybe they seem just as great as they did in person and on their application. Another option for using social networks for learning more about your applicant is by looking for mutual friends or acquaintances and getting their opinion. In larger areas this may not work as well, but in small towns most people are connected in some way or another. If you notice your applicant is also mutual friends with “Sarah,” an old friend from high school, consider shooting Sarah a message asking if she knows anything about the applicant that would be helpful in making an informed decision about their tenancy. Remember, the point of all this is to learn as much about the prospective tenant as possible before approving them so you can make an informed decision. There’s nothing like approving your new tenant only to discover too late that you made a horrible error.

Related: 4 Old School Tenant Screening Tips That Still Hold True For Modern Landlords

2. Google

Almost everything you’ve ever done publicly in your life is chronicled somewhere on the internet. The same is true of your applicant. As of this writing, the best source for searching the internet is, of course, Google. Searching Google for a tenant’s name is helpful for discovering little known facts about the applicant’s life. You can also try combining the applicant’s name with their city or county to narrow your search. You’ll most likely get all sorts of information by Googling a person’s name, but you are looking for information that specifically tells you a little more about the applicant, such as whether they were recently in the county’s jail roster or have been involved in lawsuits.

To search Google, try entering their name within quotation marks, which causes the search to be narrowed down to only the the applicant’s full name, or what you entered within the quotations. For example, entering “John Smith” will only show you results for “John Smith,” whereas entering John Smith without quotations will show you results for anything containing the name “John” and anything containing “Smith.” Using quotation marks will significantly narrow your search.

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3. Drive by Unexpectedly

Curious about how your prospective applicant will take care of your home should you approve them? A look at their current residence should give you a pretty good idea. Consider driving by or even paying them a visit at their home to get a good look at how much care they show (or don’t) to their yard maintenance, housekeeping, and general cleanliness. If they live like slobs now or their lawn is two feet tall, that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Related: 12 Tips I’ve Learned From Screening Close to 500 Prospective Tenants

Once you have processed your applicant’s application, you should have everything you need to either accept or deny them tenancy. If they have met your minimum standards for qualification and exhibit traits of dependability, reliability, and responsibility, you’re off to a great start. If they have failed to meet your minimum standards of what you are looking for in a tenant, you will most likely deny them tenancy and wait for someone more qualified.

[This excerpt was taken from The Book on Managing Rental Properties, which gives investors valuable information on everything from screening tenants to managing everyday issues — and everything else you need to know for successful buy and hold investing.]

Have you ever used these techniques? Any other outside-the-box ways you check out applicants?

Let me know with a comment!

About Author

Brandon Turner

Brandon Turner (G+ | Twitter) spends a lot of time on BiggerPockets.com. Like... seriously... a lot. Oh, and he is also an active real estate investor, entrepreneur, traveler, third-person speaker, husband, and author of "The Book on Investing in Real Estate with No (and Low) Money Down", and "The Book on Rental Property Investing" which you should probably read if you want to do more deals.

17 Comments

  1. Gordon Cooper on

    The actions you describe might be construed as stalking by the tenants you are researching. Assuming a Google or similar search reveals correct information about a person is a risky and unwarranted assumption.

    I’d check with a lawyer before even suggesting something like this, let alone publishing it.

    • Michael Buffington

      This is the purpose of a rental application with a release form. The applicant is authorizing the landlord to do research on them prior to renting to them. Potential tenants can opt out of the application process and that is fine, but then a landlord does not have to rent to them. We make sure potential tenants know about the application process on first contact.

      • Unexpectedly driving to someones current home, and peaking inside their personal vehicle is not what a rental application with a release form is for. Stalking might be too harsh of a word but it’s not appropriate to do either or those things and I’m actually concerned that you would seriously offer that advice to someone on your website. I would definitely never rent a property from you.

    • “Stalking”???

      You’re joking, correct?

      Any activity “…might be construed as…” anything anyone wants to believe. You are pushing your own extremely broad interpretation of “stalking” in an effort to dissuade simple due diligence. Public information is just that, public.

      The author correctly provides legal options to further OBSERVE a potential tenants character traits.

      What next, are you going to accuse us of “invasion of privacy” if we simply look through the window of the prospective tenants car window from a distance????

      This paranoia you display it the reason for a damaging PC culture where more and more people ignore common sense in favor of “checking with a lawyer”.

      Get a clue. “Lawyering-up” over every trivial issue will bankrupt you quicker than a wink-of-the-eye. Brand name companies have been checking social media for years and use what they find to deny employment – without lawsuits ensuing.

      Obviously, the concept of a “release form” is too complicated for you.

      From personal experience, my opinion is that the author’s advice is right on target.

  2. Mark Gaines

    I used the social media route unexpectedly. My tenant shares the property with the vacant guest house. Their vested interest prompted them to get involved. The tenant checked the mommy and me website at their local temple and found a wonderful family. Now the two families are friends and there are no conflicts between them. I paid the tenant $100 cash for this valuable service which they reluctantly took (I had to insist). I will use that every time in the future. Thank you, Mark

  3. Keith Leckey

    All great tips Brandon! We always use #1 and #2 along with non-saliently checking out their vehicle. #3 is a great idea also as sometimes you don’t get an honest answer on housekeeping from the current landlord if they really want rid of them.

  4. Jerome Kaidor

    Google Streets! I google *everything* about my perspective tenant. I even google their phone number. One time, I google-streeted past their current address. There was a “for rent” banner out front with a different phone number than they had given me. “We’re evicting that person”.

    Another prospective gave me her current address. I Google Street’d it. It was a tropical fish store. Denied!

    One recent prospective turned up with an eviction: “I got identity theft!” “But it was for the address on your drivers license.”

    Sometimes, I get my RE broker to look up the owner of the property. I’ve dodged some real bullets with that one. One time, I couldn’t find the phone number of the owner, so I sent them a letter via US mail. A few days later, I got a phone call from the owner, eager to tell me how that person had screwed her over. Denied!

  5. Ben Lukes

    With the new law that was recently passed in Seattle these techniques may not be allowed unless you explicitly state the criteria you will be using…”approval of Facebook account”?

    Don’t quote me on this, but I believe rentals in Seattle are now required to list specific screening requirements, and the first person that meets those requirements must be accepted. I’m not sure these rules allow for some sort of general statement, such as “proven good character as judged by the property owner”, that would allow for qualitative assessment of online information, Facebook, etc…

    • I insist on visiting the prospective renter at their current place of residence. If they won’t let me see it, that tells me everything I need to know. If it is full of dogs and trash, that tells me everything I need to know. If it is clean, neat, and decent, that tells me a lot about that renter. I want to meet their kids, pets, boyfriend, etc. I only do this for the finalists after they have passed all my other screens. It takes about an hour, but it has saved me thousands ( and cost me thousands when I did not do it).

    • That’s what I have read was always the case everywhere. Sure can’t say ” I didn’t like your kids, boyfriend, etc.” Craigslist rules even say that.

      Had a lady threaten me with”You’re breaking all the fair housing laws…” Her appl. said she lived with Dad, and listed no prior landlords, Sounded like Dad was about to be evicted to me. When confronted, she suddenly had a prior landlord. She had been hounding me abt. when was I going to have this apartment ready. She had to have something by end of mo. When i said “I can’t rent to you, ” She said she had worked for an apartment complex, and was going to report me to fair housing. “You’re breaking all the laws.”I said, “I don’t even have an apartment for rent. It’s not advertised!” She had heard abt. the apartment , and gotten an application early.

      So what do you guys tell the ones that you turn down based on hunches, appearances, dirty cars? I have used, “There’s someone else planning to rent it. I’m just taking applications as a back up, and i give them one,” But if it doesn’t get rented soon, they will be back with questions. I’ve read that if they ask why they didn’t qualify, you have to give a reason.

  6. I currently work for an Apartment complex in Washington, DC and yes it is required to provide explanations for denial. And also yes you do have to rent to the first person who meets your posted screening criteria, which has to be disclosed in writing to the applicant and cannot discriminate based on appearances, or some of the other things listed here (junky car lol) however, these are requirements of Multi-family dwellings. The laws for single family homes are usually different or less strict though they vary by locality (although I don’t recommend making a judgement off anything that you can’t prove ex. The brand new puppy disclosed on FB could now be kept at family members house, been sold, died etc. However, I would confront the tenant on an issue such as this first before acting) denying someone who has met stringent background and credit checks, has deposit on hand based off a “hunch” may not hold up well if ever sued for discrimination if they are a member of one of the protected classes under the Fair Housing Laws even if you are correct in your assumption that the tenant wouldn’t be a good fit. Of course this is all presuming that the Fair Housing Laws apply to single family homes in your state/locality. Either way, best business advice is to find a way to quantify those traits you do not want the tenant to possess such as damaging or neglecting to upkeep the property would be quantified by requiring a stringent rental history check (contacting previous landlord and verifying that person whom you are contacting is owner/master lessor of the property listed as the previous landlord) is truly the best way to judge that versus examining their car.

  7. One helpful tip in finding a possibly acceptable tenant for a duplex.:
    Walls are thin, and the tenants have to be able to “get along”. When you move someone in that the other tenant doesn’t know, you can expect a call from one side or the other complaining, usually about noise-doors slamming, kids, etc. I don’t even consider allowing dogs. Now, as soon as I hear I might have a vacancy soon, I alert the tenant in the other half of duplex to start asking friends if they’re interested. The don’t always qualify, but you have a good chance that they are a similar type person to the tenant that you are happy with. At least your existing tenant is not as likely to leave due to personality clashes.

  8. Jim Shepard

    These are great tips! I had an uncomfortable feeling about 2 prospective tenants a few years back. I decided to stop by their house unannounced to have a credit release form signed. I wanted to see how much of a mess their house was in. I sure was surprised when a uniformed police officer answered the door! It was his house and he had never heard of the couple. I guess they were living in their parents basement after getting kicked out by their previous landlord? Don’t know but I am glad I didn’t rent to them.

  9. John Teachout

    I always research the phone number I get for their present landlord reference to make sure it actually coincides with that person and business. And yes I use Google and facebook to collect data. A house is an asset worth many thousands of dollars and it is incumbent on the owner of that property (me) to make sure the person I’m leasing it to is going to treat it appropriately.

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