7 Advanced Tenant Screening Tips (So You’re Not Fooled by Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing)

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If you’ve been a landlord long enough, you’ve had a nightmare tenant. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they cost thousands of dollars in unpaid rent, property damage, legal bills, court fees, and pulled-out hair.

I’d just as soon keep those thousands of dollars and not have a conniving professional tenant or charismatic deadbeat steal them. But can you always spot these nightmare tenants as they smile and hand you their rental applications?

An ounce of prevention is worth a metric ton of cure when it comes to tenant screening. It doesn’t even have to cost you money — have the applicant pay the costs of background checks. But it costs something many landlords are even more loath to part with: their own sweat and work.

Here are some oft-overlooked red flags in advanced tenant screening — subtle warning signs that the charming blonde applicant is actually a nightmare waiting to happen.

Bad Employees Make Bad Tenants

When landlords bother to talk to applicants’ employers at all (which is less common than you’d think), they often simply confirm income and employment and leave it there.

But direct supervisors are a gold mine of information about prospective tenants. Do they show up to work on time every day? Or do they drag themselves in 20 minutes late, nursing a hangover and reeking of Boone’s Farm?

Do they always complete projects and tasks on time, or are they routinely behind schedule?

How proactive are they? How conscientious are they? In a word, how responsible are they?

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Type of Debt

Too many landlords just glance at the FICO score on the credit report — if they bother to run a credit report at all. Forget the FICO score! It’s reductive and often deceiving. The truth is in the actual payment history and often in the type of debt the tenant has.

Lucas Hall, founder of Landlordology, sums it up: “I’d prefer someone with $200k in mortgage debt over someone with $20k in credit card debt.” Some debts are, at least conceivably, constructive debt. People go into student debt to better their career prospects. In many parts of the country, a car is unavoidable, so vehicle debt makes sense. And landlords can certainly understand a mortgage for a rental property of the tenant’s own.

But what is credit card debt used for? Consumer purchases. And sure, we’ve all been in a tight spot financially at one time or another, but do you really want someone in that kind of financial pinch as a tenant? (For the bleeding hearts out there, the correct answer is “no.” There’s nothing wrong with charity, but give to charity knowingly; don’t confuse it with a business decision.)

Related: 3 Sneaky (But Legal) Ways to Screen Potential Tenants

Dirty Deeds

Some people are just dirty. Others are abusive to the property where they live. If you want a clear window into how an applicant will treat your property, look no further than how they treat their current home.

Give as little notice as possible, and call applicants to let them know you’re in the neighborhood and were hoping to swing by. If you like, bring a copy of a blank lease, and tell them you want to walk through a few points with them in person. But the point is to get inside their home to see how they treat it.

No one’s perfect; there may be a little clutter — after all, they weren’t expecting guests. But if you see trash lying around, food detritus littering the kitchen, holes punched in the walls, or any other activity you wouldn’t want in your property, you have your answer.

No Such Thing as White Lies

If you catch an applicant lying about anything, however small, shred their application. If they lie about one thing, their entire application is suspect. Lies are an indicator of other lies, and people who lie on their application have already proven they are willing to deceive in order to get what they want.

“I reject applicants if they lie about anything,” Hall goes on. “I reject anyone applying for a no-smoking unit, who arrives to the showing smelling like smoke.”

They claim they have no pets, but you see signs of pets around their apartment when you visit? They say they earn $4,150/month from their job, but their HR department says they’re paid $3,600? They’re applying by themselves, but clearly live with a significant other?

These are all bad omens that honesty is not their strong suit.

One Landlord May Lie, But Not Two

What’s the fastest way to get rid of a bad tenant? To give them a glowing recommendation to the next landlord.

But the previous landlord, from a property where the tenant no longer lives, will give you the honest scoop. You should still contact the prospect’s current landlord, they may well level with you, but take their word with a grain of salt. Dig deeper, contact not one but two of the applicant’s landlords.

As a final word on this subject, try to verify the landlord’s identity if you can. Ask how long they’ve owned the property, how long the tenant lived there. If you can easily find the public records showing the landlord’s mailing address, ask them to confirm their zip code. It’s an old trick: applicants give a friend’s name and claim they’re the landlord. But it’s a trick unlikely to work when you contact two landlords and verify both.

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Type of Crime

How does their criminal background look? Don’t disqualify them simply because a record comes back on their criminal check — that’s actually illegal now nationwide, courtesy of a recent HUD ruling.

But not all crimes are created equal. Possession of a dime bag of marijuana? So what? First-degree murder? Fraud? Arson? Another story.

“I never accept anyone who committed a violent crime or one involving intentional property damage (like arson),” explains Hall. In addition to violent crimes and property damage crimes, all crimes involving fraud are major red flags. Unless the crime was decades ago, these types of crimes should disqualify an applicant instantaneously.

Eviction on Record

If someone has been evicted in the last five years, don’t rent to them. End of story.

If an applicant has been evicted within the last 10 years, think long and hard about it. Every other detail of their application and background checks had better be flawless.

Many landlords and property managers just run a credit report and criminal check, but in some ways, the eviction history report is the most important of all. It gets to the root of what you’re trying to know: Is this applicant likely to do anything that will force you to file for eviction?

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

If they’ve done it before, there’s a good chance they’ll do it again. Pass on this applicant — there will be better applicants with fewer risk flags.

That’s what tenant screening is ultimately about: minimizing risk. You can’t perfectly predict who will turn dark on you, but you can eliminate everyone most likely to do so.

Not only should you screen applications aggressively, but let applicants know from that start that you will do so. Tell them they are responsible for paying for screening reports, which will include credit, criminal and eviction reports, and that you will be contacting past landlords and employers. Spook off the fraudsters and bad apples, leaving you with fewer dead-end alleys to wander down as you search for a tenant who will pay on time and treat your investment well.

Have any horror stories or tales of woe, starring bad tenants? Any tips to separate the wolves from the sheep?

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About Author

Brian Davis

Brian is a real estate investor and landlord with 15 rental properties, who writes fascinating articles for SparkRental.com. His rental management is almost completely automated by now, allowing him to travel the world frequently (if not always in style).

24 Comments

    • Donal Murphy

      I’d be a little concerned that he is working somewhere trying to throw him under the bus like that. Why would an employer go out of their way to screw an employee rather than just fire them? A stressed out employee isn’t going to be very productive.

    • Brian Davis

      That in itself is a bad sign about the applicant and their chances of continued employment. Even so, it should be taken in the context of all the other information gathered about an applicant. What do their ex-landlords say about them? How’s their credit? Do they have any criminal or eviction records? If their supervisor says they’re completely irresponsible and always late, but they have perfect credit, that contradiction is a sign that something’s not adding up. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper and talk to other coworkers or a previous supervisor.

  1. Nick B.

    Good article, Brian.

    I have a practical question though. How do you word your screening criteria to clearly state that you may deny people with high consumer debt or those who are irresponsible or dirty?
    If a prospective tenant has a clean criminal history, did not lie, has no bad debt, etc. but is hoarder, how do you properly deny them without risking discrimination allegations or something similar?

    Thanks
    Nick

    • Brian Davis

      Hi Nick, I personally don’t provide a reason for the denial, I simply thank them for their application and regretfully inform them that I’ve accepted another applicant. I tell them that I will keep their application on record however, and will contact them if another of my rental units becomes available.
      I’m of the belief that saying less is usually the best policy.

  2. Aaron Gobert

    Thank you for the post, I’m trying to buy my first rental this year and I’m doing as much reading on the topic as I can. Do you use any automated rental application software that will check out credit score, background checks etc?

    Thanks
    Aaron

  3. Sarah Adams

    I once blew past my new-tenant rules and rented to a girl from my church. She had to make the deposit in payments, and she didn’t have the money to set up utilities in her name. Those deficiencies are normally no-go for me. Anyway, we put on the lease that she couldn’t have anyone staying overnight with her except her mother because she had a history of “helping” deadbeats too much. She ended up having her boyfriend stay there every night and straight-faced lied about it….meanwhile, he’s having mail delivered there so he can establish residency!! We learned this when my husband had the cops meet us over there to confront the boyfriend and hopefully get him out of there. Of course, by then they were no longer paying rent. It was so fun! Eventually, we offered her $200 to move out by a certain date, and she took it. Phew and a half! Just about the best money I ever spent.

    These days I follow my rules, and I do my homework. In managing 11 units, I don’t use a background check service (though I may start to do so). I rely on past landlords, job contacts, non-family personal references, and especially my time with the applicant. I try to get them talking. Also, I try to look in their car, and I ask their family and roommates (and whoever else I’m allowed to ask) how they live. If they’ve saved up money and pay their bills on time and get rave reviews at work and are an open book with me, we may have a winner.

    • Brian Davis

      Most landlords who have been around long enough have a similar story, about a tenant they allowed themselves to make an exception for out of the kindness of their heart. And sure enough, they turn bad. Glad to hear you were able to be rid of them though without too much loss!

  4. Parker Caldwell

    I can’t count how many stories of “nightmare tenants” I’ve heard. My bosses are commercial brokers out of Tampa, FL and they have had some doozies… Most recently, one involving a fly-by-night chiropractor insurance scheme… That’s Florida for ya!

    There is a pretty cool podcast that Florida investors should check out, the Invest Florida Show. It’s got quite a few episodes addressing how to deal with bad tenants and landlord tools

  5. Amy A.

    I once called an employer to check references and they said they’d have to get back to me. The next day the girl withdrew her application because she had lost her job! My calling must have made them decide to stop procrastinating and fire her.

  6. derek hilley

    I really enjoy reading articles about screening tenants. Right now I use my rental unit (I house hack a duplex) as a vacation rental, mainly because I’m afraid that I’d have someone living under my roof that I’m trying to evict.

    Anywho, I feel that these insightful articles are my best defense against bad tenants on my next deals, and I’m very appreciative.

  7. Tim Sabo

    Let us discuss for a second that HUD ruling: HUD does NOT pass laws, therefore a ruling is just that, a ruling, not a law.

    Laws, federal ones anyway, are passed by Congress. If the HUD ruling is an enforcement of an actual law written by Congress, signed into law by the President, then that’s legit. If however, the HUD ruling is just HUD stating what it believes policy is, or should be, it is not enforceable as law.

    Great article, by the way.

  8. Karl B.

    One thing I do is locate their Facebook page and give it a look-see to get a general idea of the person.

    But here’s the gem – even if their page is private me and the prospective renter typically have at least one mutual friend (most of my buy and holds are in a smaller town I grew up in… smaller town = mutual Facebook friends) and I ask my friend (who’s their friend on Facebook) about them.

    When it comes down to “would you rent to them?” I get an honest answer.

  9. Love these articles. Question: I have one rental so far. The tenants are military from another country and are paid a housing stipend. It’s awesome because the stipend is paid by their home government then they pay me. No excuse for missed or late payments and I can complain to the U.S. military if I have a problem. win-win. When their lease is up I hope to rent to another military family. Since they are from another country I can’t vet them. I did get confirmation from the U.S. military that they are legit with the application. No credit check or background check since they are not from the U.S. This is my first tenant like this and so far no complaints. Is there anything else I should/could do to avoid a nightmare with a future tenant like this?

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