16 Illuminating Questions Landlords Should Ask Every Prospective Tenant

by | BiggerPockets.com

We include a General Information Questionnaire in our tenant application to learn a bit more about applicants beyond the basic pieces of information. In this section, you are asking questions about the applicant’s life to determine their responsibility and further determine their candidacy for tenancy.

16 Insightful Questions Landlords Should Ask Every Prospective Tenant

1. “How long will you live here?”

Unless you are in the transient business, always look for tenants who indicate they are planning on staying in the home long-term. Because turnover and vacancy can be a couple of the most expensive things a landlord goes through, they should be avoided when possible. If the applicant writes down anything less than a year, that is probably your sign that they are not a good candidate.

2. “What pets do you have?”

Whether you allow pets or not in your rentals, this question is phrased in such a way as to not appear negative. If you were to ask, “Do you have any pets?” they may write “no,” thinking a “yes” will immediately disqualify them. Asking “what” instead of “do you” increases the chances of their being honest with this question.

pets-in-rentals

Related: 10 Not-So-Obvious Ways to Thoroughly Screen Potential Tenants

3. “How many evictions have been filed upon you?”

We used to ask, “Have you ever been evicted?” until we read about this little gem in Mike Butler’s book Landlording on Autopilot: A Simple, No-Brainer System for Higher Profits and Fewer Headaches. In his book, Butler explains that landlords should phrase the question like this: “How many evictions have been filed on you?” Such wording will require the tenant to think and not write an automatic “no.” Yes and no questions are much too easy to falsify, and tenants are used to questions being phrased that way. Also, an eviction filing identifies an irresponsible tenant as much as an eviction that proceeded to the point of the Sheriff escorting them out the door. Both are consequences of bad behavior that you don’t need to deal with. Having them write an actual number also takes away their ability to claim they misunderstood the question.

4. “How many felonies do you have?”

Once again, phrasing this question “how many,” rather than “do you have” requires the tenant to stop and think about how they answer. Obviously, this information will be available on the tenant’s background check, but by asking it here, you are able to determine whether or not the applicant is the honest sort or someone who has no problem falsifying answers to get what they want.

5. “Have you ever broken a lease?”

This information should also be discovered when gathering your landlord references, but by asking here you again will be able to determine your applicant’s honesty. If they have broken a lease, find out the details from the previous landlord and be prepared to require additional securities should you decide to rent to them.

6. “Do you smoke?”

One of our qualification standards states that all applicants must be non-smokers in order to be approved. This is a fairly new standard we have added, and it may seem harsh, but it became necessary after getting unit after unit back that had smoke permeating the walls and carpet, despite having a “no smoking” policy. Smoke gets into everything and can only be remedied by re-painting with oil-based paint and replacing the flooring. Sometimes you may even need to oil-base prime the floor underneath your new carpet to seal out the odor. It’s a hassle, and it’s expensive. When we realized a “no smoking” policy was not enough, we took it one step further and eliminated smokers altogether. A “yes” to this question on the application will result in immediate disqualification from us—unless it’s for medical marijuana, which we may have to accommodate, though specific locations outside the interior of the home can be designated.

smokers-in-rentals

Related: Should Landlords Consider Bartering and Doing Business With Tenants?

7. “How many vehicles do you own?”

Do you want to be the landlord with four vehicles in the driveway and two inoperable vehicles in the yard? Neither do we. It’s good to find out before you approve them how many vehicles they plan to bring with them. It’s also a good idea to have a limit to the number of vehicles they can have on the property.

8. “Is the total move-in amount available now?”

The answer to this question gives you a good indication of whether your applicant is financially responsible and plans ahead. If they knew they would be moving and have gone so far as to apply for your rental, they should have had adequate time to prepare for the move-in money standards.

9. “When would you like to move in?”

If your applicant answered “today,” or “ASAP,” be very careful during your screening process. A tenant wanting to move quickly could mean a few things:

  • They are being evicted.
  • Their landlord asked them to leave
  • They do not plan ahead
  • They are not currently renters (everyone needs a place to live—where are they currently living and why?),
  • A variety of other reasons that don’t bode well for you.

Another answer to be aware of is if they write a date in the distant future. For example, if they apply for your vacant rental in April saying they would like to move in come July, that’s probably not going to work for you. It’s highly unlikely it would be financially advantageous for you to hold your rental for three months! The answer you will want to see to this question is anywhere from 1–4 weeks out. Anything else you will want to scrutinize closely.

10. “How did you hear about this home?”

This question helps you track what parts of your marketing are working and what parts are not.

11. “For what reasons could you not pay rent on time?”

If a tenant states any reason other than “death,” it should be noted. Again, you are looking for a tenant who is financially responsible, and while a lot of tenants live paycheck to paycheck, you don’t want someone with the mentality that as soon as something goes wrong, the landlord doesn’t get paid. Things go wrong all the time for everyone; plans change, cars break down, jobs are lost, medical emergencies happen, but even with these unexpected (but guaranteed) events, you want a tenant who pays their bills and doesn’t let hardships interfere with their rent. The correct answer to this question is “nothing.” If they answer differently, it doesn’t mean they are going to be bad tenants, but it does indicate a mentality that you should be wary of when making your decision to approve or deny them tenancy.

rental-property-pros

12. “Do you have a checking account? Do you have a savings account?”

When screening your potential tenants, always find out whether they have a checking or savings account. Having a bank account does not magically make your prospective tenant more responsible; however, not having a bank account is a definite sign that something might be amiss. Chances are, the reason they don’t have a bank account isn’t because they just never got around to it. It may be a sign of an irresponsible financial life—maybe they couldn’t handle a bank account and got tired of all the bounce checks or overdraft fees—or it could also be a sign of garnishment due to judgments or illegal sources of income. A bank account versus no bank account is definitely not a deal killer, but something to keep in mind during your screening process.

13. “What is the balance of your checking and savings account?”

This may seem like it’s none of the landlord’s business, but remember, we are asking questions that determine the applicant’s suitability for the rental based purely on business reasons. If they have $20 in their checking account, things are not looking good for either of you. Job and income stability, income source, credit and background checks, and landlord references are sufficient to tell you whether they are the responsible sort, but again, if they are living paycheck to paycheck, then some unexpected financial emergency happens in their life, it’s going to be difficult for them to make the rent payment. Look for tenants who have a comfortable amount of funds to their name.

14. “Who is your emergency contact (including to contact regarding rent or tenancy)?”

The answer to this question can also be attributed to Mike Butler’s book Landlording on Autopilot, and it’s a good one. Every landlord has experienced a tenant (or multiple tenants) who are late on their rent and bury their heads, making it impossible for the landlord to communicate with them. That’s where the emergency contact comes into play. Most applicants will list someone close to them, such as a parent or a close friend. These are people you want to know. Because you specified that the emergency contact was also a contact for rent or tenancy, you may contact that person in the event the tenant doesn’t pay rent or has some other tenancy-related issue that a kick in the pants from the emergency contact may help solve.

15. “Why should we rent to you?”

With this question, the tenant has the opportunity to tell you what makes them the best choice for tenancy. What every landlord wants to hear is: “I have great rental references and solid, consistent income. I always pay my bills before they are due, and I love the home you have available for rent. I would love to make it my permanent home. I also have a halo and wings and volunteer at the children’s hospital every Saturday.” OK, maybe not that last part. If they answer, “I don’t know,” or “I need a place to live ASAP,” they aren’t very confident in their attributes as a tenant, are they?

16. “Is there any additional information we should know?”

As stated on the application itself, the applicant is invited to “Please use this optional space for additional information, comments, or explanations.” This is where a tenant can explain why they were evicted two years prior or the fact that their current landlord is a sleaze ball who won’t fix anything. This section can give you a little more insight into the person you are screening.

[This article is an excerpt from Brandon Turner’s The Book on Managing Rental Properties.]

Any questions you’d add to this list? Which of the above do you find most insightful?

Leave your comments below!

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. Tim Sabo

    We use a series of questions to pre-qualify tenants, to ensure the unit we have available will meet their needs, and that as tenants they will meet our needs. We have standardized these questions and put them together into what we call the Rental Questionniare.

    Before we schedule any prospective tenant to see any available unit, we ask them to complete the Rental Questionnaire: not only does it help us pre-qualify (or eliminate) candidates, it also gives us sufficient data to do deeper screening before we meet. Through the use of our RQ, we have identified folks who have repeat criminal histories, landlord-tenant judgments, or other issues that are not suitable. We have discovered Section 8 tenants that were approved by Section 8 but have judgments or troubled, repeat criminal issues. All of this we were able to do using this little tool, which prevented us from wasting enormous amounts of time showing properties to people we would never rent to in the end.

    I have created a Google Forms version of the RQ, and can send it to prospects, which gives me a digital copy of their answers also. Screening is so critical, especially in low-rent districts where there seem to be a higher percentage of tenants who have been evicted or have lengthy criminal records. I am happy to share our questions and Rental Questionnaire with any of our friends here on BP. See my profile for the email address.

    • Tim Sabo

      Wow! To date, seven BP members have connected with me and asked for a copy of our Rental Questionnaire! This is an awesome response to a comment-I didn’t even write the article! I sure hope those of you who I sent it to have figured out how to modify it or how easy it is to create your own. I now have seven new colleagues…more from this one comment than I had from all else on BP in two years! Whoopie!

  2. Please clarify “How many evictions have been filed upon you?” For the past two years I have been renting – from an individual who has been renting the house from an absentee landlord – a room in an overcrowded house. (I have never talked with nor met the landlord.)

    The person from whom I am renting – the only named lessee – is currently in a dispute with the absentee landlord owner, who has filed an eviction upon this named individual, “and all others” residing at the property. Since i am not a named party in this eviction, am I safe to answer this question as “Zero evictions have been filed upon me”?

      • I have not done anything that might bring upon an eviction; as far as I am aware, none of the paying room renters has done so. In addition to the named lessee, his adult daughter, her boyfriend, and their screaming infant also live in this house (they don’t pay rent) and there are six paying renters. (Shouldn’t those of us who pay rent get a screaming baby discount?)

        I’m out of the loop between the lessee and the landlord, so I don’t know what the dispute is about. But the property does have problems, including defective HVAC – furnace doesn’t work, landlord won’t fix, lessee turned off gas service.

  3. “For what reasons could you not pay rent on time”?

    Depends on which options you afford me for paying rent on time. If you accept only checks, it I’m in hospital I’m not going to be able to pay you on time. If you accept online payment and I’m in hospital, timely payment is no problem with my debit card. My health insurer lists SIX ways to pay on the back of every monthly invoice. While I have an active checking account that has always been in good standing, I ran out of checks several years ago and have never ordered a new set of checks because I have had no need to ever write a check for the past nine years.

    It seems business has evolved to make it easier for customers pay them timely – while most landlords are stuck in 1950.

  4. Michael Parmenter

    I’m a bit concerned with Number 4. I understand the intent of the question and its relevance, but to ask it to the wrong person at the wrong time may lead to some unnecessary friction. Like comedy, it’s all in the delivery, I suppose.

  5. John Murray

    My last BRRR the former owners smoked in the house for 30 year. Buy a good box fan and an ozonator all for about 60-70 bucks and ozonate every night during project. Paint with latex and replace carpets. Run furnace fan at night with ozonator, did not even replace drapes. Don’t need to seal with oil pain. Like a fresh clean spring day!

  6. Mike Southerland

    In the spirit of “how many evictions?” or “how many felonies?” would it be better to ask, “how many cigarettes, cigars, or pipes have you smoked in the past month?” Or maybe, when was the last time you smoked? If someone “stops” today they may claim to be a non smoker.

  7. C.M. Custalow

    Don’t see the point of asking #4 when you can (and should) get that info from an extensive background check. I honestly don’t need to inadvertently build a reputation for being some some sort of bigot, racist landlord, because that’s exactly how you’ll appear by blindly and warrantlessly asking that question to people of certain backgrounds. Beyond offensive and rather unnecessary.

  8. Angie Swader

    Great list of questions. 17 years in property management and I ask most if not all of them between the screening conversations and the application itself. I also encourage all of you to check into crime free housing (through your local PD or sheriff’s office) for any multi family units you may have. I also ask if they will mind signing a crime free agreement. If they hesitate, then I probably don’t want them.

  9. I never would have thought to ask #7. I’ve been stuck with neighbors (more than once!) that have left their broken down hoopty to rot in the parking lot. Also I really like #11 because it’s one of those great questions that seems harmless to the tenant, but can reveal so much about the type of tenant they will be. While I totally understand the reasoning behind all of the questions, some of them do still feel a bit invasive. Particularly the questions that ask the potential tenants what their account balances are! I suppose though, It’s up to everyone to sort out which questions make the most sense for them.

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