12 Questions to Ask for a Thorough Landlord Reference

by | BiggerPockets.com

Getting references from previous landlords is perhaps the most important of all the screening steps. A lousy tenant can disguise themselves in person and over the phone, but they can’t hide from their past actions that the previous landlord can reveal. Remember, the references you receive from past landlords are the best indication of the way the tenant will behave for you.

Now, some tenants will try and be sneaky and have a friend pose as their previous landlord. One way to find out if the person you are speaking with is really a landlord is by first calling and asking, “Do you have any vacancies?” If it’s a friend, they will quickly be thrown off, whereas a landlord will simply answer your question. Another way to verify the person you’re speaking with is actually a landlord is by asking for verification of the tenant’s rental specifics, such as the address, lease term, and rental amount. A friend posing as the tenant’s landlord is most likely not going to have this information.

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Related: The 3 Benefits of an Organized Landlording Business

12 Questions to Ask for a Thorough Landlord Reference

When calling for rental references, it’s helpful to use a standard fill-in-the-blank form, such as our Previous Landlord Reference Form. Be courteous and respectful of the previous landlord’s time. Begin with who you are and why you are calling, then ask them if they have a moment to talk. The Previous Landlord Reference Form will keep you on track to cover the key information you will need without taking up too much of the landlord’s time. Also, by asking the same questions like those on the questionnaire for any applicant that applies, you can be sure you are not violating any Fair Housing Laws by asking questions that could be considered discriminatory and could come back to bite you. Here are the important questions recommended for a thorough landlord reference.

  1. Did tenant stay for stated period? (Listed on the Previous Landlord Reference Form)
  2. What was the monthly rent?
  3. How much of the rent did the tenant normally pay?
  4. Did the tenant always pay rent on time?
  5. Did the tenant keep utilities on and paid in full at all times?
  6. Did anyone else live with the tenant(s)?
  7. Did the tenant(s) ever receive any legal notices (late rent, noise, unauthorized occupants, notice to vacate, etc.)?
  8. Did the tenant have any pets?
  9. Did the tenant maintain the home in good condition (housekeeping, lawn, etc.)?
  10. Did the tenant give proper notice before vacating?
  11. Did the tenant receive their entire deposit back after vacating?
  12. Would you rent to the tenant again?

The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about your applicant.

Before ending the conversation, always give the previous landlord the invitation to offer any additional thoughts or comments about their experience with the tenant. When getting references from the applicant’s previous landlords, always get a minimum of two so you can compare and check for consistency.

Current Landlords vs. Previous Landlords

Remember, do not rely solely on a reference from a current landlord since you don’t know their motivation for giving a good or bad reference. A past landlord has nothing to gain or lose by being honest, whereas a current landlord may not want to lose a good tenant or may be overly excited to get rid of a bad one. Both situations may affect the legitimacy and integrity of their reference. Some landlords or property management companies will require the tenant’s release of information signature before they will give out any information about that tenant. In this case, when faxing or emailing them the release of information from the applicant, you may also want to include the Previous Landlord Reference Form so they can simply complete the information you need and send it back to you. (The bottom of the application should have their release of information printed on it, along with the applicant’s signature.)

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Related: The Landlord’s Itemized List of Common Tenant Deposit Deductions

What to Do if Applicants Don’t Have References

If your applicant doesn’t have any (or they have limited) rental references, usually due to their age or being prior homeowners, technically they don’t meet all of your qualification standards for the home. Your options in this case are to 1) decline their application, 2) accept them without references and take the risk (assuming everything else about them is stellar), 3) require a cosigner, or 4) require an additional security deposit if that is allowed in your specific state.

Personally, if an applicant meets all of our other standards, we will typically not turn them away due to a lack of references because of their young age or because they were previous homeowners unless there is a more qualified applicant available. Instead, if everything else about them indicated they would be a good tenant, we would simply require additional securities like those we just covered.

[This article is an excerpt from The Book on Managing Rental Property.]

What do you ask when calling landlord references?

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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.

1 Comment

  1. Erik Whiting

    One “trick” I’ve started is to do an in-home inspection/visit at the tenant’s current residence. There are any number of reasons to stop by: to get their signature on a form, to take pictures of their pets, or just…honestly, to verify the address listed is their current home. It’s easy to stop by and then ask, “May I come inside for just a minute?” If they say, “No” or are nervous and have to scramble to come up with an excuse….warning, warning!

    Had one guy say I had no business coming to his home. I responded that I have EVERY business seeing how they treat their current land lord’s property. He was denied, no surprises. Good tenants have nothing to hide AND are cooperative!

    Then I will SEE, HEAR, and SMELL what MY property will look like, sound like, and smell like 2-3 months after I allow them to move in. Works great for in-town prospects. Out of town visit are a little trickier, but still doable. A qualified property manager or Realtor in the applicant’s current town might be willing to drop by for a 5 minutes visit fee of $50. Of course, to limit the expense of this technique, only do this step after everything else has checked out and they are otherwise approved.

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