The rental application and subsequent tenant screening questions are a landlord’s first defense against troublesome tenants. That said, many landlords do not know what they can or what they should ask to secure the best occupant. After all, landlords must be mindful not to violate any Fair Housing Laws with their screening criteria. So, join us below as we reveal some of the most critical tenant screening questions every landlord should ask potential applicants.
What is Tenant Screening, and Why is it Important?
Tenant screening is a process of evaluating potential applicants using standard criteria. The intent is to ensure the applicant is financially qualified to cover the rental rate and avoid possible troublesome occupants. Although creating solid screening policies takes time and effort, this is a crucial step for landlords. While it may be tempting to avoid vacancy by filling the unit with the first available applicant, this will cost more in the end. Typically, standard tenant screening processes include the criteria below.
Rental Applicant Screening Criteria
- Employment and Income Verification – A widely accepted industry standard is that the applicant must show proof of income equal to or greater than three times the monthly rent. Thus, allowing them to afford both the rent and additional living expenses.
- Criminal Background Check – Background checks are essential to ensuring the safety of the landlord and the community. Therefore, rental owners should run a background report for at least the last seven years and focus on any convictions for things such as violent crime or drug distribution charges.
- Rental History Verification – If an applicant has a history of rent filings or eviction, this is a huge red flag for landlords. So, carefully review the circumstances surrounding any eviction. Furthermore, request that the applicant provide prior landlord references.
- Credit Worthiness – Credit reports are more than just numerical scores. While a good credit score is a good sign, be sure to read through the report. Landlords must look for any history of late payments, large debts, or accounts in collections. These circumstances speak to the overall financial health of the applicant, which can affect their ability to pay rent in full and on time consistently.
That said, taking the time to run critical checks accomplishes the following –
- Provide Financial Reassurances – Landlords rely on on-time rental payments to secure profit but also pay their bills. So, ensuring the applicant has a sufficient and stable income is crucial to an owner’s success.
- Protect the Property and Surrounding Community – Owners have a responsibility to their neighbors to screen and weed out persons that may threaten community safety.
- Overall Peace of Mind – Due diligence offers owners the peace of mind to move in a responsible tenant.
15 Tenant Screening Questions Every Landlord Should Use
The goal of the rental application process is to find the best tenant for your rental. This means someone who will care for the unit, pay on time, and follow the lease terms. However, in some cases, this is easier said than done. Often, relying on the basic information in an application is not enough to gather a complete picture of the potential applicant. Therefore, take the time to ask some open-ended tenant screening questions that can help owners make a final decision. Although this takes more time initially, putting this effort in early can avoid potential disasters down the road. So, if you are wondering what you should ask prospective renters, check out this list below.
- Are you familiar with our rental application process?
- What is your desired move-in date?
- Our standard lease term is 12 months. Are you able to commit to a 1-year lease agreement?
- Do you own any pets? If so, what kind and how many?
- This property is non-smoking; do you smoke?
- How many occupants will reside in the unit?
- Our standard qualifications request applicants provide proof of income equal to or more than three times the monthly rent. Are you able to do so?
- As part of our screening process, we run a criminal background report. Are there any issues we should be aware of?
- Have you ever been evicted? If so, can you explain the circumstances?
- Have you ever broken a lease? If so, why?
- How long have you been in your current rental home?
- Why have you decided to move?
- Do you believe your current landlord would give you a favorable reference?
- We require an application fee of ($); are you able to submit that with your completed application?
- The security deposit can range from 1 to 2 months’ rent which is due upon move-in. Would this be a problem?
Are you familiar with our rental application process?
To start the pre-screening or screening of an applicant, make sure they understand the steps in the application process. In addition, this gives landlords a chance to inform applicants of any standard screening criteria.
What is your desired move-in date?
This is one of the tenant screening questions that landlords should ask very early on. In many cases, landlords advertise the property before the current tenant vacates. Thus, allowing them to line up an incoming tenant and limit vacancy time after turnover. However, if the interested party needs to move immediately and the property is unavailable for immediate occupancy, there is no need to proceed further in the application process. On the other hand, if the property is available now and the applicant does not want to move in for several months, this is not ideal for landlords.
Our standard lease term is 12 months. Are you able to commit to a 1-year lease agreement?
Not every tenant is looking for a long-term lease, depending on their circumstances. While a 12-month term is relatively standard, landlords cannot take for granted that this is what the applicant is looking for. So, be sure to ask.
Do you own any pets? If so, what kind and how many?
Although some metrics indicate over 60% of tenants have a pet, this can be a dealbreaker for landlords. Therefore, tenant screening questions would not be complete without inquiring about furry family members. Even if an owner allows pets on the property, getting some crucial information can help make an informed decision. These details include –
- Type of pet
- How many pets?
- Size and Weight
- Breed restrictions
Remember that charging added pet rent or an additional pet deposit is a good idea if you are concerned about potential damage. Also, if the tenant has a service animal, this is not a pet, and landlords cannot refuse a tenant with a service animal even if the property is “no pets allowed.”
This property is non-smoking; do you smoke?
Whether it is smoking cigarettes or vaping, many landlords have strict rental smoking policies. Smoking in a unit where it is prohibited is a lease violation and requires extensive cleaning measures. So, ask upfront whether the applicant or any occupants are a smoker. Unfortunately, some applicants may not be truthful on this question. Therefore, reiterate the policies and consequences of violating the smoking policy regardless of their answer.
How many occupants will reside in the unit?
Before beginning the rental process, check local guidelines on occupancy limits in your area. Then, ask applicants how many occupants will reside in the residence. However, be careful with your wording here not to single out children, which could be seen as discriminatory. Also, inform the applicant that any occupant over 18 must complete a rental application and all related screening.
Our standard qualifications request applicants provide proof of income equal to or more than three times the monthly rent. Are you able to do so?
Receiving on-time rent payments is the backbone of any good landlord-tenant relationship. That said, landlords must use the tenant screening questions to ensure the applicant has stable and sufficient income. As a general rule, three times the monthly rent allows tenants to cover the rent as well as other living expenses. So, always require applicants to provide their three most recent paystubs. Additionally, take the time to verify their employment with the employer directly.
As part of our screening process, we run a criminal background report. Are there any issues we should be aware of?
Landlords need to protect their property, themselves, and the surrounding community. Therefore, a criminal background report is standard procedure in the tenant screening process. However, not all factors should count against a tenant. For example, if the applicant was arrested but not convicted of a crime, this should not affect a landlord’s decision if they are otherwise qualified. Instead, focus on significant offenses within the last seven years, including –
- Violent Crimes, Assault, or Domestic Violence
- Registered Sex Offenses
- Drug Charges such as Distribution of a Dangerous Substance
- Illegal Weapons Offenses
Have you ever been evicted? If so, can you explain the circumstances?
Past behavior can be an excellent predictor of future behavior. Therefore, landlords must consider prior evictions as a red flag. That said, the fallout of the COVID pandemic and subsequent loss of income for so many means landlords must pay close attention to circumstances. A recent eviction may have been brought on by a lost job rather than irresponsible behavior. So, evaluate this section carefully and also consider the applicant’s current financial stability.
Have you ever broken a lease? If so, why?
Lease breaks can be devastating for landlords as they usually result in extended vacancy, lost income, or property damages. That said if the tenant has broken a lease without proper notice for any reason other than a military transfer – beware! Also, utilize rental references to check the applicant’s story with their previous landlord.
How long have you been in your current rental home?
The rental industry is a transient one. However, landlords ideally want a tenant to stick around for more than one lease term. After all, marketing, turnover, and screening cost both time and money for property owners. So, inquire about the tenant’s past to see if they hop from property to property. If this is their history, chances are, you can expect the same.
Why have you decided to move?
This is one of the tenant screening questions that can bring a variety of answers. Perhaps the tenant needs to relocate for a job, recently got married, requires more space, or just needs a change of scenery. Regardless, this can offer valuable insight to the landlord. If the explanation does not seem reasonable, it should raise red flags.
Do you believe your current landlord would give you a favorable reference?
If a tenant answers no to this question, that may be a bad sign. After all, as the new landlord, the goal is to find a tenant who can have a positive landlord-tenant relationship. So, if they indicate an issue with a previous landlord, try to get further details that can help shed light on the situation.
We require an application fee of ($). Are you able to submit that with your completed application?
It is essential to be upfront with any required application fees. For example, perhaps the applicant did not answer truthfully on the tenant screening questions. Often, requiring an application fee will separate those who are genuinely interested and those who are not truly qualified.
The security deposit can range from 1 to 2 months’ rent which is due upon move-in. Would this be a problem?
Moving is expensive! In most cases, tenants must provide the first month’s rent and security deposit in addition to their moving expenses. While this is an understandable hurdle to overcome, landlords do not want to get to move-in day and discover the tenant cannot pay. So, be upfront with the required fees and allow the tenant time to plan accordingly.
How to Avoid Fair Housing Violations with Your Tenant Screening Questions
Discrimination is not only bad business practice, but it is also illegal. The federal Fair Housing Act protects individuals and families against discrimination by ensuring consistent housing practices across the country. That said, these federal laws specify certain “protected classes.” Thus, protecting renters from discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, disability, familial status, and national origin.
However, landlords must understand that the state and local levels may extend this list of protected classes. For example, some jurisdictions also protect tenants against discrimination based on citizenship, age, veteran status, genetic makeup, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, criminal history, or source of income.
So, landlords need to ensure that any tenant screening questions, application criteria, and tenant interactions of any kind adhere to the strict Fair Housing Laws in your area. Check out these tips below to ensure your policies do not violate the law and risk devastating financial or legal consequences.
- Transparency – After establishing set applicant qualifications and tenant screening questions, it is essential to stick to them. It is a good idea to include basic qualification criteria directly in the rental ad for added transparency.
- Consistency – Avoiding Fair Housing Act violations starts with treating all tenants respectfully and the same. This includes using the same documents, assessing the same fees, and requiring the same minimum qualifications. Therefore, owners can reduce the risk of potential discrimination or steering claims.
- Diligence – Any interaction, written or verbal, is open to potential scrutiny. So, ensure Fair Housing compliance across all interactions, rental ads, print material. This includes any staff or other party who represents the landlord.
Stress-Free Tenant Screening
Every day that a property sits vacant translates to potential lost income. Therefore, finding the right tenant can be a stressful and time-sensitive process. However, the right tenant screening questions and standard qualification policies are critical to a landlord’s success.
With professional property management, landlords do not have to worry about how to find the best tenant. At Bay Property Management Group, our staff of industry experts uses legally compliant and time-tested methods to fill vacancies in an average of fewer than 30 days. Plus, with a less than 1% eviction rate, owners can rest assured that we are looking out for their best interest. So, if you own a rental and are concerned with vacancy or just want to maximize your investment, give us a call today.