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What screening questions should I ask potential tenants?

By Avi Jacobson from Story by J.P. Morgan

You’re ready to start your rental cycle and you’re eager to advertise your property and start reviewing applicants. Before you do, it’s important to decide how you will evaluate them and ultimately accept or decline them as tenants.

Why are tenant screening criteria important?

It’s tempting to assume you can evaluate a renter simply by “trusting your gut,” or by relying on past experience. But remember: A landlord-tenant relationship is a long-term business connection. Before accepting a tenant, you want to be confident that they are reliable, their finances are solid, and they can take good care of your rental property. Asking the right questions can help achieve those goals.

Just as important, the way you screen applicants now can help prevent trouble in the future if the relationship should sour. You want to be sure you’re asking all your applicants the same questions – and that none of your questions could be interpreted as prohibited discrimination.

What are some important facts to learn about your tenant?

Your screening should make you confident that the tenant you accept has:

  • Adequate, ongoing, dependable monthly income or benefits, sufficient to cover the rent you will charge and the costs of living in your unit such as utilities and renter insurance.
  • An acceptable rental screening score. Story by J.P. Morgan provides access to tenant screening for less.
  • An acceptable eviction history.
  • Acceptable history of consistent, verifiable employment or a source of income.
  • Positive references (including previous landlords and personal references).

What are some questions to ask when screening candidates?

Our free downloadable tenant screening questionnaire contains some important questions to ask applicants.

Below, under each question, are some follow-up questions you can ask if you decide to schedule them for an interview.

  • When would you like to move in?

You can also ask: Where are you currently living? Is it a rental? Why are you moving? What do you like about where you’re living right now? What do you like about this property?

  • Will you be moving any pets in with you?

You can also ask: How many pets do you have? What kind/size/breed? Are they housetrained? Are they healthy and well-behaved? Are they sociable? If you go out of town, who will care for them? Have you fully read and understood the pet policies and fees we disclosed to you, and do you promise to follow them?

  • Please provide your rental history.

You can also ask: How long have you lived at your current address? Have you ever been evicted from a rental? Have you ever broken your lease? Have you told your current landlord you are moving? May I speak with your current or previous landlord?

  • How many people in total are you planning to move in with you?

Determine the occupancy limit for the unit under consideration. Does the proposed occupancy exceed that limit?

You can also ask: How many parking spaces will you need?

  • Please provide your recent employment history.

You can also ask: Do you have a job? Where? How long have you worked there? Can you document that? Are there any gaps in your employment history, and if so, why? Will you be able to pay rent on time throughout the term of the lease? If you are unemployed, what is the source of funds you will use to meet your rent obligations? Have you fully read and understood the application fee and security deposit terms we disclosed to you, and do you promise to follow them? May we speak with your current or previous employer? You can also ask about additional regular sources of income.

  • Will you agree to a credit check and criminal background check?

You can also ask: Is there anything I should know about the criminal background of any likely occupant? Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Was it related to a substance? If so, have you completed or are you currently undergoing substance abuse treatment? (Note, however, that some localities prohibit the denial of someone based on criminal history.) Have you ever filed for bankruptcy?

  • Do you have any questions?

You can also ask: Do you understand the rental process? Are you willing to commit to a x-year lease?

What should I never ask a potential tenant – in writing or in person?

You must not ask any question, verbally or in writing, that could be interpreted as discrimination against a member of a class protected by federal, state or local law. Generally, you may not base a rent decision on race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), disability, familial status, and national origin. Consult with your counsel to obtain an understanding of the requirements applicable to you as a landlord.

No matter how casual or innocent the question may seem, here are some examples of questions you may want to avoid:

  • I love your accent! Where are you originally from? Where are your folks from?
  • There’s a lovely church across the street! Are you interested in becoming a member?
  • As a woman, do you have any concerns about your safety?
  • Are you two planning to have kids?
  • So you’re retired? You look so young! How old are you?

Please click the “DOWNLOAD” button below to download our free tenant screening questionnaire.

Remember: Knowing in advance what to ask – and not ask!– can help ensure that the tenant you choose is the best fit for you and for your property.

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