Last Updated on October 1, 2021 by Kelvin Nielsen
As a savvy landlord, you understand the importance of tenant screening. Among many things, an effective tenant screening process can help you get high-caliber tenants who will consistently pay rent, care for your property, and live peacefully with other renters. And this can make your landlording journey smoother and highly rewarding.
Pre-screening a tenant will save you time on tenants that wouldn’t otherwise make a cut. For example, if you don’t allow pets in the property, you’ll save both you and the tenant (pet owner) valuable time and hassle.
Basically, pre-screening questions will help you set your standards upfront and get a smaller pool of better qualified prospective tenants from the get-go.
If you don’t know the kind of questions to ask prospective tenants, this article is for you. Below are 9 pre-screening questions for landlords.
1. When do you intend to move in?
You can start by asking prospective tenants their desired move-in date. This is so because a tenant might be wanting to rent in a month or so while the vacancy you have requires to be filled immediately. Conversely, they might be wanting a ready vacancy while you could be waiting for one to come up in a month’s time.
This question will help you quickly establish whether the two of you share the same goals or not. If you determine your timelines don’t match from the start, skip the remaining set of screening questions and save yourself the time and hassle.
2. Why are you moving?
Tenants move for different reasons. While some will be shifting because they landed a new job or for commuting convenience, others will be seeking tenancy after an eviction. Ask this question to understand the reasoning behind their moving and decide quickly whether or not to give them housing.
That said, you shouldn’t take a tenant for their word. It’s in your best interest to do a follow-up with the previous landlord to enquire more about what kind of tenant they are. The last thing you want is to rent to a tenant who won’t pay rent, for instance.
Some of the questions you may want to ask previous landlords include:
- Did the tenant pay rent on time?
- Are you aware that the tenant is looking to move out? Usually, landlords require that tenants serve them proper notice before moving out.
- Was the tenant disruptive to other tenants?
- Did the tenant cause excessive property damage to your property?
- Would you rent to the tenant again?
3. Do you have pets?
Knowing whether the tenant keeps pets as early as now can save both of you a lot of time and hassle. If they have pets and you don’t allow animals in your rentals, you won’t proceed to the next set of screening questions.
This is also the time to let them know of any pet policies you have in place if you allow them. These may include the breed of pets allowed, number, size, and so on. Also, if you charge a pet deposit, now could be the best time to let them know. And don’t forget to clarify the amount as well.
4. How much do you earn per month?
It goes without saying that the success of your rental business depends on the ability of your tenants to pay rent. So, knowing the monthly income of potential tenants beforehand is key.
An effective way to tell whether the tenant can meet their rental obligations is by applying the 3:1 income to rent ratio principle. As per this industry standard, the tenant’s income should be at least three times the amount of rent. So, if the monthly price of your rental is $1,500, then only consider tenants making at least $4,500.
Besides this, you can ask for the tenant’s credit report to see their financial history and get a picture of how stable they are financially. Also, don’t forget to verify their employment as well.
5. How many people will occupy the apartment?
You also want to know the number of people who’ll be living in your rental unit. This is important because there are legal limitations on the number of people a given size of house should accommodate. For instance, you’d be in friction with the law if you rented a group of five friends a one-bedroomed apartment.
Under federal law, the rule “2 per bedroom plus 1” is used. Basically, this means that only 3 people can legally live in a one bedroom apartment.
Also, knowing that several people will be renting your apartment can help you in the following ways:
- It can make tenant screening easier as you’ll simply screen those listed as cosigners.
- It can make splitting deposits and other rental fees easier since you’ll divide it among the listed cosigners.
- It can lower the chances of squatters occupying your property.
6. Can you give previous landlords’ and employer references?
It’s also in your best interest to call the tenant’s previous landlords and employer as well. If the tenant has a renting history, they should provide a landlord reference on the rental application. In the case they haven’t rented previously, you should request a personal or credit reference to know more about the tenant’s conduct and reliability.
Besides previous landlords, you can contact the employer to verify the employment status of the tenant.
In some instances where the prospective tenant can’t provide references, it’s upon you to decide whether to rent to them or turn them away. That said, any tenant who withholds landlord and employer references raises a red flag. You’d be better off looking for someone else who can!
7. Have you ever committed a crime and gotten convicted?
Viewing a tenant’s criminal record should always be part of your screening process. The last thing you want is to rent to a tenant who has a record of breaking the law.
It is important to note, though, that you don’t have any grounds to turn away a rental prospect who has an arrest and not a conviction record. In addition, it is not legal to ask the tenant whether they had been arrested or charged with a crime.
8. Are you a smoker?
This question is imperative since smoke of any kind can cause notable damage to your property. Given that tar sticks to the walls, fittings, curtains, and anything it comes across, you don’t want smoking to happen inside your rental units.
Now, tenants are rarely likely to answer this question honestly. Whichever way they choose, this is the time to reiterate to them any smoking policy you have in place and the consequences of violating such a policy. And, needless to say, stating the policy clearly on the lease agreement can go a long way. After all, you cannot penalize a tenant for a rules they aren’t aware of.
Ideally, set aside some spots and let smoking tenants use them as ‘smoking zones’. This can be the backyard or a spot several feet away from the rental building.
9. What kind of lease agreement are you looking for?
There are several types of lease agreements that you can choose to go with depending on your goals. These include:
- Month-to-month leases which do not have time limits.
- One-way leases where you can waive the deposit or charge a termination fee should the tenant move out before a given number of months have elapsed.
- And fixed-term leases which are rental agreements between you and the tenant for a specified period.
Ideally, you want a fixed-term lease, particularly a 12-month one. However, don’t turn away a potential tenant because they are looking forward to a shorter lease or prefer a month-to-month lease. It’s not uncommon for month-to-month leases to go for years!
Pre-screening your tenants is imperative for long-term success. Aside from narrowing down your tenant pool, it’ll save you a lot of time and hassle. Do you want to pre-screen tenants but don’t know the questions to ask? Well, the above 9 questions should help you get started.
That being said, there are certain questions that are a complete no-no as per the Fair Housing Act. According to the act, landlords shouldn’t discriminate against tenants on the basis of their protected characteristics. There are 7 of those at the federal level; that is, race, color, disability, religion, sex, familial status and national origin.
Hi, I’m Kelvin Nielsen, an experienced landlord and accomplished real estate lawyer. My focus is on answering your questions about renting in the hopes of making your life as a renter or a landlord a bit easier.