How I pre-screen prospective tenants

Written on September 21, 2017 by , updated on October 28, 2017

As a landlord, tenant screening can feel like the most informative but awkward part of the job.

It’s like interviewing someone for a job. You have to decide if you want a long-term relationship with them after a 30-minute conversation.

Pre-screening typically happens before the potential tenant even applies to the rental. Pre-screening can be awkward, but it’s super important to your long-term success. It saves you from time wasters—people who won’t qualify. And it helps ensure you’re a good fit for each other.

Understand and follow the law

As a landlord, your goal is to protect your house and make sure you find the best tenants. As you begin the process, you should know that there are laws regarding what a landlord can and can’t ask. The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity influences these federal laws.

Every state has its own parameters, and some rules are defined by the number of units a landlord manages or owns. That’s why it’s important to look up your local regulations before you even consider what questions to ask the tenant.

As a landlord of eight rental properties, I’ve always tried to keep it conversational. While I have friends who have a list of questions in a checklist format, I find it easier to be more informal. This makes it feel more like a chat than a grilling, which, in my nonlegal opinion, helps me stay clear of legal issues.

Topics to bring up

Here’s how I create a conversational atmosphere. As I am chatting with the tenant, I bring up these topics.

  • Why do they want to rent your house? Why do these tenants want to rent? The American dream is buying, so it’s important to know why they want to rent. Are they going to be short-term tenants looking to check out the area then buy once they figure out the neighborhood? Do they have poor credit, a short sale, or a bankruptcy in their past that’s preventing them from buying? Do they not believe in buying and they plan to always rent?
  • Can they afford your house? Your goal as a landlord is to have someone who pays rent every month. So you want to see if they’ll pay then rent or give excuses.
  • When do they want to move in? You don’t want an empty house, because every day empty is lost income. Therefore, if someone is looking to move in October 1, and my house is ready May 1, they probably won’t be the best candidate.
  • Is there any situation that may cause excessive liability or expenses? Do they have an excessive amount of pets, want to host a business, have six roommates, etc.

Once the potential renter has answered all my questions, I go over my requirements and set up a showing. That way, if they refuse to complete a background or credit check, or don’t make the income required (three times the rent for me), I know before I waste my time with an application.

Also, remember that they are interviewing you as much as you’re interviewing them. It’s a two-way conversation.

Here’s the general conversation process I follow, and sometimes I add more or less info, depending on how it’s going.

My pre-screening process

1. I introduce myself

I say I’m the landlord of a house, and I’m returning their call. I ask how I can help them.

I try to leave this intro open. If I get lucky, and get a chatty person, it’s much easier than trying to force questions. So I always leave it open to see where it goes. I want them to talk!

2. I tell them when the house is available

I then ask when they are interested in moving in.

If they want to move in December, and the house is available in May, that ends the conversation right there. While some people bring the move-in time up later, I do it right at the beginning, because I’ve found this is the most frequent reason we stop chatting.

Also, never completely shut a conversation down, as you never know where it might go. While there’s no way you’re going to hold a house for five months, if you get a great short-term deal and then have a three-year lease, the pieces could fit perfectly.

3. Ask them to talk about themselves

If your situation warrants it, you should follow your state’s fair housing laws. So be careful what you ask. I’ve found that getting people to talk about themselves keeps the conversation going, and helps me learn valuable information.

4. Discuss specific rules

This is where I follow-up on anything they talked about in number three. Did they mention pets? Now I want to know more about the pets. I want to know about anything that could cause me issues in the long-term.

5. Discuss screening criteria

This is where I go over my requirements and ask if they want to schedule an appointment. I find that those who can’t meet the requirements, get a lot less interested when they realize they’ll need to purchase a screening report bundle from Cozy, for $39.95 per person. Honestly, I love that tenants pay for Cozy’s screening reports, because it helps me weed out the tire-kickers.

Remember, before you get started talking to a prospective tenant, read up on your local laws. Some areas, such as San Francisco and Seattle, have very specific laws regarding how you can screen tenants. Be sure to follow the rules of the law, and good luck finding your next tenant!

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