Top 5 Questions to Ask Potential Tenants (and What Not to Ask)

Written on July 27, 2015 by

Top 5 Questions to Ask Potential TenantsCongratulations, you’ve advertised your rental property, and people are responding!

But now what? How do you know which potential tenant to pick?

The right tenant can make your life a dream, but a bad tenant can cause you stress, aggravation and money.

The best way to help ensure you’ll have a good tenant is to have a tenant screening process that you use for every potential tenant.

As such, it’s critical to treat all potential tenants the same way, so you don’t violate the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination on seven protected classes, plus whatever classes your state and locality has.

Questions You Should Ask:

1. When would you like to move?

When you receive a phone call or email from someone interested in renting your property, the first thing you should ask is when they would like to move. You might not want to waste time showing your place to someone who isn’t ready to move for another three months – while your place sits vacant.

If the timing is right, proceed.

2. Can you pay move-in costs upon signing a lease?

Tell this potential tenant that you require first month’s rent and security deposit (or whatever it is that you require) and what that amount will be.

Related: Why Don’t You Collect Last Month’s Rent

Ask whether they are prepared to pay it upon signing the lease. If they aren’t sure and ask you whether you’ll accept installments, consider this a red flag. You’ll likely have a difficult time getting your full rent on time.

If they say they will have the money, but just “not right now”, then politely move along to the next applicant.

3. Do you have pets?

If you have a no-pet policy, and this person has a pet, you can stop the interview right now. But if you allow pets, you can explain whether you have any restrictions on the types or number of pets allowed.

If you’re both on the same page regarding pets, you’re ready to schedule a showing. But ask first…

Related: The Definitive Guide to Renting to Tenants with Pets

4. Will you be able to pass a background and credit check?

Tell the applicant that you can show the place but if they want to rent it, they’ll need to fill out an application and pass a credit and/or background check.

Let them know you require that of all applicants, and tell them what the fee will be (if you will charge one). If they agree to that, go ahead and schedule a showing. If not, say “buh-bye.”

Related: Cozy Launches Free Online Tenant Background Checks

5. Why are you leaving your current place?

If the renter says “my landlord and I just don’t get along”, or “my landlord terminated my lease”, then you should definitely talk to that landlord to find out why. Perhaps the tenant is a slob and the landlord has grown tired of him.

Personally, my favorite answers are

  • I just love this neighborhood/house/town, or
  • I want to be closer to work/family/friends/etc

Questions You Cannot Ask:

Generally speaking, you cannot ask questions to some potential tenants and not to others. If you ask a question to one applicant, you must ask the same question to all applicants. Likewise, if you require paystubs from all applicants, you must require them of all.

1. National Origin:

You can’t ask in which country an applicant was born. Why? The applicant could interpret this to be a racist question, and it’s against the Fair Housing Act. National Origin is a protected class – not to be confused with Nationality (citizenship) which is not a protected class (except in California and a few other states)

2. Disabilities:

You can’t ask whether the applicant has a service animal. Why? The applicant could interpret this to be a question used to discriminate against the disabled. However, if you have a “no-pet” policy, the only animals that would be allowed in are service animals, and therefore the applicant must prove the animal’s certification status.

3. Children:

You can’t ask how many children an applicant has. Why? The applicant could interpret this question to be discriminatory against familial status. However, you can ask how many occupants the tenant plans on housing, and you can draft the lease as such. As a landlord, you are obligated to follow the occupancy rules in your county.

4. Religion:

You can’t ask whether an applicant would like directions to the nearest church. Why? The applicant could assume that you rent only to Christians, which would be discriminatory.

There are more types of questions that would be considered discriminatory, so please familiarize yourself with national and local fair housing laws.

Application and Screening Tips

Before your first showing, set up an online application and screening process that allows you to perform a background and credit check.

A background check typically includes eviction history, national and county criminal records and many other public records.

A credit check tells you whether the applicant has a history of late payments, has any accounts that have gone to collection or has filed for bankruptcy. You’ll also see whether the applicant has too much debt for their income.

There are many ways of setting up an application and screening process, but my favorite is to use Cozy.

The application you use should state that the applicant agrees to a background and credit check.

The Perfect Applicant

Ideally, you’ll want a tenant with the following attributes:

  • A steady work history
  • A salary that’s two to three times more than what you charge for rent
  • A decent credit score (more on this below)*
  • Past landlords you can contact (ideally not just the current landlord who might say anything to get rid of a bad tenant)
  • A good reason for leaving the last residence (being evicted would not be a good reason; wanting more room would)
  • No more occupants than what is legal for your area
  • Personal references (the employer and a former landlord is what you’re looking for, not the best friend from middle school)

*Regarding a decent credit score: that’s up to you. Here’s a general breakdown:

  • 781 to 850: excellent credit, very low risk
  • 661 to 780: good credit, low risk
  • 601 to 660: average credit, some risk involved
  • 501 to 600: poor credit, risky
  • 300 to 500: bad credit, high risk

Related: The Landlord’s Guide to Tenant Screening

Now that you know what to do and what not to do, happy interviewing!

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20 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Al W

    Nice list Laura.

    May I add one of my favorite questions? I got this tip from Jeffrey Taylor (Mr. Landlord) It’s “How long to you plan to stay?”

    Since the applicant is trying to impress you they will typically say something longer than one year.

    If they are approved, you should write the lease to the time period they said (you can always edit it if they push back).

  • Laura Agadoni

    Thanks Al!

    Interesting. I can see that working well in some situations.

  • Shelly

    Can I tell a tenant that I don’t want to rent to them just because I don’t feel they would be a good tenant?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Shelly,

      You can’t say that to an applicant because that response could open you up to a discrimination lawsuit. What you can do is set standards. For example, you can say that all applicants must pass your background and credit check, cannot be smokers, cannot have a negative response from a past landlord or employer, and cannot have pets (unless the pet is a service animal). If the applicant doesn’t meet your qualifications, you don’t have to rent to them. Basically, as long as you don’t violate anti-discrimination laws, you can choose whichever tenant you like.

      • Angela Smith

        Most people that we get a bad “vibe” from, have something in their past that we can deny them on. My hubby and I have very strict standards since we update our houses and put the work in ourselves, and really do not want to have high turnover or a bad tenant. The ONE time we slacked on our standards was the one time we were burned. If we had stuck to our guns, we would of been saved a lot of heartache. Our biggest “weeding out” measure is requiring proof of income and they must make 4 times rent. We have this requirement on our voicemail so it weeds out people that do not qualify automatically.

  • Mia

    I’ve come to realize they have been charging me for my children under a utility/extra person fee. All my three children are minors is this legal?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Mia,
      Check with an attorney in your area. Families with minor children are protected under the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This includes landlords not being able to set different terms for families with minor children. But I don’t know your situation, your lease, how big your unit is, etc. So I cannot speak to your particular situation. Your best bet would be an attorney.

  • Edith

    Hi!
    How do I nicely tell a person that wants to apply but doesn’t give me a good “vibe” that I don’t want to rent to them ?
    Is “someone already submitted an application for that apartment sorry”? A good excuse

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Edith,
      My best advice to you is to have a tenant-screening process set up as is described in this article. Treat all tenants the same way, and then rent to the tenant who passes your screening. Going with your “vibe” can be a good reason in your mind, but your tenant could view that as discrimination, particularly if the person is in a protected class.
      Good luck renting your place to a great tenant!

  • caterina

    I know this is kind of an old thread, but how do I tell a prospective tenant that they are an excellent candidate, (and I’d love to have them as my tenant–at least on paper), and get them to send deposit money/sign a lease from a distance without sounding like a desperate landlord? Frankly, I am a little desperate, but they don’t need to know that.

  • Nino

    How should I consider child support when evaluating income? The applicant would not qualify without the child support. My thoughts were to consider it all the same….just a different form of income. But didn’t know if there were any gotchas (like the parent providing the child support does not pay or is late).

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Nino,
      You can set any guidelines you like to determine whether an applicant qualifies. Generally, you want proof that the potential tenant has been receiving child support for at least a year and that they are scheduled to receive it for at least a year more (or the term of your lease).

  • Blaine Moore

    If you are the owner of your properties, can you screen one tenant and not another? Is this illegal or go against Fair Housing. The other tenant that I am talking about is family, and I am willing to vouch for them…

    • Lucas Hall

      The simple definition of Fair Housing is that you have to treat every applicant equally and not discriminate based on the protected classes. But each state has slightly different rules on it so I suggest you talk with a local attorney.

  • Sara

    HI! I have multiple people interested and willing to do a full screening. If they all look good how do you choose one? And do you have to let them know there are multiple applications coming in?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Sara,
      Congratulations on having so many people interested in your rental! What I do is to have a couple of showings, and then cut off the applications a few days after the last showing. If people are hesitant to fill out an application and ask me how many are applying, I let them know how many have applied so far and then let them decide whether they want to apply or not. As far as how to choose, there’s no one right answer. Have your qualifications list, and choose the person who meets most or all of them.

  • Julie Rosenberger

    The landlord is asking the references I gave what kind of personality I have- is this legal????

  • Sandra

    I am renting out a bedroom in my home. One potential roommate has informed me they have visitation with their child every other weekend and plans to have the child stay in their room with them. If I am not comfortable with this can I choose not to rent to them or would that be considered discrimination against families? The child in question is 11 yr. old and the opposite sex as the potential roommate/tenant renting the room.

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