Tenant Screening – What’s in their Backseat?

Written on February 12, 2013 by , updated on October 30, 2017

What's in their Backseat?The following article describes a nontraditional trick to learning more about your rental applicants.  At the very least, this technique will probably give you a good chuckle.

Beyond the Application…

Let’s be real, not all applicants offer up the full picture when submitting an application.  As a Landlord, I want to know things that they may not want to tell me.

When showing a property to potential tenants, I’m always looking for signals that will give me insight into their lives and habits.  Before I accept an applicant, I want to know particulars, such as if they will keep a clean house or if they are a chain smoker. Or worse, have they blatantly lied on the application?

Credit and background checks are wonderful tools for determining the applicant’s ability to pay rent, but I usually want to know more. I want to know about their behavior and undocumented habits that might threaten my portfolio.

If a potential tenant arrives in a car that does not look cared for, regardless of the make/model/year, its one sign that the individual does not pride his or her possessions. However, because an old beat-up truck might also be a sign of thriftiness, which is a great trait, I usually turn to a test that is more reliable; the backseat.

Take a quick look into their car.

You can tell a lot about a person by the backseat of their car.

I’m not saying that you should snoop around their seat cushions; I’m merely suggesting that if you glance (no more than 1-2 seconds) into their car, you might learn something. You can tell a lot about a person by the backseat of their car. But keep in mind – you don’t want to look creepy.  A glance any longer than 2 seconds will make you seem like an intrusive landlord.

What about Privacy?

Because the contents of the car are visible to anyone walking down the sidewalk, there is not a legal expectation of privacy.  According to The Criminal Law Handbook, while a person may have a subjective expectation of privacy in his/her car, it is not always an objective one, unlike a person’s home.

If the opportunity presents itself to take a quick glance, do it.  But if it feels wrong to you, then don’t. Excellent landlording is very much about having integrity and listening to your personal convictions (tweet this quote).

Create an opportunity, without forcing one.

SidewalkFor me, I never go out of my way to investigate their vehicle, but I will help create a convenient opportunity when I can. For example, I’ll offer to walk the applicant back to their car after the property showing is over.

Walking an applicant to their car serves many purposes:

  1. It’s a nice gesture,
  2. It allows me to talk with them and answer their questions (i.e. part of the screening process),
  3. If the property is in a sketchy neighborhood, it’s a way that I can ensure their safety, and
  4. It provides an opportunity to glance into their car and observe their other habits.

What to look for:

  1. Children: If you see a baby seat or children’s toys in the car, but the applicant failed to list any children on the application, it might be worth inquiring about.
  2. Animals: Sometimes applicants will forget to mention their animals, or will simply lie about having them.  Because it is nearly impossible to clean up all that white dog hair off the upholstery fabric – the car seats are an excellent pet-alarm.
  3. Dirtiness: If there are crumpled hamburger wrappers or empty soda bottles (i.e. trash) in the backseat or on the floor, it’s a good sign that they will treat your property the same way.
  4. Tobacco: Look for cigarettes, cigars, or any other type of smoking tobacco.  If they smoke in their car, they will probably smoke in your house.  However, if the applicant is indeed a smoker, his/her clothes and hair will probably smell like it too.
  5. Drug Paraphernalia: If they have a window sticker of a pot leaf, then they probably smoke pot. Smoking pot is still a federal offense. If the applicant is willing to showcase a pot sticker, they probably use other drugs that they are not so willing to divulge.
  6. Anything Dangerous: Unsecured or loaded guns, especially during hunting season, propane, harmful chemicals, or fireworks.  If they are willing to store these things in their car, you better believe they won’t think twice about storing them in your property – even if your lease forbids it.
  7. Uniforms or Work Attire: If the attire doesn’t match with the occupation mentioned on the application, it’s worth finding out why.  Maybe they have a second job, and second income, that they forgot to mention.

If there is anything that is contradictory to their application, it’s a red flag.  If you feel uncomfortable with what you find, you either need to confront the applicant by asking for an explanation, or reject the applicant all together.

Isn’t that Discrimination?

No, as long as you treat all applicants equally and your decisions are based on legitimate business reasons. “No Pets” and “No Smoking” are legitimate business reasons. Just remember, if you deny one applicant for being a smoker, you have to deny all smokers. The federal Fair Housing Act and Fair Housing Amendments Act prohibit landlords from selecting tenants on the following characteristics:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Familial status, including having children or being pregnant
  • National Origin, or
  • a Mental or Physical Disability

Further, some state and local laws prohibit discrimination based on a person’s age, marital status, and sexual orientation.  My rule of thumb is to always air on the side of caution, even if some of the discrimination laws do not apply to my state.

In Summary

It’s best to find out as much as you can about an applicant before they sign a lease.  Don’t hesitate to reject an applicant who has hobbies or professions, such as fireworks-dealer, which might put your property or the lives of other roommates/neighbors at risk.

As long as you hold the same standards for all applicants, and do not violate the federal discrimination laws, you are free to choose whichever applicant you feel most comfortable with.


What do you think?

Is this method brilliantly strategic, or super sketchy? Let me know in the comments below.

photo credit: smohundro via cc
Get our free newsletter

Join 200,000+ landlords

  • ​Tips to increase income
  • Time-saving techniques
  • ​Powerful tools & resources

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available. Be short, sweet and to the point.