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
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23 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • K

    I wish I had known about your rule of thumb sooner. I have a tenant who’s exactly like the one you describe here. She’s renting a room from me on a month-to-month basis. Right now I’m overseas on a temporary assignment, but I am seriously thinking of giving her 30-day notice after my return if she continues to be like that.

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi K

      Sorry to hear that, but good luck when you come back. Just an FYI, the amount of notice you have to give is regulated by the state. For month to month leases, is usually 30 days but not always. Check out our Laws page to research it more.

      • Kathleen

        Unfortunately, I was forced to evict the tenant while I was out of the country. She was verbally abusive to the other person staying in my home. I am fortunate that she didn’t cause any major damage.

  • sharon r bower

    I would also error on the side of caution about guns. The Constitution of the United States, deals with this subject. But felons can not posses firearms. I am new to being a landlord and have not yet rented out the unit I own. Still reading up on things and reading your blog. Great info.

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for the comment. Even if the applicant is not a felon, carrying a loose gun around in a car is a risky choice. I would be cautious of anyone carrying a gun around in the backseat.

      Let me know if I can help you with anything. We have a really great community of landlords here, and every comment helps us learn from one another. Good Luck and Cheers!

      • Kathleen

        They shouldn’t be carrying weapons in plain sight, period. If you do see a firearm, ask to see their concealed carry license. After they leave, call the police if you have any concerns.

        • Lucas Hall

          Unless you live in Texas! :)

          Texans can carry guns everywhere, in plain sight, except post offices and federal buildings.

          • Jim

            Many states have open carry and do not need a permit. A concealed permit is for carrying a ‘concealed’ firearm. Certain individuals are not allowed to be in any sort of possession of a firearm but it is hard to ascertain whether a person is among the disenfranchised. I carry a firearm in my vehicle at all times of travel and I carry concealed probably 50-60% of the time. In our county of 68 thousand, about 20 thousand are licensed to carry concealed. We have a VERY low incidence of muggings or murder; Check out Chicago that has VERY strict gun laws; it has one of the highest of firearm related murders and street muggings.

          • Lucas Hall

            Hi Jim

            Very true. But there is a difference between someone who carries a gun in a bag while in the car, or hidden in a trunk, vs someone who leaves an AR-15 in plain sight on the backseat, with the windows down, while they go into a house for a 30 minutes property showing.

            For me, it’s not so much that they own a gun, but rather how responsible are they?

          • Kathleen

            I live in Texas, and I have a CHL. There are other places besides federal properties and military bases where you cannot carry your firearm.

            Two of the most common areas are any businesses that post the 30.06 (pronounced “thirty-odd-six”) rule and any restaurant/bar that gets at least 51% of its sales from alcohol.

  • Jeanie

    What is the best site to use for criminal/credit background check? I have heard that there is a site that either gives you a red/yellow or green light in regards to a tenant. Thanks in advance for getting back to me.

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Jeanine,

      There are plenty of vendors who provide the “stop light” reports that you mention, but they are not as good as they seem. First, you have to set the criteria for which the red, yellow, green colors are based. They don’t decide that for you.

      Then after you pay for the data, you don’t actually get to see it. You only get a pass/fail report.

      Unless you know exactly what criteria you are looking for, I suggest getting more of the report.

      The easiest and most secure report is through Cozy (https://cozy.co), which is free. However, you need accept an application through Cozy first before you can order a credit report on the applicant. Like I said, it’s free, so you have nothing to lose by checking it out. Sign up, add a property, and then have the applicant fill out an application. Once you have the application, you can get the credit report.

  • Jack

    I am thinking about using your software to screen my tenants. However, I feel like you have a problem with the second amendment. I like all your articles but tone it down on the gun rhetoric. A gun is like any other tool. I am having second thoughts of supporting a company that is against gun ownership. Just my thoughts.

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Jack

      Thanks for your comment.

      I’m actually a gun owner myself and I enjoy the freedom and protection it brings. I support gun ownership 100%. However, I do not support blatant disregard for gun safety. I think a gun needs to be secure in all situations. A person who leaves an unlocked gun in plain view in the backseat of their car is asking to be robbed. Someone could easily break the window and then use that gun for a crime.

      To your point, I don’t elaborate on that in the article and it does come across stronger than intended. Thanks for the nudge, friend.

      • Jack

        No problem. Thanks for the explanation, I agree with you 100%. I signed up with your software, it is impressive. Thanks for all your tips on your blog… It is excellent information

  • How is having a second job a bad thing‽ The only financial matter that you can inquire about is whether they can cover the rent. What does it matter if they didn’t mention it? The only way having more money than they indicated could possibly be any of your business is if they were applying for subsidized housing. Otherwise, you have no right to view that as a “red flag”.

    • Jim

      Not sure what started this discussion but I can tell you as a LL if you copped an attitude like you just have I would reject you in a New York second. HONESTY in filling out an app is of TOP IMPORTANCE to me. Bad attitude spells “BAD TENANT”.

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi there,

      Having a second job is not a bad thing at all – in fact it helps add to their income. I only care that they meet the minimum requirements. It’s in the applicant’s best interest to put down all sources of income to ensure they qualify.

  • Cathy Brown

    I’m new to the landlord thing, and am so grateful for the resource you’ve provided! Thank you! Here’s my question — exactly how do you reject people? What do you SAY, especially if they keep pressing you for answers or they’re not accepting your reason. I’d just like to get a good, standard “rejection answer” down that is legal, easy, and will politely put an end to the conversation.

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