Ok, so you have a vacant or soon-to-be-vacant rental property and you have advertised your property to rent… and now you have to screen your prospective tenants.
As you either meet them at the rental property, or talk to them on the phone after they decide they want the home, what you ask them is a major step in screening.
There are questions you should ask, and questions you should definitely never ask.
Many can be included on the application form but should still be discussed in person.
What You Should Ask Prospective Tenants
These questions help you get a better understanding about the prospective tenant.
- When Do You Plan on Moving-In?
Listen for warning signs when the prospective tenant answers this question. If they want to move in tomorrow or this coming weekend, chances are they are not responsible. If they are renting already they need to give their landlord at least 30-days notice… and if they have done this already they could be procrastinators (i.e. could later be late with rent), or are hiding something from you about the relationship with their present landlord. Responsible tenants will search for a new home at least a month before their move-in date.
- Why Are You Moving?
Listen closely to how they answer this question. The obvious potential red flags would be that they are moving because of trouble with their present landlord or being evicted. An answer I’m looking for would include them wanting more space or moving because of a job.
- What is Your Monthly Income?
Obviously, you need to determine if they can afford the rental property. But you also need an understanding of how steady this income is, how long have they had it, and if it might be gone in a month or two. Listen for possible warning signs when they discuss the answer to this question such as our income varies each month, or they only have only been working for a month with a particular employer.
- How Many People Will Be Living Here?
You want to limit the home to two people per bedroom. The fewer people living in the home the less wear and tear there will be on your rental property. There may even be restrictions placed on the home by municipalities and fire departments. There are also health and safety risks with having too many people living in the home. And in cities such as Cincinnati where the landlord is stuck with the water bill if the tenant leaves without paying, the more people in the home the larger the water bill. However, do not restrict the home to fewer than two people to a bedroom because you could face discrimination litigation.
- Do You Have the Security Deposit Now, and the Rent Available Upon Move-In?
Unlike a lot of other landlords, I prefer to have most if not all the security deposit as soon as the applicant is approved and ready to sign the lease. That way I have money in case the tenant fails to move-in… and in the meantime find a new tenant. With “skin in the game” a tenant is less likely to back out of renting the home. You also need to make sure the tenant will have the rent when they move in. Listen to the prospective tenant and how they answer these questions. You want to listen for any potential red-flags indicating that they may have trouble paying at the very beginning… possible indicating a problem tenant in the future.
- Do You Have Any Pets?
If you have a “no pets” policy, you should ask the tenant if they have any pets. If they tell you “yes” they do but the pet won’t be living with them, you can bet that a few months later if you check on them the pet will suddenly be there. For most people pets are like family, and people can’t just get rid of family.
- Can You Provide References From Your Employer and Former Landlord?
I don’t ask this question directly, but instead I have the contact information on my application form. I will talk to their employer, and I will contact at least two landlords in their history. If the tenant can’t verify stable employment then they may be hiding something. And you want to talk to their present landlord AND a former landlord because the present landlord might not tell you the whole truth if they are happy to get rid of the troublesome tenant.
- Have You Ever Had An Eviction Filed Against You?
Notice that I ask “eviction filed against you”. Not only do I want to know if the tenant was evicted, but I also want to know if the tenant even had an eviction filed against them and possible were not evicted either because the landlord failed to follow procedure for the eviction, the tenant moved out prior to the eviction, or the landlord and tenant came to an arrangement prior to eviction. Either way the eviction filing is obviously a red flag… the tenant could be a problem for you as well.
What You Shouldn’t Ask Prospective Tenants
To avoid legal issues, avoid these types of questions.
- Questions that Violate Fair Housing Laws
Never ask anything that could be interpreted as discrimination under the Federal Fair Housing Law or under your State’s Fair Housing Law. These laws protect the following classes: disability, race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and familial status. In addition in many states marital status and sexual orientation are also protected.
- Have You Ever Been Arrested?
There is a big difference between asking the prospective tenant if they have ever been arrested and if they have ever been convicted of a crime. You can ask them if they have been convicted of a crime, and can be readily confirmed by running a background check. Be careful because in many states you cannot discriminate against a person even if they have been convicted of a crime unless the crime would influence their ability to be a good tenant. This could include an illegal drug conviction or a history of violent offence that could put other tenants at risk.
- Any Questions That Are Not Part of Your Normal Procedure
Make sure you are consistent in all your prospective tenant screenings. Ask the same questions of all tenants. That is why a thorough application form is imperative because it helps make sure you are consistent. You should treat all tenants equally – ask consistent questions of all prospective tenants, and keep documentation showing that you consistently do that. You should also check out this Nolo Article, Choosing Tenants: Avoid Fair Housing Complaints and Lawsuits.
Screening prospective tenants is one of the most important tasks you need to do for your rental properties. Do your due diligence and you will have saved yourself time, money and stress down the line.
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