How to Screen Tenants

Natasha Khullar RelphNatasha Khullar Relph

Mar 27, 2024

How to Screen Tenants

Successful property management is not just about purchasing the right property but about selecting long-term tenants who will be an asset to your business. The tenant screening process is critical to running a successful rental property business and finding tenants. By adhering to legal guidelines and industry best practices, you can establish a strong foundation for a mutually beneficial landlord-tenant relationship.

Here’s how.

How to Screen Potential Tenants

If you’re interested in creating income from rentals, it’s important that you select responsible and reliable tenants. Not properly vetting tenants can lead to potential issues such as late or missed rent payments, property damage, disturbances to neighbors, legal disputes, and increased turnover rates, ultimately impacting the profitability and stability of your rental property.

Let’s discuss effective strategies and considerations for thoroughly screening potential tenants to find the right tenant for your property:

Step 1: Establish Screening Criteria

Establishing clear and comprehensive screening criteria is the first step in effective tenant screening. By outlining specific requirements and screening questions, you can ensure that your rental property is occupied by tenants who meet your expectations and standards. Creating a tenant screening checklist is an essential part of this process. This checklist will be a systematic tool that guides your evaluation of applicants and helps you remain consistent in your decision-making. It will also ensure you don’t miss any crucial steps or information during the screening process.

The criteria you establish should contribute to a tenant’s reliability and suitability. These include:

  • Income: Evaluating an applicant’s income helps you gauge their ability to afford the rent and other living expenses. A general rule of thumb is that a tenant’s monthly income should be around three times the rent.
  • Employment: Verify an applicant’s employment status. Steady employment can indicate financial stability and the capability to meet rent payments.
  • Tenant history: An applicant’s rental history, including their previous landlords’ references, can provide insights into their behavior as a tenant and whether they fulfilled their responsibilities in previous rental arrangements.
  • Credit history report: Assess a potential tenant’s credit report to understand their financial habits. A good credit score can reflect financial responsibility.
  • Legal history: You should also look through the applicant’s legal history, including any prior evictions or legal disputes.

While establishing screening criteria, it’s crucial to understand and comply with Fair Housing Act regulations. These laws prohibit discrimination against certain protected classes, ensuring your fair and unbiased selection process. You cannot deny tenants based on factors such as familial status, sex, religion, disability, national origin, color, or race. Some state housing laws add additional criteria, including marital status, veteran status, prior convictions/criminal record, citizenship, sexual orientation, political ideology, gender identity, age, and participation in the Section 8 program or other subsidy programs.

Step 2: Ask Applicants to Fill Out a Rental Application

Once you’ve established your screening criteria, the next step is to utilize a comprehensive rental application as a pre-screening tool. The rental application form allows you to collect details from applicants that provide insights into their background and suitability as tenants.

Consider asking for:

  • Personal information: A robust rental application should include sections for personal information, employment history, rental history, and references. Personal information includes the applicant’s full name, phone number, contact information, Social Security number, and any co-applicants or roommates.
  • Authorization for tenant background checks: Include a section in the rental application where applicants provide written consent for you to conduct background checks, such as credit checks and criminal history checks. This consent is important for you to carry out thorough screenings in compliance with privacy laws.
  • Income verification: Request information about the applicant’s income and employment. This helps you verify their ability to meet rental obligations. You may ask for recent pay stubs, tax returns, or employment verification letters to confirm their financial stability.
  • Rental history: Inquire about their rental history, including previous landlords’ contact information and the duration of their past tenancies. This can help you gather insights into their rental behavior, late payments, and potential red flags.
  • References: Include space for personal and professional references. While these references may not be the sole determinants of tenant eligibility, they can offer additional perspectives on the applicant’s character and reliability.

Step 3: Credit and Background Checks

After gathering essential information through the rental application, the next step in tenant screening is to conduct comprehensive credit and background checks.

Running a credit check enables you to assess an applicant’s financial track record. It reveals their credit score, outstanding debts, payment history, and potential financial risks. Background checks delve into an applicant’s legal history, including criminal records. While past convictions shouldn’t be an automatic disqualification, assessing their nature and relevance to your property is essential. Background checks also help you confirm a potential tenant’s identity and ensure they haven’t misrepresented themselves.

Here’s a breakdown of the crucial details you should look for when performing these checks:

  • Credit score: A higher score indicates better financial management and a lower risk of default.
  • Payment history: A consistent pattern of on-time payments reflects responsible financial behavior.
  • Debt-to-income ratio: The debt-to-income ratio is a financial metric comparing an individual’s monthly debt payments to their gross monthly income. A lower ratio often signals a healthier financial position.
  • Outstanding debts: Identify outstanding debts, such as credit card balances, loans, or other financial obligations. Evaluate whether these debts might impact the applicant’s ability to meet rent payments.
  • Criminal background check: Check for local, state, and federal criminal records to ensure tenant safety and compliance with legal requirements.

Step 4: Verify Income and Employment

The next step is to verify the applicant’s income and employment to ensure they have the financial capacity to meet their rental obligations. Ask applicants to provide documented proof of their income sources, such as recent pay stubs, tax returns, or bank statements. You may also want to contact the applicant’s employer to confirm their employment status, position, and salary. The following numbers can help determine a prospective tenant’s financial stability:

  • Gross monthly tenant income: Gross monthly tenant income refers to the total income earned by a tenant before taxes and deductions are taken out. It includes income from all sources, such as salary, wages, tips, bonuses, alimony, child support, and other recurring payments.
  • Tenant income qualifier: The tenant income qualifier is a standard used by landlords and property managers to assess whether a prospective tenant’s income meets the minimum requirement to comfortably afford the rent of the rental property.
  • Rent-to-income ratio: The rent-to-income ratio is calculated by dividing the monthly rent by the applicant’s income. A reasonable ratio ensures the applicant can comfortably afford the rent without financial strain.

Step 5: Check Previous History

When screening tenants for a rental property, it is essential to gather comprehensive information about their previous addresses, interactions with landlords, and eviction history from public records. This step helps landlords make informed decisions about the applicant’s suitability and reliability as a tenant. Consider:

  • Previous addresses: Obtaining a list of prior addresses from the tenant allows you to verify their rental history. This information lets you contact their former landlords and inquire about their behavior as tenants.
  • Landlord references: Communicating with past landlords is a valuable way to assess an applicant’s character and rental behavior. By discussing their previous renting experiences, you can gain insights into their payment habits, care for the property, and any conflicts with neighbors.
  • Eviction history: Checking for any eviction history is crucial to avoid potential problems. Evictions can reflect a tenant’s inability to meet financial obligations or a lack of adherence to lease agreements.
  • Consistency and honesty: Comparing the information provided by the applicant upfront with the details obtained from landlords and eviction records helps ensure the applicant’s honesty and consistency. Inaccuracies or omissions may raise red flags.

Step 6: Interview the Applicant

Directly interacting with the applicant can allow landlords to gather additional information from prospective renters. Remember, the interview is a two-way process. It will enable both parties to assess compatibility and ensure a harmonious landlord-tenant relationship.

Conduct the interview professionally, maintaining respect and transparency throughout. While the interview provides valuable insights, combining it with other screening methods is essential for a comprehensive assessment of the applicant’s suitability.

Step 7: Make Your Decision

Once you’ve reviewed all applicants and decided, you can accept or deny a tenant.

If you’re accepting a tenant:

  • Provide your new tenant with a lease agreement. Ensure they review and understand terms before signing.
  • Once the lease is signed, you can collect the security deposit and the first month’s rent according to your lease terms.
  • Give the tenant information about move-in procedures, utilities, and other relevant details.
  • Before a tenant moves in, inspect the property thoroughly to document its condition.

If you’re denying a tenant:

  • Notify the tenant promptly and professionally that their application has been denied.
  • Offer a brief, objective explanation for the denial. Common reasons include failing to meet income requirements or having negative references.
  • Ensure your denial is based on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons and is consistent with fair housing laws.
  • Keep records of your decision-making process, including notes from interviews, references, and background checks, to demonstrate transparency.

Tenant screening is critical in finding good tenants for your rental property. By carefully reviewing applicants and following fair and legal procedures, you can make confident decisions that benefit you and your tenants.

Are you not yet ready to buy a property outright, but are you interested in the cash flow real estate offers? Arrived can help. Through our platform, you can purchase shares of rental properties and start building a portfolio today.


The opinions expressed in this article are for general informational purposes only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual or on any specific security or investment product. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice.

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