Everything You Need to Know About Tenant Screening Questions

Our tenant screening list will help you understand your applicant's background, spot issues early, and be better prepared for productive interviews.

By
Vivian Tejada
|
Last Updated
November 15, 2023
Everything You Need to Know About Tenant Screening Questions

Finding the right tenant for your property can be challenging if you don’t ask the right questions. If you live in a part of the country with an extremely competitive rental market, chances are more than one applicant will be qualified to rent your unit, which makes it difficult to choose one applicant over another. Asking the right pre-screening questions can make it easier to choose the best tenant for your property.

At the end of the day, you want to choose a tenant who is easy to get along with and communicates effectively. However, you don’t want to choose a tenant simply because you like them. Doing so is not only unfair, but it could potentially get you in trouble with the law, given that rental applicants must be evaluated on equal grounds under the Fair Housing Act. In this blog, we’ll discuss the benefits of asking the right tenant screening questions, as well as which questions to ask and which to avoid. 

Benefits of asking the right tenant screening questions

Some property managers believe the only questions you need to ask when assessing applicants are related to a tenant’s finances. While income and credit scores are important, there are other rental criteria to consider. Potential tenants can be financially stable yet combative with their neighbors, noisy, or dirty. An uncooperative tenant who doesn’t respect your property isn’t worth the trouble. 

By asking the right tenant screening questions, you can weed out tenants who aren’t a good fit for your property, ensure your unit will be taken care of while it’s being used, and prevent misunderstandings with neighboring tenants. Asking a prospective tenant a series of open-ended questions may also be beneficial because it allows you to get to know your tenant on a more personal level. Just be careful with how you word these questions to avoid violating fair housing laws.

Tenant screening questions to ask potential renters

The questions you’ll want to ask rental applicants will depend on the kind of rental you own and the type of tenants you attract. However, there are certain categories of questions that all rental owners can benefit from. Take a look at each category below:

Logistical

You'll want to start your screening process with logistical questions. Not only do these help you understand the basic details of a prospective tenant’s move, but they also provide you with insight regarding how that tenant feels about their current home. Some logistical questions you can ask are:

  • Do you currently rent? If so, where?
  • Why are you moving?
  • When do you plan to move into a new place?
  • What are you looking for in a new unit?
  • What did you most dislike about your previous unit?

Financial

Asking a potential tenant about their monthly income and overall financial well-being can help ensure they have enough money to pay rent consistently. The following questions help you assess a prospective tenant’s financial standing:

  • Are you currently employed?
  • If employed, how long have you worked there?
  • If unemployed, how do you plan on paying monthly rent?
  • Have you ever filed for bankruptcy?
  • Can you pay the required security deposit, rental fees, and the first month’s rent upon signing the lease?

Rental history 

Not all tenants have a rental history, but for those who do, it’s worth asking them about their previous landlord. Learning about a tenant’s rental history helps landlords understand a tenant’s property management expectations, as well as their overall attitude towards having a landlord. Here are some questions you can ask to understand an applicant’s rental history:

  • How long have you been renting?
  • Where have you previously lived?
  • How long have you lived in your current home?
  • Have you ever broken a lease or been evicted? If so, why?
  • How much notice are you giving your current landlord before moving out?

Behavioral

Understanding how a tenant lives on a day-to-day basis can help you assess whether or not they’d be a good neighbor to existing tenants. While you may not live on the property, other tenants do, which means you should consider their lifestyles and comfort when looking for new tenants. Some behavioral questions you can ask are:

  • Do you smoke?
  • How often do you have guests over?
  • Is there anyone who will be staying over frequently? If so, how often?
  • Do you work odd hours?
  • When are you usually home?

Occupancy

The questions you ask your tenant are not limited to their finances, rental history, or behavior. It’s also important to ask about any people or pets they'll be living with. Below is a list of questions you can ask prospective tenants related to their occupancy:

  • How many people will be living in the unit?
  • How many parking spaces will you need?
  • Is everyone living with you able to pass a background check?
  • Do you have any pets? If so, how many and what kind?
  • Who takes care of your pets when you’re out of town?

Criminal background

Lastly, it's important to inquire about a tenant's criminal background. You want to make sure your tenants are honest individuals capable of respecting your property and their neighbors. Consider including the following questions in your tenant screening process:

  • Are you okay with going through a criminal background check?
  • Is there anything you’d like to tell me before I conduct a criminal background check?
  • Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
  • If you have been convicted, what crimes have you been convicted of?
  • If you were convicted of a drug or alcohol-related crime, have you completed treatment for substance addiction?

Never ask a tenant if they have ever been arrested or charged with a crime. Your decision to deny their rental application should be based solely on a prior conviction.

Subjects to avoid

As you can see from the categories listed above, there are plenty of questions property owners can ask during the rental application process. However, it's important to keep in mind that some questions are off-limits. The limitations to what can be asked exist to protect applicants from rental discrimination and property owners from wrongful lawsuits. 

Illegal questions

Once you’ve come up with a solid list of qualifying questions, try your best to stick to them. It can be tempting to continue the conversation with an applicant after they’ve answered all of your questions, especially when these questions are asked in person. However, it’s best to get to know them once the tenant selection process has concluded. Avoid asking any of the following questions during the tenant screening process:

  • How old are you? 
  • Where were you born? 
  • Where are your parents from?
  • What’s your ethnic background?
  • What church do you attend?
  • Do you believe in God?
  • Are you married? 
  • Are you divorced?
  • Are you a single parent?
  • Do you have any kids? 
  • Do you plan to have kids soon?
  • Do you have any disabilities? 

Illegal topics

The Fair Housing Act prohibits asking a preliminary tenant screening question that implies conscious or unconscious biases. As a result, some questions that come up naturally in conversations, such as where the applicant is from or whether or not they have kids, can be misinterpreted as discriminatory. It’s best to play it safe by avoiding all questions related to the protected classes listed under fair housing laws, which include:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Familial status
  • Sex
  • Physical or mental disability

Rental property owners should also be aware of state housing laws which may extend this list of protected classes to age, citizenship, veteran status, criminal history, or source of income. Check local housing laws in all states where you own property before coming up with a list of tenant screening questions. 

The final word on tenant screening questions

Asking the right tenant screening questions is an important part of the tenant screening process. You don't want to miss the opportunity to inquire about a tenant's financial abilities, rental history, criminal history, or overall behavior. Having a solid understanding of who your prospective tenants are will help you determine which tenant is the best fit for your unit.

However, keep in mind that some questions should be avoided, such as questions related to a tenant's marital status, parental status, and racial background. This will help prevent misunderstandings and wrongful lawsuits if you were to reject a particular applicant. There are also restrictions at the state level, so it's best to check in with local housing laws before sending out your list of tenant screening questions to potential renters.

Vivian Tejada

Vivian is a freelance real estate writer based in Brooklyn, NYC providing SEO blogging services to real estate companies. Her work focuses on educating first-time real estate investors on investment strategy and explaining proptech tools to new customers.

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