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50 questions to ask a potential tenant’s references

business woman using phone in office
by Jeff Rohde, posted in Investment Strategy

Steps in a thorough tenant screening process include income and employment verification, rental and criminal history, and a credit report

However, it takes more than just reading printed reports to find a good tenant. Checking applicant references can improve the odds of finding a tenant who will take care of the property and pay the rent on time.

Here are 50 key questions to ask a potential tenant’s reference before signing a lease.

Key takeaways

  • Before checking an applicant’s references, a landlord should verify that the references are real, create a list of open-ended questions, and speak to each reference by phone instead of text or email.
  • As part of a thorough tenant screening process, a landlord may ask an applicant to provide employer, landlord, and personal references.
  • A landlord can combine open-ended questions with yes-or-no questions to verify information on a rental application.
  • Putting in a little extra time and effort by speaking to an applicant’s references can help a landlord to find the most qualified tenant.


How to prepare for a reference check

Getting accurate information from applicant references may make the difference between choosing a good tenant or a bad tenant. Here are 3 things that can make a reference check successful:

1. Verify that references are real

Any landlord or property manager who has been in the business for a while has probably had an applicant give false or misleading information. Before spending time on a call or playing phone tag, a landlord can conduct some basic fact-checking by verifying online that the names and numbers of the references match and exist.

2. Plan on spending time on the phone

The second-best thing to a face-to-face conversation is speaking with references on the phone. By hearing the tone of a reference’s voice and listening to what they say and don’t say, a landlord may be better able to vet an applicant. As a rule of thumb, avoid email and text messaging, because it’s far too easy nowadays for an unscrupulous applicant to create a fake account.

3. Ask questions that make a reference talk

Using open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” are a technique that experienced landlords use to learn the most about prospective tenants. Some landlords who are new to tenant screening put together a list of questions and practice with a friend before speaking to references.


business woman on phone

50 questions to ask a potential tenant’s references

References generally fall into one of 3 categories: Current and past landlords, employers, and personal references like friends and family. 

Here are some key questions to ask each category of references. 

Employer references

1. Is the applicant currently employed at this company?

2. What was the approximate hire date?

3. What position/title does the applicant currently hold?

4. What are the applicant’s job responsibilities and requirements?

5. What is the applicant’s job performance like, and how is the applicant’s job performance rated?

6. Is this a permanent position, or is the applicant on a trial period?

7. What is the applicant’s current salary or hourly rate?

8. If hourly, how many hours on average does the applicant work?

9. Is the applicant eligible for overtime or any type of one-time or recurring bonus?

10. Is the applicant in line for a promotion or relocation to another office, or anything else that would affect their income?

11. Are there changes in the company that could result in the applicant getting demoted, laid off, or fired?

12. Has the applicant ever been reprimanded or disciplined and, if so, what did the applicant do?

13. What are the applicant’s long-term job prospects?

14. Do the applicant’s co-workers and supervisor like working with the applicant?

15. Based on what you know about the applicant, would you agree to rent if you were a landlord?

Landlord references

16. Did the applicant rent from you and, if so, how long did they rent?

17. On which dates did the applicant move in and move out?

18. Did the applicant give proper notice that they were leaving as called for in the lease?

19. If so, how much notice did the applicant give before moving out?

20. What explanation did the applicant give for moving out?

21. What is the address (and unit number, if applicable) of the property the applicant rented?

22. How much was the monthly rent and were there any rent increases during the time the applicant rented?

23. Was there any additional rent collected, such as for a pet or roommate, or late fees of any kind?

24. What other expenses was the applicant responsible for, such as utilities or landscaping? About how much per month did these additional expenses run?

25. Did the applicant have anyone else help with the rent or security deposit, such as a roommate or co-signer on the lease?

26. How often did the applicant pay late? Were late fees assessed, and did the applicant pay these as well?

27. Did the tenant take care of the property, or were there major damage and maintenance issues other than normal wear and tear?

28. How much work needed to be done after the applicant moved out to make the home rent-ready for a new tenant?

29. Was a security deposit collected, what was the amount, and was the deposit refundable?

30. If refundable, was the entire amount returned to the applicant or was some of the money withheld?

31. What kind of pets, if any, did the applicant have, and were they well cared for?

32. Did the applicant or any guests smoke in or on the property and, if so, was smoking permitted in the lease?

33. Was the applicant ever sent notices of any kind, and how quickly did the applicant respond?

34. Were complaints about the applicant ever received from neighbors, other tenants, or the city or homeowner association (HOA)?

35. Would you rent to the applicant again? If no, why not? If yes, would you do anything differently with the applicant than before?

36. Is there anything else another landlord should know about the applicant?

Personal references

37. What is your relationship to the applicant?

38. How long have you known the applicant?

39. Do you know where the applicant works and how long they have had the same job?

40. Where did the applicant previously live?

41. Does the applicant have roommates or pets? If so, how many roommates or what type(s) of pets?

42. Did the roommates help pay for the monthly rent or security deposit? If so, do you know how much?

43. Has the applicant ever had a dispute with a neighbor or another tenant (if renting a multifamily property)?

44. Did you ever visit the applicant at their former home?

45. How many other guests were in attendance, and did they respect the property?

46. Did the applicant keep their home clean and in good condition?

47. How would you describe the applicant as a person?

48. Has the applicant ever been evicted or had problems with a previous landlord? If so, what issues did they have, were they resolved, and how?

49. Would you rent to the applicant? Why or why not?

50. What else would you like to tell me about the applicant?


Things to consider when asking questions about an applicant

Note that some reference questions are “yes” or “no” questions used to verify information on a prospective tenant’s application, while others are open-ended and designed to encourage a reference to reveal what they might know about an applicant.

A landlord may wish to consult with a local real estate attorney and review the state landlord-tenant and local and federal fair housing laws to ensure questions are not asked that could lead to a landlord being accused of discrimination or treating one applicant differently from another.


Reasons for turning down a prospective tenant

Speaking with current employers, previous landlords, and personal references can help a landlord decide whether to rent to the applicant or keep looking for someone else. Some of the reasons a landlord may choose to turn down an applicant include:

  • References don’t check out: People may be difficult or impossible to reach, answer questions vaguely, or be uncooperative. When references can’t be verified, the best option may be to move on to the next qualified applicant.
  • Slow payers: If an applicant has a history of paying their former landlord late or not at all, the same behavior may occur again. That’s one reason credit rating agencies calculate a credit score partly on whether or not bills are paid on time.
  • Excessive damage: A rental property will always have a certain amount of normal wear and tear, such as worn carpeting or broken appliances. On the other hand, renting to a tenant who doesn’t respect the terms and conditions of the lease or the landlord’s property can have a major impact on return on investment (ROI).


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