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Tenant screening questions to help find the perfect renter

tenant screening questions
by Jeff Rohde, posted in Investment Strategy

Gauging the suitability of a prospective tenant means asking the right questions to help you spot potential problems and reduce the likelihood of having to pursue evictions or get caught up in legal issues down the road.

Think of tenant screening as a job interview for your rental property. Would you hire a new employee before knowing their background and qualifications? The same principle applies to finding a renter that meets your qualification criteria.

This article guides you through the critical aspects of tenant screening, from employment-related inquiries to understanding a tenant’s financial resources, credit history,  and future plans. We also share potential red flags to watch out for and a few questions you should avoid asking rental applicants.


Employment-related screening questions

Knowing a potential tenant’s employment situation helps give you a sense of their reliability and stability, both critical for a long-term tenancy. Here are some employment-related questions that can help you glean information about an applicant’s work situation:

  • What’s your current job title and role? This question helps you understand the nature of their work. It can also be an indicator of their responsibility level at a company.
  • Who’s your employer, and what do they do? Knowing who employs your potential tenant and what the company does can provide context about the stability of their job.
  • How long have you been with your current employer? A long tenure can indicate job stability, while frequent job changes may be a red flag.
  • Can you provide a reference from your current employer? An employer reference can confirm the tenant’s employment and offer insight into their reliability and character.
  • Are there any upcoming changes to your employment we should know about? Are they expecting a promotion or planning to quit and start their own business? Changes like these could affect their income stability.

While gathering this information is essential, respecting privacy is equally important. Always maintain a professional approach when discussing these details. These questions are meant to confirm your rental applicant has a stable employment situation, not be invasive. Your goal is to ensure a consistent and positive rental experience.


Income and financial stability

Next, it’s time to focus on an applicant’s overall financial stability. These questions give you greater insight into the applicants ability to handle the fiscal responsibility of rent payments over the long term:

  • What’s your current income level? This straightforward question helps determine whether their income can comfortably cover the rent. A general rule of thumb is their monthly income should be at least 3 times the monthly rent.
  • How long have you been at this level? Maintaining their income level for a significant period can indicate financial stability.
  • Can you provide recent pay stubs or an employment letter? Proof of income helps confirm they have the funds necessary to afford the rent.
  • Are you expecting any major changes to your income or employment in the near future? This forward-looking question can alert you to any upcoming instability, like a career change or a planned move, which might cause the tenant to break their lease.
  • Do you have other sources of income? They may have a side job, receive alimony, or earn investment returns. This question gives you a more complete picture of their financial situation.
  • Have you ever declared bankruptcy? Past financial difficulties don’t necessarily predict future behavior, but it’s worth knowing about them. If a potential tenant has declared bankruptcy in the past, try to get clarification on the circumstances.


Rental history

Now, let’s explore the applicant’s rental history. The following questions can offer background on tenant behavior and possibly predict how the applicant might treat your property:

  • Can you provide details about places you have rented before? Information about where they’ve lived, how long they stayed, and the rent they paid can help paint a picture of their rental history.
  • Why did you leave? People move for various reasons. If they left due to landlord conflicts or eviction, that could be a potential red flag. Moving for a job or more space is a reasonable explanation.
  • Did you consistently pay your rent on time? A history of timely payments suggests the pattern will continue.
  • Can you provide references from past landlords? References can add perspective on an applicant’s behavior as a tenant. Follow up with these references by phone if you can as people are often more candid when they’re not asked to put something in writing.
  • Were there any significant issues or disputes at your previous rentals? If there were issues, try to uncover what happened and how they resolved it. That can give you an idea of how they handle conflict and whether they respect house rules.


Preferences and behavior

Here are some key questions that focus on the applicant’s habits and preferences:

  • Do you smoke? Smoking can damage your rental property through stains, burn marks, and odor. Find out if your potential tenant is a smoker and establish a clear smoking policy.
  • Do you have pets? Pets can also potentially cause damage or disturb neighbors. If you’re open to having pets in your rental, discuss the pet’s breed and size, related pet rules, and any additional pet rent, security deposit, or fees.
  • How often do you entertain guests? Regularly holding large gatherings can potentially cause excessive wear and tear or create noise that bothers neighbors. It’s worth taking the time to understand their social habits.
  • Do you have any hobbies that could impact the property? For example, if they’re a drummer or love DIY projects, the noise may be a problem with neighbors.
  • Are you planning on getting a roommate? Knowing if they plan to share the space with someone else can help you prepare for additional wear and tear, adjust the asking rent, and add further addendums to your lease agreement.
  • Do you have renters insurance, or are you willing to get it? While not strictly a habits question, it demonstrates a tenant’s willingness to be responsible, protect their personal belongings, and potentially cover liability.

Again, your intention with these questions is to ensure a potential tenant’s habits and situation aligns with your property rules and neighborhood norms, not judge or discriminate. Your goal is to anticipate potential issues and set clear expectations from the beginning.


Why they’re moving and their future plans

Understanding why a prospective renter is moving from their previous place and what their future plans may be can also provide insight into their stability:

  • Why are you moving from your current home? This question can reveal potential issues with their previous landlord, financial difficulties, or simply the need for a change.
  • What are you looking for in your next home? The answer can help determine whether your property fits their needs and expectations, reducing the chance of dissatisfaction later.
  • Do you plan on staying long-term? This query subtly probes into their future plans and can offer a sense of whether they might break the lease prematurely.
  • Are you familiar with this neighborhood? Knowing an applicants familiarity with the area can indicate if they’ll feel comfortable living here and whether the local amenities fit their needs.
  • What is your move-in timeline? If the applicant needs to move in immediately, it could be a red flag and potentially point to an issue with their current living situation. A reasonable move-in timeline is usually 30–60 days.
  • Do you foresee any significant life changes in the near future? Are they planning to change jobs or return to school? Significant life changes could impact their ability to pay rent or their desire to stay in the property.


Spotting potential red flags

When screening prospective tenants, stay alert to any possible warning signs. Some actions or responses might seem harmless on the surface but could indicate underlying issues:

  • Late or incomplete application: If potential tenants submits an application late or leaves out important information, it could suggest a lack of reliability or attention to detail.
  • Poor credit history: A bad credit score can indicate financial irresponsibility. Remember, you’re looking for tenants who can consistently pay rent on time.
  • Inconsistent employment: Frequent job changes or periods of unemployment may mean the tenant will struggle to pay rent at some point.
  • Evasive or vague answers: Avoiding some questions or giving vague answers suggests they may be hiding something.
  • Unwillingness to comply with rules: If they complain about your no-smoking or no-pets policy, it may be a sign they won’t respect your property.
  • Rush to move in: There are legitimate reasons for needing to move quickly. However, be wary if a potential renter wants to move in immediately. They may be trying to avoid detection by a previous landlord.
  • Offers to pay rent in advance or in cash: While this might seem like a dream come true, it could also indicate illegal activity. If you receive offers like these, it’s worth asking for an explanation as to why someone is looking to pay in advance or in cash.

These potential red flags don’t necessarily mean you should immediately reject the applicants, but they should prompt you to dig deeper. Your hope is to find reliable, responsible tenants who care about your property and can meet their obligations.


The no-go zone: Tenant screening questions that are off-limits

As you ask questions of a prospective renter, knowing which ones are off-limits is critical. Asking these questions could unintentionally lead to discrimination and potentially land you in legal hot water.

Federal fair housing laws protect people from bias when renting, buying, or securing financing for any housing. These regulations prohibit discrimination due to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and familial status. Some states and localities have anti-discrimination laws with much broader protections in place, and we strongly recommend that you work with a qualified local attorney to understand your legal obligations when it comes to tenant screening.

Here are some questions to avoid asking:

  • What is your race, color, or national origin? According to the Fair Housing Act, you cannot discriminate based on these factors.
  • What religion do you practice? This question can be seen as discriminatory, and landlords can’t offer or deny tenancy based on religious beliefs.
  • Are you married? Do you plan on having more kids? Questions about marital status, plans for a family, or current family size can be construed as discrimination against families.
  • Do you have a physical or mental disability? It’s illegal to ask about an applicant’s health status or medical history.
  • How old are you? While you can verify that a potential tenant is over 18, any further questions about their age can be considered age discrimination. If your rental is in an age-restricted community, consider asking whether the tenant’s age meets the minimum age requirement.
  • Are you in a same-sex relationship? Questions about sexual orientation are prohibited in some states.
  • Where were you born? Are you a U.S. citizen? Questions about immigration status and citizenship are prohibited in some states.
  • Have you ever been arrested? Generally, it’s okay to ask whether a tenant has been convicted of a crime, but it’s inappropriate and often unhelpful to ask if they have been arrested. Not every arrest leads to a conviction.


Harness the power of effective tenant screening with Stessa & RentPrep

Asking the right questions of your potential tenants is a good first line of defense in protecting your rental property investment. But don’t just stop there…

Using a more comprehensive screening tool, like Stessa’s RentPrep, can significantly improve the process so you don’t miss any crucial details about a potential tenant.

With Stessa, landlords can access a complete background and credit check, income verification, judgments and liens, and more. The full report, provided by RentPrep, allows you to quickly access and understand the crucial details you need to know about an applicant. The prospective renter covers the screening report fee as part of the rental application process, making it cost-effective for landlords.

Stessa’s mobile-friendly application is designed to make tenant screening fast and easy, saving you and the rental applicant valuable time. It does the heavy lifting so you can focus on managing your properties and building a good relationship with your tenant.

For more pre-screening tenant questions visit


Stessa does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax, legal or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal, or accounting advisors.


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