How to screen tenants

It’s difficult for a landlord to find a responsible tenant. How does one know whom to trust? Especially when you consider several people, all with references, are answering the same rental ad. In fact, when you think about it, the landlord is entrusting access to his or her home to a total stranger. With that being the case, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

If you’re a new landlord and are unsure of how to screen potential tenants, there are a few guidelines. Always ask for references, especially from the last place the person lived. It’s best to check the applicant’s rental history from, at least, the past three to five years. Don’t be afraid to check with past and present employers as well as former roommates. Ask if he or she has ever been evicted and, if so, the circumstances surrounding the eviction. Get the name and number of all parties involved so you learn the details, but draw your own conclusions.

To cover all your bases and to avoid being accused of discrimination, your attorney should review your rental application and screening process prior to your advertising space for rent. A rental application should list the following information:

  • Social Security and Driver’s License numbers so you can run a credit check. You don’t want to rent a house or apartment to someone who has trouble paying the bills.
  • Employment history so you can see if the potential tenant is responsible. For instance, if this person can’t show up for work on time and is constantly absent, you may want to pass. You’ll also want to check salary information to make sure the rent is affordable to that person. The applicant’s annual salary should be at least three times the amount of rent.
  • Banking information. Is the potential tenant frequently overdrawn? You want to be sure you’re renting to someone who’s kept a steady balance.
  • Whether or not the potential tenant has ever been convicted of a crime.
  • Whether or not the applicant has filed for bankruptcy during the past seven to ten years.

You must also be aware that it’s illegal to reject an applicant based on age, sex, disability, religion, race, sexual orientation, or if the applicant has children. If the person has a poor credit history, can’t hold down a job, and finds it difficult to keep a minimum balance in his or her checking account, you’re well within your rights to reject his or her application. Keep in mind, though, that if you turn a tenant down because of information found on a credit report, the applicant can ask why and how the information was obtained so he or she can request the same information.

Make sure you know exactly how many people will actually be occupying the space. For instance, is the applicant planning on moving seven friends into the apartment with him or her? The allowed number of occupants should be agreed upon prior to signing the lease.

It’s also a good idea to know in advance how the tenant will be paying the rent. Never agree to be paid in cash. If the applicant doesn’t have a checking account (which should already send up a red flag) the rent should be paid in the form of a cashier’s check. When you do find a tenant, it’s a good idea to give him or her keys only AFTER the rent, security, and deposit checks have cleared. Advise him or her of this in advance.

If a potential tenant does have a black mark on his or her rental application and the application is denied, beware of sob stories. Some people will try and play on a landlord’s emotions and this can only lead to trouble. Use your best judgment and check ALL references. If something doesn’t sit right with you, go with your instincts.

When it comes to finding a tenant, you can’t be too careful. You are, after all, opening up your home to this person and entrusting him or her to pay rent once a month. Don’t be afraid to ask for identification and check all references. Especially check credit history, the applicant’s place of employment, and ask questions of the previous landlord. Most important, keep detailed written records. Any person with nothing to hide will be happy to provide all of the above-mentioned information, and you’ll feel safer for asking.

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