Time is worth more than money. You can always earn more money, but your remaining time on this earth is limited – and more so every minute of every day.
Which is probably why you became a landlord in the first place: to build passive income.
And if you’ve been around the block as a landlord, you know two things about the basics of tenant screening:
1. It’s time-consuming (read: not very passive!)
2. You need to do it thoroughly if you want to avoid bad tenants, unpaid rents, damaged properties, and ultimately bad returns.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: the quality of your tenants determines the quality of your returns. Yes, tenant screening takes some work on your part. But you can save yourself a lot of time and heartache by doing a simple pre-screening interview with potential tenants.
“Wait a second, why bother with tenant pre-screening when I run a credit check as part of my rental application process? And my applicants will be paying an application fee, so cost isn’t an issue, right?”
Because your time is precious, and you’re far too busy to meet with every Tom, Dick and Harry who takes a passing interest in your rental property. So, you should thin the herd by asking each applicant some questions ahead of time.
Why You Need to Do a Pre-Screen Interview
A tenant pre-screening interview will help you weed out unsuitable applicants in advance. That means you’re only meeting qualified prospects at your rental property who are more likely to:
- Pay rent on time, like clockwork
- Treat your property with respect and cause minimal wear and tear
- Stay long-term (minimal turnovers)
- Cause minimum disruption to neighbors
We’ve identified 20 rental application questions to help you in your search for the perfect tenant for your precious property. And if that sounds like a time waster, you don’t need to do it over the phone — use a free online survey instead. Which frees up more time in your quest for financial independence.
To completely protect against rent defaults, you can also buy insurance against it through Rent Rescue. If the tenant stops paying rent, they pay it until you can evict them. But you’re still better off avoiding the eviction process altogether, with thorough tenant screening.
The 20 Questions You Should Ask in Your Pre-Screen Interview (and Why)
Whether you do a phone interview, email pre-screen questions, or use an online form, here are 20 questions to ask before investing your time in showing the property, collecting a rental application, running tenant screening reports, and contacting employers and prior landlords.
1. Do You Currently Rent?
If the answer’s yes, you’ll know the prospective tenant should be able to provide references and is familiar with the standard rental application process.
And if they aren’t renting, ask them why. Are they just moving out of their parents’ home? If so, you might have to get creative with references. Have they previously owned and had to sell their house? This could be a red flag for payment issues further down the road.
2. How Long Have You Lived in Your Home?
You’re on the lookout for a long-term, reliable tenant. If they only stuck out their previous contract for a year or less, or if they broke their lease, you should find out why. There are legitimate reasons like changing jobs or outgrowing their property, but they might also be the neighbors from hell.
3. Why Are You Moving?
If your prospective applicants are looking elsewhere because they’ve been evicted or “had disagreements” with their landlord, you know to ask some follow up questions. But you may also learn they’ve relocated for their job, got a pay raise or want to downsize.
4. What Is Your Move-in Date?
This question is a harbinger of their reliability. If they want to move immediately or sometime in the next two weeks, it could spell disorder and instability. Many rental contracts have a 30-day notice period, so ask yourself: why did they leave it so long to start looking and submitting rental applications?
But there also can be understandable reasons for looking around at the last minute, like a sudden job relocation or domestic abuse. So, always keep an open mind and look at the big picture.
5. What Is Your Profession?
Another great test of suitability is asking about the prospect’s employment details, which is already part of a standard rental application process. If none of the adult occupants has a stable, full-time career job, they may not be safe bets to pay on a regular basis.
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6. What Is Your Monthly Income?
This will help you determine if the prospect can even pay the rent in the first place. You’re looking for a combined income that’s no less than 2.5 times the monthly rent (and preferably three, four, or five times the rent!).
Obviously, this is just a rule of thumb as some tenants have complications like large debts to pay. And this is exactly why you need to do a rental application credit check. But definitely find out if they can even afford the property before you take time out of your day to show it to them.
7. How Many People (Adults and Dependents) Live with You?
Another rule of thumb is a maximum occupancy of two people per room to cut down on wear and tear. However, your location may have strict rules on how many people can live in a property of your size and type. And be careful not to break Fair Housing rules by stipulating one bedroom for every child.
You must also make sure each adult occupant fills out a rental application. That means you can run background screenings and credit checks on all relevant occupants. Make sure you require all adults over 18 to sign the lease agreement too.
8. Does Anyone in Your Household Smoke?
Whether it’s cigarettes or vaping, smoke can stain your walls, wreck your furniture (if your unit is furnished), and leave a lingering stench. So, if you are otherwise happy with a smoker’s application, make sure to stipulate they smoke outside (our state-specific lease agreement includes a non-smoking addendum).
Else be prepared to use part of the security deposit on a deep clean.
9. What Kind of Parking Are You Looking For?
If they are a two-or-more car household and you’ve only got off-road parking, your potential tenant might say goodbye before you even enter the property. So, save yourself time and ask about their parking requirements before you start the rental application process.
10. What Pets Do You Have?
If you just want human occupants, you can immediately discount any prospects with furry friends. But if your property is pet-friendly, it’s worth asking the number, breed and size of each animal to gauge whether they will abide by your rental’s rules.
11. Do You Have References from Your Employer and Former Landlord?
If a prospective tenant can’t provide employer and landlord references, they may have something to hide. References allow you to check their payment and employment history, so they are crucial for protecting your investment.
And make sure to ask for a reference from their previous landlord too. If they are nightmare tenants, their current landlord may say anything to get them out of the house.
12. Does Your Current Landlord Know You Want to Leave?
If the answer’s no, this is another huge red flag.
Either they haven’t handed in their notice to their current landlord yet, or they are looking to move out months in advance and aren’t ready to commit. You need a current landlord’s reference too, so make sure they can provide one when the time comes.
13. Have You Ever Been Evicted?
Some potential renters won’t admit they’ve ever been evicted, and you can unearth this with an eviction history report anyway (psst: we offer one, for as little as $9).
But if they answer yes, it gives them the opportunity to explain why. The eviction may be a blip in an otherwise flawless rental history or a pattern of behavior that won’t change easily.
14. Have You Ever Refused to Pay Rent?
If an applicant says yes, this can uncover any disputes between tenants and their previous landlords. And a history of these issues is something you don’t want to gamble with.
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15. Would You Agree to a Credit and Background Check?
Obviously, you’re going to run the necessary checks anyway as part of the rental application process, because you want to protect your investment. But if an applicant downright refuses to consent to a credit check or a background screening, you can eliminate them immediately.
16. Have You Ever Filed for Bankruptcy?
You’ll uncover any bankruptcy filings during the credit check anyway, but it’s worth asking upfront to save you time. It also gives the prospective renter an opportunity to explain the circumstances of their bankruptcy.
17. Are You OK with Our Lease Application Fee of (X) Amount?
If you charge a lease application fee, or charge the cost of tenant screening reports directly to applicants (such as in our screening service), this is an ideal way to check whether your applicants are aware of the cost and are willing to pay.
It saves you the time and effort of meeting with any prospective tenants, only to have them turn on their heels when the application fee comes due.
18. Will You Be Able to Pay the Security Deposit and First Month’s Rent Upon Signing the Lease?
This is a perfect opportunity to let the applicant know exactly what’s required of them up front. It tests the waters — maybe they aren’t willing to pay the essential security deposit and rent in advance, or may have cash flow issues.
You must receive the full fee before your renters move in, in case of damage or other issues. And you should never start a tenancy with your renters owing you money. So, save yourself some heartache and get that question answered right at the beginning.
19. Are You Willing to Sign an X-Year Lease Agreement?
Your potential renters may look great on paper with their sparkling references and steady jobs. But if they aren’t willing to commit to the time period you want, you’ll be wasting your precious time meeting them. So, make sure they know the duration of the rental contract up front.
20. Do You Have Any Questions?
A happy tenant is a tenant who stays for the long haul. A good screening process allows applicants to gauge whether your property is right for them before they take the next step.
Give your applicants a chance to ask questions about your property. Like you, they’ll have their own deal breakers. If they don’t like your answers about the location, type of property and screening process, you’ll have avoided a wasted showing.
Pre-Screening Survey Format
Of course, you can do the pre-check by phone, or by sending them a template email. But in the interest of saving time, why not create an online survey with these questions?
You can create a free pre-screening survey with Google Forms. Just plug in your 20 questions and send a link to each potential renter. They can fill out the form at their leisure and you can compare each applicant’s answers easily.
Don’t forget to ask them for their contact details in case you need any clarification or want to follow up on their questions.
Starting the Rental Application Process
Now that you’ve weeded out any unsuitable candidates, it’s time to start the rental application process with your squeaky-clean potential tenants. But don’t take their word for it! You still need to do the proper background and credit checks.
Gather as much information as possible before you hand over the keys, including:
- Employment and landlord references
- Detailed housing history so that you can follow up on landlord references yourself
- Eviction and credit checks
- Criminal record checks
- Income checks to verify the information they provided
In today’s world it’s easier than ever to screen rental applicants instantly and paperlessly. We offer a fast, simple, free rental application with optional tenant screening reports included.
You can then compare the results to their pre-screening answers, to check for any inconsistencies.
Over to You
It’s well-worth the effort to pre-screen applicants to secure your investment and avoid issues further down the line. No tenant screening process can perfectly predict renter behavior — there’s no crystal ball that foresees future job losses or illnesses. But pre-screening applications can help you reduce the headache of the rental application process and cut down on wasted time.
Have you any questions about pre-screening tenants? Do you have anything to add about rental application questions? Let us know in the comments!
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About the Author
Yvonne Reilly is a landlord, property investor and solopreneur, passionate about helping people become financially independent and realizing their FIRE dreams. As a freelance writer, editor and digital marketer, she also helps small businesses connect with their audience and build traction. You can find out more about Yvonne on her website.