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Top Tenant Screening Questions for Landlords

There’s nothing more important to a landlord than finding reliable, trustworthy tenants who will be respectful of their neighbors, your rental property, and their monthly rent due date. In order to find out exactly who you’re renting to and determine if they would be the right choice for you, below are 21 questions to ask potential tenants during your screening process. 

But first, let’s talk about what the tenant screening process is.

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What is Tenant Screening?

Tenant screening is the process of asking important questions of prospective renters to find the best tenant for your property. The right tenant will be different landlord to landlord, so it’s important to create and maintain your own screening criteria.

That said, most landlords are particularly concerned with applicants’ rental history, credit history, eviction history, and criminal record.

Of course, the rental application is a good place to start to gather some of that essential information about your prospective tenant. Look for steady employment, no history of evictions, a credit score of at least 550, and a monthly income equaling at least three times the cost of rent.

Points to look for on a rental application: proof of employment, a credit score of at least 550, no history of evictions, and monthly income 3x the amount of rent.

1. How Long Have You Lived in Your Current Home?

Asking this question is a good way to gauge if this will be a reliable, long-term tenant. If they’ve lived in the same apartment for multiple years, they probably had a good relationship with their former landlord to stay for so long. But if they’ve only lived in their current unit for a month or two, that could indicate something with the agreement went awry.

2. Why Did You Decide to Leave?

It’s good to get a little background on why the tenant wants to move. Did they need to relocate for work or are they looking for a unit with more space or better amenities? Or perhaps they’ve gone through a recent marital or financial change? You don’t need all the details, but it’s helpful to get a general picture of their situation if possible.

3. What is Your Desired Move-In Date?

This one is important for obvious reasons. If the tenant is applying for your available unit at the beginning of April but they don’t want to move in until June, they might not be the best choice as you’ll be losing out on two months’ worth of rent. Unless they’re willing to pay rent for the time that they won’t be living there, it’s best to find a tenant whose schedule lines up with yours as closely as possible.

4. How Many People Will Be Living in the Unit?

Though this information should be included on the rental application, some tenants may not be aware that they need to include everyone, not just the person who will be paying rent. You’ll want to watch out for any red flags with this question, such as five people trying to live in a one-bedroom apartment, as this could indicate the unit is being used for more than just living.

5. How Many Adults Will Be Contributing to the Rent?

Because you want to make sure the household has an income of at least three times the cost of rent, you’ll need employment verification and pay stubs for everyone who is going to be contributing to the rent. Again, it may be that the person who originally filled out the application didn’t know that they needed to include this information for every adult, so a household’s financial situation may be better than how it originally appeared.

6. What is Your Combined Monthly Income?

This is important to know for the same reasons as above; you want to make sure the household has enough income to feasibly afford the rent. Not only does this question encompass the salaries of all adults in the household, but also any other forms of income such as freelance or side hustle gigs, or funding from the government for social programs.

7. Does Anyone in Your Household Smoke Cigarettes or Marijuana?

Check your state's marijuana laws before asking about a prospective tenant's smoking habits.

If anyone in the household does smoke, it will be important to remind them of the smoking rules outlined in the lease. Many lease agreements don’t allow smoking in the actual unit or in a 10-foot range of property doors and windows so as not to disturb the other residents. Because of the different state laws when it comes to marijuana use, it will be helpful to know if your residents have a medical license or use it recreationally so you can advise them accordingly.

Pro Tip:

Listing important property rules, like your smoking policy and pet policy, in your listing description will cut down on the number of misaligned applicants.

8. Do You Have Any Pets? If So, Please Describe Them

Landlords vary vastly on the different types of pets they will allow. Even if you stated that you allow pets on the initial property listing, you’ll want to know exactly what you’re dealing with beforehand, as a Great Dane puppy is obviously much different than a sleepy old lizard. Take a look at our resources on the best dogs for apartment living and pet deposit options to learn more.

9. Will You Require Parking Spaces? If So, How Many?

Most units come with just one parking space, if that, so it’s important to know what the tenant’s parking expectations are upfront. If they require additional spots, it’s possible that you could allow them to pay extra per spot each month, and advise them on public parking and street parking options. You don’t want to both sign the lease and then find out they’re expecting a whole section of the parking lot to themselves.

Pro Tip:

Make sure your rental agreement has information about the parking arrangement.

10. Does Anyone in Your Household Play a Musical Instrument and Will They Be Practicing in the Unit?

Depending on the instrument and the number of tenants living in your building, it may be helpful to coordinate a practice time agreement ahead of time to make sure it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s work or sleep schedule. Many tenants can make these arrangements on their own, but it can be good to know about these types of things ahead of time in case you do start to get complaints from other residents.

11. Does Anyone in Your Household Work a Third-Shift or Job With Odd Hours?

Of course, tenants are free to come and go at whatever hours they please, but it can be helpful to know if there will be high traffic in and out of the building late at night. If this is the case, you may want to install additional security cameras or other safety measures around the building entrances to make sure all residents are staying safe.

12. Do You Anticipate Having Any Long-Term Guests or Additions to the Household?

As a landlord, it’s important for you to be keeping track of who exactly is living in the unit. Sometimes the line between guest and resident can become blurred. If an applicant knows that, for example, their senior-aged parent will be moving in with them three months in, you’ll want to check in with them then to have the parent officially added to the lease. Check out our piece on guests vs tenants to learn more about these types of situations.

13. Are You Willing to Sign a One-Year or Longer Lease?

Finding good tenants takes time and effort, so try not to have to do it multiple times a year.

The majority of landlords are looking for tenants for a minimum of one year, as there is a lot of time and effort involved in finding good tenants and you won’t want to do this multiple times a year. Tenants looking for a short-term stay may be better off finding a rental instead of signing a long-term lease. You can check out our guide on leasing vs renting to learn more about the difference.

14. Do You Have Money Set Aside for the Security Deposit and First Month’s Rent?

There are a lot of upfront costs involved for new tenants between moving fees, new furniture, home goods, and of course, the first month’s rent, the security deposit, and the application fees. This can put a lot of strain on a tenant’s wallet, so you’ll want to make sure they understand exactly how much they will owe the first month so they don’t come up short. New or young tenants may not know the costs involved in the first month of renting.

15. Do You Anticipate Anything in the Near Future Affecting Your Ability to Pay Rent?

If a tenant knows they have any big changes coming up in their lives, such as a planned retirement, medical expense, or anything else that changes their financial situation, it’s a good thing for you to know and take into consideration. It’s true that tenants may not be fully honest with you about issues like this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

16. Are You Able to Provide References From Employers and Previous Landlords?

The best way to verify an applicant’s stability and financial responsibility is to check with their employer and their former landlord. Landlord references allow you to verify the information they provided on the rental application and also gain insight into what they’re like as a renter. Their previous landlord especially will be able to give you valuable insights and allow you to decide if they’d make a good tenant for you.

17. Have You Ever Had to Break a Lease? If So, Why?

Use your best judgment when it comes to an applicant's eviction history or former bankruptcy. Lead with empathy.

When asking this question, it’s important to be empathetic and look at the full picture of the rental application. A renter with one broken lease in their history but solid financial records and recommendations is still probably a good tenant. Things happen, and although breaking a lease is far from ideal, a tenant may have had no choice if they were laid off, had to move away to care for a sick loved one, or for any number of other reasons.

18. Have You Ever Had to File for Bankruptcy?

Though this information should have been in the tenant background check, it’s still good to ask, both to verify that the tenant is being honest with you, and also to allow them to explain their situation. Again, though this is definitely a red flag, it’s important to take a holistic view of the tenant and their financial situation. If they filed for bankruptcy ten years ago but have had an excellent financial track record since then, they’ve clearly learned from whatever happened and would likely still make a responsible tenant.

19. Have You Ever Been Evicted? If So, Why?

This is likely the biggest red flag on a rental application, and once again it can be helpful to hear the tenant’s explanation as to why this happened. Before assuming it was due to not paying rent or risky behavior, you should listen to what the potential tenant has to say, factor in the rest of the application, and decide if they could still be the right renter for you.

20. Do You Have Any Questions for Me About the Property or Rental Application Process?

It’s important to make sure your tenant is comfortable with the rental and application process, so take the time to check in. Plus, you can get on the same page by clarifying any policy or procedural questions they may have.

21. Is There Anything Else I Should Know About You and Your Living Situation?

Though this list of questions to ask a potential tenant is pretty comprehensive, there are plenty of other things you may need to know about a new household that aren’t covered here. Now is your opportunity to let the tenant tell you any other important information about them; for example severe allergies that the other residents will need to be aware of, or a child with autism that will need certain parts of the unit modified to help them feel more comfortable.

Questions You Should Not Ask Renters

Because of protections enacted by the Fair Housing Act (FHA), there are a number of things that landlords are not able to ask potential tenants. These are traits that, legally, cannot factor into a landlord’s decision for whether or not to rent to someone, and therefore don’t need to be a part of the application process.

Fair Housing Act protects applicants from being asked their race, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and family status.

The FHA protects against discrimination based on age, national origin, family status, sexual orientation, and other factors. Be sure to do your research on the FHA ahead of time to learn more about what you can’t ask potential renters, and check your local and state landlord-tenant laws for additional protections.

Being thorough with your tenant screening and rental application questions from the beginning will help landlords make the right choice for their situation. After all, entering into a lease agreement with someone is usually a long-term commitment, so doing a little extra leg-work up front will be worth it in the end. As always, TurboTenant is here to help with free resources and rental applications for landlords to make the process that much easier.

Disclaimer: TurboTenant, Inc. does not provide legal advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only. All users are advised to check all applicable local, state, and federal laws and to consult legal counsel should questions arise.

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