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Part of the process of getting to know a rental applicant -- and deciding whether or not they are qualified to be your new tenant -- involves asking a set of specific tenant screening questions, either in person at a walk-through or in writing as part of the rental application process. However, it is important to understand which questions will help and which ones are off-limits.
You may decide to use questions as part of a sit-down, formal interview process or you may ask them casually as part of normal getting-to-know-you chitchat. Either way, preparing ahead of time with a list of topics to cover can help you ensure that you have all of the relevant information you need to make a great decision.
Why ask Tenant Screening Questions?
Some rental agents and landlords don’t feel that they really need to ask many screening questions beyond those related to finances, for example, or rental history. However, it is important to consider a wide variety of questions in order to ensure that you have prevented any misunderstandings before they occur.
You may feel that tenant screening questions create an artificial or even adversarial relationship between you and your prospective renter. Remember, however, that you are not getting to know a new buddy. You are interviewing someone whom you will welcome into your property for an extended period of time. The more you know about them, the better.
Many landlords and property managers believe strongly in their gut instinct and ability to tell the difference between a good tenant and a bad one. However, a few moments of charm do not translate into financial reliability and the ability to properly maintain your property.
Finally, the biggest reason to ask tenants screening questions is to prevent charges of discrimination down the road. If you ask the same questions of every potential renter -- objective questions like the ones we have identified below -- you can demonstrate that every applicant is being fairly treated and that decisions are made objectively and in compliance with fair housing laws.
Tenant Screening Questions to Ask Potential Renters
We’ve divided the questions you’ll need into categories with a number of different questions in each. Choose one or two from each category and you’ll have a comprehensive plan to cover all of the topics you need to discuss with your potential tenant.
Remember to record all of the answers to your screening questions so that you can accurately compare potential tenants against each other. Keep these answers on file for a sufficient span of time in case a rejected tenant charges you with a violation of Fair Housing or in case you need to show that a problem tenant was less than honest during the application process.
Questions about logistics serve two purposes. First, they help you understand the straightforward details you need to know for timeline and planning. Secondly, they give you an insight into your potential tenant’s attitude toward his or her current home, landlord, and obligations.
- Do you currently rent? If so, where?
- What date are you planning to move out of your current home?
- What date are you planning to move into a new home?
- Why are you moving at this time?
- What do you like about your current home?
- What are you looking for in a new home?
A pet-friendly rental is top priority for many pet owners and can bring a large number of qualified applicants your way. However, all pet parents are not created equal and it is important for you to find out whether your new tenant’s pet is likely to be a community favorite or a pesky problem.
- Do you have a pet?
- How many pets do you have?
- What size(s) is/are your pet(s)?
- What breed(s) is/are your pet(s)?
- Is your pet housebroken?
- Does your pet have any behavioral or medical problems?
- Does your pet get along with others, including children and other animals?
- Who will care for your pet if you are out of town?
- Are you aware of our pet deposit / pet rent charges and are you willing to abide by them?
Rental History Questions
Understanding more about your prospective renter’s rental history gives you an insight into their attitude toward the rental process, their attitude toward their landlord’s rules, and their experiences as renters.
- How long have you lived in your current home?
- Have you ever broken a lease agreement?
- Have you ever been evicted?
- Does your current landlord know you are planning to move?
- Can I ask for a reference from your current or former landlord?
Other Occupant Questions
Remember, you’re not just renting to the person in front of you. You’re renting to everyone else who will be living with them, whether those are roommates or family members. Most markets have occupancy limits for rental properties, so you’ll need to know how many people will be in the home and whether they will be good tenants.
- How many people will be living in the unit?
- How many parking spaces will you require if you live here?
- Will everyone living with you be able to pass a criminal background check?
You will have your own rules for the way your property should be treated and kept up. Your neighborhood or condo association may also have rules. It is important that these are communicated to your potential tenant and that you understand how willing and able they are to fit into your community.
- Do you or anyone living with you smoke?
- You will be responsible for the lawn and landscaping. Do you have any questions about that?
- You will be subject to the HOA rules for the neighborhood. Do you have any questions about them?
- You and your visitors will be subject to the community’s parking-related rules. Do you have any questions about them?
- Do you have frequent overnight guests?
- Do you work nights or odd hours?
It is important for you to ensure that your potential tenant will have sufficient, reliable income to pay the startup costs associated with renting from you as well as the monthly rent. The following questions will help you gauge their financial fitness and their ability to provide documentation.
- Where do you currently work?
- How long have you worked there?
- Can you explain any gaps in your employment history?
- Do you foresee any interruption in your income and ability to pay rent?
- Are you familiar with our rental application fee?
- Are you aware of our security deposit requirements?
- Are you willing to submit to a credit check?
- Have you recently filed for bankruptcy?
- Can you provide documentation of your monthly income?
- Can you pay required fees and deposits upon signing the lease?
Criminal Background Questions
In order to ensure the safety of your property, other tenants, and neighbors, it is important to ensure that the people to whom you lease are honest, upstanding members of the community. These questions will help you conduct your background screening.
Note: You are not allowed to ask whether someone has ever been arrested or charged with a crime. Your decision must be based on a prior conviction.
- Is there anything I should know before I run a criminal background check?
- Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
- If you were convicted of a drug or alcohol-related crime, have you completed or are you currently undergoing treatment for substance addiction?
These final questions are designed to make sure that you have covered everything and to give your potential tenant the opportunity to ask any questions of his or her own.
- Are you willing to sign a (x) year lease agreement?
- Do you understand the rental application process as I have presented it to you?
- Do you have any questions for me?
What Not to Ask
Federal law has created protections designed to prevent discrimination in property sale and rental against protected groups. These protected classes under the fair housing statutes include:
- National Origin
- Familial Status
- Physical or Mental Disability
There are a variety of questions that you might ask in all innocence or with the best of intentions that could be construed as discriminatory. Thus, here are some examples of questions to avoid for each category.
Race- , National Origin-, and Skin Color-related Questions
Questions or comments referring to someone’s race, skin color, or nationality are forbidden.
- Your accent is beautiful, where are you from originally?
- Where were your parents born?
- Were you born in the US or did you move here?
- Is English your second language?
- Are you interested in moving here because there are so many minorities in the neighborhood?
Questions related to someone’s religious practice -- or lack of religious practice or belief -- are forbidden.
- Are you a Christian?
- Will you be looking for a church in the neighborhood?
- I don’t think there is a temple nearby. Will you be looking for one?
- Will your children be going to the local Catholic school?
- What church do you go to?
Questions or comments based on gender are forbidden.
- Aren’t you worried about being a single woman living all by yourself?
- Men are so rough on their houses. Will you agree to pay an additional security deposit?
- Are you sure a little woman like you can take care of this big yard?
Familial Status-related Questions
Questions about children or family status are forbidden.
- Do you have children?
- Are you pregnant or planning to become pregnant?
- Where do your children go to school?
- Do you need information about the local schools for your children?
- The backyard is fenced in. Do you have children who will want to play out there?
In many markets, there are additional issues surrounding questions related to marital status, sexual or gender identification, age, source of income, and other demographic screening questions. Thus, in many places, you cannot ask:
- Are you married?
- Are you gay?
- How old are you?
- Are you divorced?
- Are you a man or a woman?
- If your income comes from alimony, how do I know your ex will continue to pay?
Questions about disabilities -- whether mental or physical -- are forbidden.
- Are you disabled?
- Will you need special accommodations for a disability?
- Will you need special parking for a disability?
- Do you have a service animal?
- The backyard is fenced in. Do you have children who will want to play out there?
The point of these protections is to ensure the availability of housing for all qualified tenants. Remember, your goal is to find a reliable tenant who will take care of your property and pay on time. Don’t be distracted by side issues and wander into personal inquiries that could be construed as discriminatory.
Now that you know which tenant screening questions to ask, it’s time to look at how to show your rental property to its best advantage.