Last updated Apr 5, 2021
Disclaimer: This article is not legal advice. Any legal information is not the same as legal advice, where an attorney applies the law to your specific circumstances, so you should consult an attorney if you’d like advice on your interpretation of this information or its accuracy. You may not rely on this article as legal advice, nor as an endorsement of any particular legal understanding.
While it is important to have a thorough rental application filled out for each applicant, all of that information is useless unless you know how to read and interpret it.
Many real estate agents, landlords, and property managers take the easy way out by just glancing at the income listed and then pulling a credit report. Finding the right tenant requires extremely thorough scrutiny.
Below you will find a great resource you can use to understand all the pieces of the rental application and how you can use them to get a complete picture of each applicant.
Here is an outline of the items you’ll find on a rental application:
- Personal Information
- Property Details
- Residence History
- Employment & Income Information
- Pets & Vehicles
1. Personal Information
The first information you’ll receive on a standard rental application is usually the applicant’s personal information. This tends to be the most sensitive information about applicant because it includes personally identifiable information, or PII. This section is mainly about verifying the identity of the person applying to the property and getting an idea for who’s applying. It also helps you gather some key pieces of information you’ll want to keep on file in case you want to contact the applicant or file an unlawful detainer.
Here is the personal information collected on most standard rental applications, along with how you can use that information and what you need to look out for.
Applicants will provide their first, middle, and last names. This seemingly simple information is not to be overlooked and may be used for the following purposes:
- Prevent fraud. It is important to use a name to prevent fraudulent applicants. Some applicants who know they have a poor rental history may try to pass themselves off as someone else who has a better track record. Make sure that the name on the rental application matches the name provided on any government-issued ID that you collected. RentSpree provides an automatic identity verification for each screening report run so you can have high confidence with who you’re renting to.
- Pull screening reports. Make sure the name provided is the applicant’s legal name. When screening reports are pulled, the name is one of the main factors used to match and access the correct screening reports (along with Social Security Number). Having the correct legal name ensures you receive the right screening reports later on.
- Keep on file. Maintaining correct names for all tenants can help you keep tenants accountable in case there are any issues later on the require an eviction or collections.
Social Security Number
The social security number is another crucial piece of the tenant screening process. It is possible to collect this on a standard rental application. However, there are some things you should be aware of first:
- Think twice before requiring a social security number on a rental application. Many agents, landlords, and property managers may require a SSN or even outright reject applicants who do not provide one. Be careful if you decide to engage in a practice like this, because it may mean you are discriminating against applicants based on their national origin, which is a federally protected class. This type of behavior carries a hefty fine. Learn more about fair housing laws in Chapter 6.
- You Do Not need a SSN to run tenant screening reports. Given the discrimination risks, you may be safer to ask for a SSN, but not require one. Many agents, owners, and managers want a SSN on the rental application because they believe that it’s needed to run credit reports, but this is no longer the case. RentSpree uses cutting edge technology to provide full tenant screening reports without the need to collect or enter any applicant SSN information.
- Find the right time to collect it. If you feel that you must have a SSN to keep on file for tenants, you should consider collecting a SSN during the lease signing process instead of during the rental application process. As we mentioned, you do not need a SSN to run screening reports on an applicant.
The bottom line is that even though many standard rental application have a field for a social security number, you should not automatically deny an applicant for not providing one. Further, you should strongly consider collecting SSNs only from applicants you rent to, if at all.
Applicants should always list the other individuals who will occupy the unit. It is essential for you to know exactly who will be living there. Here’s why:
Example 1. A couple expresses interest in applying for your one-bedroom apartment. Unless you gather other occupant information, you have no way of knowing how many individuals will actually be residing there. That’s where the “other occupants” section comes into play. If you collect this information on your standard rental application, you would know that the couple also has five kids who will be living with them. You can factor this information into your decision and determine if the total occupant group will be a fit for the property.
In the other occupants section, you will gather the information on the other occupants. Which brings us to another common situation:
Example 2. A man expresses interest in applying for your rental. He comes to visit the property alone and gets a standard rental application from you to fill out. In the other occupants section, he lists a woman whom you haven’t met before. She is over the age of 18. With this information, you now know that you will need a separate application and screening reports for the woman as well before you can fully consider a completed application package from the two individuals. You can then email the second applicant directly to send her your standard rental application.
It is your responsibility to protect the property by reviewing the other occupants section. With that information, you can 1) determine if the party will be a fit for the property, and 2) make sure you’re collecting complete information from all adult occupants.
Collecting phone numbers from applicants is important, but they’re not the most crucial pieces of information on a standard rental application. They are great to have in case you need to ask any follow-up questions during your screening process. In addition, it’s a good idea to keep these numbers on file for tenants so you can get in touch if you need to. You’ll also be glad you have these phone numbers in case you need to take disciplinary action or to help you track down those who haven’t paid rent.
Date of Birth
Date of birth is an extremely common question found on most standard rental applications. It may seem like harmless-enough information, but there are a few points to keep in mind about collecting and using birth dates on a rental application.
- The good. Date of birth is a useful piece of information to know about applicants. You can use it to help you verify his or her identity. In particular, you want to ensure that the date of birth matches with any identification provided by an applicant. Some screening reports may also provide date of birth for the applicant, in which case you can cross-reference information to make sure everything matches. It also lets you know whether or not an occupant needs to fill out an application. For example, you can’t hold minors responsible for rent so you would not screen them.
- The bad. Age is a protected class in many jurisdictions, meaning you cannot use age as a basis for legally denying an applicant. While you may not plan to reject an applicant based on age, asking for the date of birth can open the door for a disgruntled applicant to claim that age was the basis for any adverse actions taken. But as long as you have developed and applied screening criteria equally across all applicants, you are going a long way toward protecting yourself even if you collect date of birth on your standard rental application.
Most rental applications also have a spot for the applicant to fill out information for government-issued identification. You will typically see the ID type, ID number, issuing government, and expiration date. Getting this information is crucial for when you collect identification copies from applicants. You can make sure that all of the information matches so that your applicant is not trying to misrepresent themselves.
How They Heard About the Rental
This final piece of information is not pivotal for the screening process. Mainly you can learn a little more about the applicant and see which of your marketing activities are proving most successful.
2. Property Details
Some information about the vacant rental property is usually included on a standard rental application as well. This is key to make sure you’re on the same page with the applicant and so that you can keep applications organized in case you’re working with multiple vacancies and multiple applicants at once.
The property address is included on the rental application so both you and the applicant can be completely clear about the property in question. Again, this can also help you stay on top of things if you have many vacancies and many applicants.
The rent amount and the security deposit are also usually included. This serves to let the applicant know what you’re asking for. Putting this information out there can save everyone’s time if the amounts exceed the applicant’s budget. Sensible applicants will not move forward to complete the application and tenant screening process if the applicant knows rent is too expensive anyway.
3. Residence History
Once you get beyond the personal information and property details of a rental application, you’ll review residence history next. Reviewing an applicant’s residence history is central to the decision you’ll make about each applicant.
Many people have the common saying that “past performance is no indication of future performance”. But as far as tenant screening is concerned, an applicant’s past residence history is easily one of the best indicators for what you can expect from an applicant who rents your place.
In this section, we’re going to delve into the types of residence information you’ll see from an applicant and what to look for as you review everything.
An applicant’s current residence is the first step in your journey looking back at the residence history. Here, we’ll outline the information you’ll receive on a standard rental application and then tell you exactly what it means and how you can use it to find a good tenant.
- Residence type. . The applicant can indicate if he or she is currently living in a 1) rental unit or an 2) owner-occupied unit. Depending on the answer, you can move forward to screen accordingly. Most rental applicants tend to currently live in a rental unit and do not own a property. If an applicant currently lives in a rental unit, you can move forward to contact the landlord and confirm move-in/move-out dates. However, for applicants who live in an owner-occupied property, your verification is more limited and you’ll want to make sure you hear the reason why the applicant wants to move into the rental property.
- Current address. You’ll need the applicant’s current address to help you later on when you want to verify the rental history. Using the current address, there’s also a trick you can use to verify that you’re talking to the real landlord when the time comes to make a call. The screening reports usually also have an address history, so you can check to see that the address on the rental application matches the landlord reference check and the address history of the screening reports. Using this “three-way-matching” can flush out many red flags on a standard rental application.
- Move-in/move-out dates. You can use move-in & move-out dates again to cross-reference when you contact the landlord. More crucially, you can also use this information to look for any gaps in residence. A large, unexplained gap in residence could mean the applicant is trying to hide a poor rental experience with a previous landlord. You should do your best to make sure an applicant’s residence history is accounted for.
- Landlord name and contact information. It’s always a great opportunity to be able to contact landlord references to learn more about the applicant and verify rental history. Off the bat, there should be no reason why a landlord’s contact information is not provided by the applicant. If this information is missing and the applicant does not want to provide it, that’s a huge red flag.
More detail is provided on contacting previous landlords in a separate article. However, one common concern to watch for is “how do I know I’m talking to the actual landlord?”. In other words, what’s stopping an applicant from listing a friend or family member as his or her landlord? The answer is nothing. Nothing stops an applicant from listing a friend instead of the actual landlord. One nice trick you can use when you call the landlord is to not provide the landlord with any of the information you’re asking about. Leave it up to the landlord to fill in the detail about the property address, rent amount, and move-in dates. The actual landlord will be able to provide you with this information, so you can easily tell if something funny is going on.
- Reason for moving out. A final piece of residence information found on most standard rental application lets you know the motivation behind the move. What you want to see are reasons like the applicant is relocating for work or looking for a bigger place. You don’t want to see a blank answer and you don’t want to see that the applicant was evicted (although applicants will rarely write that).
You can also confirm the reason for moving when you contact references. For example, if the applicant lists they’re moving for a new job, you should be able to contact the current and previous employers to confirm this information.
Previous residence information includes all of the information listed above for the current residence section. Most standard rental applications leave space for at least one previous residence. Some allow for applicants to list two or more previous residences so you can get a more complete rental history for the applicant
When you’re contacting the current and previous landlords to verify information, you should always make sure you can contact the previous landlord. The current landlord is not likely to tell the whole truth about a bad tenant because he or she may just want to get rid of the tenant. Previous landlords have no reason to limit the information they provide.
Always make sure you take the time to contact previous landlords to get the scoop on an applicant.
4. Employment & Income Information
Applicant employment and income really boils down to two things:
- Does the applicant make enough monthly income to realistically cover the rent?
- Is the source of income stable and unlikely to change?
Both of these questions should be answered by the employment section of a standard rental application.
This also goes back to when you set up your tenant screening criteria and set a minimum rent to income ratio that you’re comfortable with (a common rent to income ratio is 30%).
This section will show you how likely an applicant is to meet the financial requirements of paying the rent each month. Here is a breakdown of the information and what it all means:
- Employer information. See the employer name, address, supervisor/HR manager name. With this information, you know who you need to contact to perform an employment verification. You can double down on verification by gathering proof of income from the applicant (paystubs, W-2s) and ensuring that the employer information matches up. When you contact the employer, be sure to have them verify all the information provided by the applicant. You should identify any discrepancies between the employer and the rental application and investigate them fully.
- Income and information about the position. Be sure you take all forms of income into account when you evaluate an applicant. By law, you cannot discriminate against type of income. Let’s look at a simple example. An applicant needs $6,000 a month in income to meet your minimum income criteria. The applicant makes $5,000 per month through full-time employment and $1,000 per month through a Social Security check. You would be better off taking into account all forms of income and not denying the applicant off the bat because his or her employment alone didn’t cover your minimum income requirement.
5. Pets & Vehicles
Pet & vehicle information is useful to make sure there is a good fit between the applicant and your policies. For instance, if you only have two available parking spots for a unit you’re renting, it’s good to know how many vehicles the applicant plans on bringing. If you see three vehicles listed on a standard rental application, you may want to check in with the applicant to make sure you can work something out before moving further in the process.
Pets are a similar situation. Depending on your pet policy, you can see if the applicant will be a good fit for your policies. Also, this section of the rental application can serve as a reference later on in case you run into an issue with pets. For example, if an applicant lists one dog on his or her application, but you later find out that the tenant has six pets, you’ll be glad you have a standard rental application form to reference for any action you might need to take.
Keep in mind that certain applicants may have a service animal or emotional support animal. In some cases, it can be seen as discriminatory to reject applicants because they have a service or emotional support animal. That goes even if you have a “no pet” policy. We will cover service and support animals in more detail in the “Fair Housing Act” section of the next eBook in this series. But you should consult with an attorney to ensure that your screening and pet policy handles applicants with animals the proper way.
6. Miscellaneous Information
Last but not least on a standard rental application is a miscellaneous section. The questions here can vary greatly depending on what application you’re using. However, this section commonly asks questions like:
- Have you ever filed for bankruptcy?
- Have you ever been evicted or asked to move?
- Do you plan to use any liquid-filled furniture?
- Have you ever been convicted or pleaded no contest to a felony?
These questions again can be a basis to pre-screen applicants before you move forward. Or, you will likely be able to verify the answers given by running various tenant screening reports on the applicant.
This concludes our guide to reading a standard rental application.
3 Common Questions Regarding A Standard Rental Application
1. What is the purpose of a rental application?
A rental application is a document collecting information and the data it demands should represent the ability of the applicant to rent out land. It is therefore critical that the requested information is lawful and specific. There are five key parts in the standard rental application: personal information, history of residency, employment/income, references, and miscellaneous. The order and questions can differ depending on the program. However, the main concept is the same; you want to understand as much about the applicant as you (legally) can.
2. Is it illegal to lie on rental applications?
It is possibly not illegal, but you should be aware that most rental agreements and leases often have provisions specifying that your tenancy may be terminated if any details you submitted on your application turns out to be false. On your submitted applications, you should be upfront and honest, and if you think you need to explain something, do so. No one, especially in business, likes to be lied to. Landlords want to know to whom they rent, and renters are always upset when a landlord has forgotten to tell them about the rental unit as well. Being frank is always the right policy on both sides.
3. What is the average rental application fee?
Per applicant, most application fees cost between $30 and $50. The screening fee you can charge is usually made up of two categories:
- “Out of pocket' expenses associated with purchasing screening reports and accessing them. This is the most common explanation why a fee is paid by agents and landlords. Your tenant screening provider, for example, charges $30 to view screening reports for you.
- Costs associated with the labor to collect, analyze, and check the tenant screening kit of an applicant. As part of the screening fee, agents and landlords do not charge as much for this because it can be difficult to calculate. You spend two hours, for example, gathering a completed application kit, drawing screening reports, and reviewing an applicant's references. This component may be a little more vague since some of the California rental application fee regulations place particular conditions on applicants.
Continue to Chapter 3: Identifying Red Flags, or jump to a different article.