Chapter 3: Identifying Tenant Red Flags on Rental Applications

Last updated Apr 3, 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.

Aside from the obvious indicators (low credit score, income, etc.), there are a slew of less noticeable details on a apartment rental application that may point to a bad tenant. Identifying these areas may well be the only chance you have to avoid a bad tenant later on.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a genius to identify red flags on a rental application. You just need to know where to look. You may not want to automatically disqualify applicants based on these red flags, but they certainly merit some additional consideration and/or research. Here are some of the red flags we will cover:

  1. Unverifiable income
  2. No Contact Info Provided for Current/Previous Landlord
  3. Frequent Changes of Residence
  4. Incomplete Information Provided
  5. Information Does Not Match Screening Reports
  6. Credit Report Provided by Applicant
  7. Applicant is in a Rush
  8. Currently Unemployed and/or No Income
  9. Multiple Co-Applicants
  10. Applicant is Breaking the Lease with His/Her Current Landlord

If you haven’t already, you might want to check out our guide to reading a rental application before you read the most common red flags found on an apartment rental application.

Woman calculating income a rental application

1. Unverifiable Income

Why You Should Care

When applicants list an income source that cannot be verified, it’s a big problem because you have no assurances that the applicant will be able to cover the cost of rent each month. The last thing you should do is take the applicant’s word on this. You should verify that the applicant can afford the asking rent amount.

To verify income, you should be able to do one or more of the following:

  1. View proof of income (paystubs, W-2s, etc.)
  2. View bank statements
  3. View tax returns
  4. Speak with employers

If you cannot verify income on a rental application, there are three possibilities you should watch out for:

  1. The applicant is lying about their income. Maybe they make much less than they say, or maybe they have no income at all. Either way, it’s a huge red flag to watch out for when you review rental applications.
  2. The applicant makes income from illicit activity. This is not ideal because the applicant may continue to engage in criminal activity on the property, which can cause issues with law enforcement and any other tenants. It’s best to identify if this is the case and act accordingly.
  3. The applicant does not report income. Applicants who cannot prove income may be earning income in a legitimate way, but the income goes unreported to avoid taxation. This can happen with individuals who work as freelancers, etc. Either way, you should think twice about renting to someone who is already engaging in deceptive practices.

How to Prevent This

Always make sure to press applicants if they do not provide adequate proof of income. If an applicant cannot back up the information they’ve listed on a rental application, you can move on to another applicant who is able to provide proof.

2. No Contact Info Provided for Current/Previous Landlord

Why You Should Care

Your job is to make sure you’re moving forward with applicants who will be a good tenant. One of the best ways to make sure of this is to ask current and previous landlords for feedback. What a current or previous landlord says about an applicant is directly related to how he or she will be as your tenant. You want to know if:

  1. The applicant had an issue with a previous landlord. When an applicant does not provide you the information to look into residence history, you have to assume they’re trying to hide something. The applicant may have paid rent late every month, trashed the unit, broke the lease early, or even been evicted.
  2. The applicant provided information for someone who is not the landlord. Another reason you may not be able to get into contact with an applicant’s previous landlord is if the applicant tried to give you the phone number of someone else (like a friend) instead of the landlord. This should almost always lead to disqualification of the applicant.

How to Prevent This

You should insist on getting the information you need to contact current and previous landlords for each applicant. You can’t afford not to get the full story for an applicant. But how can you tell if you’re talking to the actual landlord when you call? Easy. When you conduct landlord interviews, you should rely on the landlord to confirm all details about the applicant’s residence history. A friend or relative would not usually be able to do this.

Moving homes after sending rental applications

3. Frequent Changes of Residence

Why You Should Care

While you should not always reject an applicant who moves around a lot, you should take care in renting to these individuals. Applicants who have a transitory residence history are not likely to spend a lot of time renting from you either. This may be an issue if you are looking for long-term, stable tenants. You can identify this on a house rental application that has multiple addresses over a short period of time.

But the larger issue here is why the applicant was moving around so much.

Many might have a good reason such as:

  1. Employment requires travel
  2. Needed to take care of a family member
  3. Received promotions

However, some may have bad reasons for the multiple moves:

  1. Unable to pay rent
  2. Problems with roommates
  3. Was evicted

With any of these cases, you may not feel comfortable renting to the applicant and you’d be right to feel that way.

How to Prevent This

Because moving a lot shouldn’t be the only reason you reject an applicant, you need to understand the reason for the moving. That’s where you can use the information listed on the applicant’s rental application to get into contact with previous landlords to find out the details behind the moves.

4. Incomplete Information Provided

Why You Should Care

One of the most common red flags on a rental application is the omission of information. Applicants tend to leave out everything from employer contact information to the reason he or she is moving. You may be tempted to overlook any missing information if an applicant looks good otherwise.

You should not, under any circumstances, accept a tenant who leaves crucial information off of a rental application.

Some applicants may leave information blank because they don’t have it or are too lazy to look it up. Those to watch for are applicants who leave information blank because they are trying to hide something. When an applicant leaves crucial information off, it can be for any of the following serious reasons:

  1. There was an eviction
  2. Their income is not high enough
  3. They have an unfavorable residence history
  4. They have an inconsistent employment history

Where an applicant leaves information blank, you should take that as a signal to look into that area of the apartment rental application even further. The applicant may be trying to cover something up that you can’t afford to overlook.

How to Prevent Information Gaps

Any time you are not satisfied with the amount of information supplied on a rental application, you should go back to the applicant to attempt to collect the missing information. If an applicant refuses to provide the information, you should not move forward with the applicant. Keep in mind that if you decide to take a shortcut now, you will also have incomplete information on your tenants when they move in. That will make it difficult (if not impossible) to take appropriate action if there is an issue later on.

Man looking through rental applications

5. Information Does Not Match Screening Reports

Why You Should Care

The information on a rental application comes from a “subjective” source (i.e. the applicant). That means the information can be whatever the applicant decides to provide and may not always be correct. For this reason, you always need to verify the information on a rental application.

A good way to verify the information is to make sure it matches with the information on the tenant screening reports (credit reports, background checks, & eviction reports). These are considered “objective” sources because they come from databases and public records. This means they are far more reliable and typically much more accurate than any information provided on a rental application.

Any differences between the rental application and the screening reports is a red flag that merits investigation. For example, an applicant may indicate they have no criminal background records on a rental application. But if a criminal background check shows a record, you both know they have a criminal record and that they likely lying about it. So even if the record itself was not disqualifying, you may not want to rent to a tenant with a tendency to be dishonest.

How to Prevent This

Before you move forward to sign a lease, make sure you always

  1. Run tenant screening reports, and
  2. Compare those reports with the rental application

Any discrepancies should be fully investigated to make sure the applicant is not trying to hide anything or deceive you. If you find any evidence of deception, you would be wise to move on to a different applicant.

6. Credit Report Provided by Applicant

Why You Should Care

An applicant’s financial history is a crucial part of the rental application process. One key method to assess that history is by viewing a credit report. The credit report includes many details about an applicant’s financial history. When you access a credit report, you’re viewing information that originates from public records.

Because the credit report is so critical to your decision, you cannot afford to use anything other than accurate information. That’s why you should ensure that the report you receive originates from a secure source. If you do not access reports from a secure source, there is no way you can guarantee you are relying upon accurate information.

If an applicant provides his or her own credit report, there is always a chance that it has been altered. If you think it’s difficult to fabricate this kind of information, think again. Anyone with basic computer knowledge can change a 575 credit score to a 750 credit score in a matter of minutes.

If an applicant strongly insists that you accept a report they provide, the applicant could be trying to hide something. The bottom line is that you cannot afford to make decisions based on unreliable information.

How to Prevent This

It is imperative that you only use credit reports that originate from a source that you know and trust. For example, if you access reports directly through RentSpree, you can be sure that the information has not been altered in any way. Don’t hesitate to insist that you run reports yourself.

7. Applicant is in a Rush

Why You Should Care

It can be nice to have an applicant who is ready and willing to move quickly. However, there is a big difference between an enthusiastic applicant and a desperate applicant. Beware of applicants who are flustered and pressure you into making a decision before you’ve had the chance to complete your rental application screening process.

There are two main reasons an applicant may try to rush you into a decision:

  1. The applicant is hiding something. Applicants that try and pressure you may do so in the hopes that you overlook a disqualifying aspect of his or her rental application. In other cases, he or she may be hoping that you neglect to contact a previous landlord.
  2. The applicant is escaping a bad situation. Applicants may also look to move faster in the hopes of leaving a tough situation behind. In the worst cases, the applicant may be in the process of being evicted from a current residence and wants to move faster before the eviction hits public record. In less severe cases, an applicant may have an issue with a roommate so wants to leave. This could be worrisome for you because it tells you that the applicant may be difficult to deal with.

How to Prevent This

Never decide on an applicant’s rental application before you dot all the “I’s” and cross all the “T’s”. You should be following a set screening process to find the best tenant. While you can expedite this process, never do so at the expense of diligence. Applicants who put undue pressure to move forward are typically hiding skeletons in the closet that they don’t want found.

Unemployed man from rental application

8. Currently Unemployed and/or No Income

Why You Should Care

Although you shouldn’t outright reject unemployed applicants (especially if they have income), you should take the time to understand the situation. You don’t want to end up with an applicant who makes empty promises about being able to pay the rent when they have no verifiable means of doing so.

So how do you deal with an applicant who is unemployed?
You first need to know if he or she has any supplemental, steady income that can be used to cover the rent. For example, there might be consistent investment income that is more than sufficient to cover the rent.

You may run into an issue with applicants who are unemployed and have no income. In these cases, you’re going to want to know how long it’s been since he or she was last employed. If the applicant has been out of work for a few weeks, it’s not as bad as an applicant who has been job hunting for 6 months. Furthermore, it will be more difficult (if not impossible) to enforce wage garnishment if the applicant does not pay rent.

Either way, you should not accept an applicant based on the promise that he or she will soon find a job. It’s not advisable to take a gamble on an applicant’s employability.

How to Prevent This

If you receive a rental application that shows unemployment and/or no income, you most likely would not want to accept the applicant unless he or she has a definite path to earning the necessary income. In cases where you are renting to a student, you may also think about requiring a co-signer to have someone who can be accountable for any nonpayment of rent.

9. Multiple Co-Applicants

Why You Should Care

Multiple co-applicants aren’t always a bad thing. However, they do pose some extra factors that you should consider.

  1. Get a rental application for each applicant. Many co-applicants believe they can apply using one rental application. You cannot properly evaluate multiple applicants using one rental application. Each person has a different income, residence history, financial situation, criminal history, etc. Not getting a completed rental application package from each applicant means you might miss crucial information.
  2. Check if they’ve lived together before. Applicants who have lived together previously have a lesser likelihood of experiencing personal issues when they move in with you. If they haven’t lived together previously, the applicants may drag you into an issue or try to break the lease early.

How to Prevent This

It’s fine to accept co-applicants. Just make sure you collect complete rental applications and tenant screening reports for each one. Even a husband and wife should supply separate information. Don’t take any shortcuts here as one of the applicants may have a glaring issue that the other doesn’t have. The only way to find out is to collect thorough information from each applicant.

10. Applicant is Breaking the Lease with His/Her Current Landlord

Why You Should Care

One common question on most rental applications is the reason the applicant is leaving his or her current residence. Pay special attention to the answer to this question and make sure you get into contact with the current landlord to ask about the applicant.

If it arises that the applicant is breaking his or her current lease, that’s sending a loud signal that the applicant may be unpredictable and unreliable. If you’re looking for a reliable tenant, this may not be the right person for you. Tenants who have previously broken a lease without sufficient cause are telling you they have no problem breaking your lease as well.

That could put you in a situation where you’ll have to find another tenant on short notice and lose out on rent during the vacancy period.

How to Prevent This

If you screen tenants properly by collecting a completed rental application and contacting references, you should be able to identify an applicant with a track record of breaking leases. Unless he or she had a good reason for doing so, you can assume you might get the same treatment if you select that applicant.

That finishes up our guide for Identifying Red Flags on Apartment Rental Applications.

Continue to Chapter 4: 5 Common Problems with Lease Applications, or jump to a different article.

  1. Rental Application Process 101
  2. Reading Standard Rental Application Forms
  3. Identifying Tenant Red Flags on Rental Applications
  4. 5 Common Problems with Rental Application Requirements
  5. Free Rental Application Form
  6. Rental Application Denial Letter
  7. The Fair Housing Act