How to Read Your Rental Applicants

by | Mar 30, 2015 | Tenant Screening

Imagine you have a vacancy, and that these are the applicants you’ve interviewed so far. Now, try to spot the problem tenant:

A young man applies for your rental vacancy. He’s a really nice person. He’s apologetic for rushing you, but he’s in a hurry to find something because he has to be out of his place in just a few days. He really likes your rental. Can he sign the lease right now?

 A millennial applies for your vacancy. She has a great job. She says she rented once during college, but since then she’s been living with relatives, first her sister and then her parents. She says it is so she can save money. She lists her mom and dad’s address on the rental application, but can’t remember the one from college.

The next applicant is a little down on her luck. She seems like she needs to talk. She lost her father awhile back. Then, she had a cancer scare. It turned out to be nothing, but during that time she had to leave her job and then find another. She’s looking to move because her current landlord won’t fix anything in the apartment. He’s being a jerk. He claims she didn’t pay the rent two months ago, but she has a receipt somewhere that proves that he took the money from her.

The fourth applicant is a consultant who landed a two-year contract with an unfamiliar local company and he needs a place to stay right away. He’s really excited about the move from his big house back home to a one-bedroom apartment. He can’t wait to get his Lexus shipped out here. He has a hefty cash advance and is willing to pay whatever amount it takes to get this done.

So, you might be thinking, “That’s easy. They all have red flags.” While it’s true that each of these scenarios raises potential problems, it’s impossible to tell for sure without more information. Each scenario also demonstrates that it’s far easier to analyze an applicant on paper than it is to size them up in person.

What Does a Bad Tenant Look Like?

Can you tell the difference between desperate and enthusiastic? Between down-on-your-luck and manipulative. The ideal candidate and the tenant from hell?

Reading rental applicants requires a healthy dose of skepticism. We all like to think the best of people. It’s an admirable trait, but also a trap. Your intuition can be hindered by the fact that many problem tenants believe the stories they are telling, and feel entitled to take advantage of the next landlord.

How to Catch a Bad Tenant — Before It’s Too Late

In order to catch a bad tenant, you need to flag the contradictions. Lies are like bedbugs — where one pops up, surely there are more.

But you’ll never catch those lies unless you have enough information. That’s why it is so crucial that you take the time to capture a baseline, and then compare new information as it develops. The more you find out, the more likely you will catch the contradiction.  It’s this “paper trail” that is key to getting an accurate reading. You need something to refer back to when you get that gut feeling something isn’t right.

Renting on the spot to the “perfect” tenant is a recipe for disaster.

When you speak with an applicant on the telephone, jot down some notes about what story they tell at that time. Meet them in person and verify their identity. Walk through the property together and listen. Ask for a completed rental application. If the person appears to be qualified, run a tenant background check. Then, look for inconsistencies.

In each of our scenarios, a tenant credit report and landlord reference likely would confirm whether there is a problem. In the first case, the “nice young man” may be in the process of being evicted or skipping out on his current lease. If not, he’s bad at planning, given that he should have provided ample notice to the previous landlord. A credit report could reveal that this bad habit spills over into his financial dealings.

The second scenario is likely someone who has burned bridges with a previous landlord and doesn’t want you to talk to one another.  The living arrangements could be truthful, but just as easily could be a sign that the person lacks qualifications like good credit or has been rejected by other landlords.

The third scenario could be the classic bad tenant who is seeking sympathy so you won’t check her record. By the time the conversation is over, you will know everything there is to know about her — except her qualifications.

In the final example, the applicant seems too good to be true. When tenants flash the cash or appear over-qualified, landlords should be wary.

Red flags simply mean you must dig a little deeper before you rent to this applicant. A tenant background check may confirm your suspicions, or may reveal perfectly cogent reasons for the applicant’s behaviour. There’s nothing that says you can’t give someone with a less-than-perfect background a chance to rehabilitate. But wouldn’t it be better to know ahead of time that’s what you’re doing?

This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).

Click Here to Receive Landlord Credit Reports.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post in not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.

Property management software for Canadian Condos.

Property Boss

Property management software for single family, multifamily, and student housing.


Screening services for property managers and landlords. Select a market below.