Asking the right questions is key to finding the right tenants. Those questions need to be targeted so the information is helpful in evaluating qualifications. Collecting irrelevant information not only increases the risk of a discrimination claim, but also makes it harder to determine if the applicant is qualified.
Landlords should INCLUDE these questions:
When will you be ready to move? Be careful with this seemingly easy question. Tenants often test to see if there is any flexibility with move-in dates. A day or two of wiggle room to accommodate a move is different that asking to hold open a vacancy, but any ground given here could set the stage for other concessions later on.
Have you (or will you) provide notice to the current landlord? Any uneasiness regarding the current lease situation is worth noting, especially if the tenant is attempting to discredit the current landlord.
Why are you moving? This question relates to rental history. Answers like, “I need bigger space,” or “This is closer to work,” are positive signs. On the other hand, if the question solicits negative comments about the current landlord, more due diligence may be required to determine if the tenant is, in fact, a victim, or if this applicant has a negative rental history.
Do you have sufficient income for the rent? Here, an applicant may try to negotiate down the rent figure. Without some objective basis for this request (the rent is way above market), requesting rent concessions during the preliminary stages of tenant screening may signal a problem tenant. The person may not be able to afford the rent, or may be difficult.
Is your income verifiable? The source of income generally is of less importance than whether it can be verified. Be certain that the tenant is not simply making it up. This question signals that the applicant will have to come up with documentation, and that might discourage a scammer who can find an easier target.
How many people (or pets) will be occupying the property? This is a risky question for landlords who abide by strict occupancy limits. Stay away from questions regarding family relationships. The focus should be on whether the property can accommodate the number, whether the applicant has pets, and how many adults will be on the lease.
Landlord Tip: Large families are protected against occupancy limits by the Fair Housing Act. Policies like 2-people-per bedroom may be discriminatory. For more on determining occupancy limits, see our previous post, When Occupancy Limits Become Discriminatory.
It is also important to understand that a companion or emotional support animal is not a pet. If an applicant flags that they keep a companion animal, it is illegal to deny the application on those grounds.
Can you abide by the house rules? Before an applicant can answer this question, the landlord must take the opportunity to spell out important rules that tenants must follow at the property.
Discuss any parking restrictions, smoking rules, noise curfews, pet policies, maintenance requirements and any other items that might impact the applicant’s choice to move in. The more times the tenant hears these rules, the more likely they will comply.
Be careful not to create any house rules that give rise to discrimination claims. For instance, it may be illegal to reject an applicant who cannot perform a maintenance task that requires a high degree of physical strength.
Have you been evicted? Previous evictions are problematic. If the answer is yes, it is important to dig deeper into why the eviction occurred. Other considerations include how long ago the applicant was evicted, and whether there were multiple evictions. It may be possible for a previously-evicted applicant to rehabilitate. The individual’s honesty about this question is a positive sign.
Are you willing to undergo a tenant background check? Explain the scope of the tenant screening policy. For instance, the landlord will run tenant credit, eviction and criminal histories, verify income, and speak with the references. The applicant undoubtedly will answer yes, but this is more about warning applicants that the information they provide will be scrutinized. Bad tenants may be discouraged from pursuing the application, while the better tenants will be forthcoming about any problems they may have had.
Tenant screening is all about due diligence — flagging potential issues that can be discussed with the applicant. Many applicants have some blemish on their record. If the applicant raises the issue and shows a willingness to cooperate, this person still could be a great tenant.
Can you provide references? This question provides an opportunity for an applicant to reveal any problems with the previous rental history. It can be helpful to the applicant to review the scope of the questions that might be asked of the previous landlord.
Sticking to the script makes it easier to compare applicants. Also, that can avoid the tendency to want to chat with the applicant. To the extent those casual conversations get personal, the landlord could have a problem with discrimination.
Landlords Should AVOID Questions (or Comments) Regarding:
Family status. Are you married? Are you planning to have kids?
Origin. How long have you lived here? (It is appropriate to ask for previous residence history.)
Disability. Have you ever taken drugs? Do you drink?
Religion. Property is within walking distance of church.
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).
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is 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.