Dr. Gregory House, the protagonist of “House M.D.,” was fond of saying, “Everybody lies.” To the extent this is true, it poses serious problems for property owners attempting to screen potential tenants. Here are eight questions you must ask, along with tips for how to ask them, to help you determine which prospective tenants are the best choices for your property:
1. Can we discuss your employment record?
If the prospective tenant says no, you can eliminate him/her from the running and save a great deal of time doing so. If the prospect says yes, he/she has given you permission to ask several key follow-up questions that may be awkward to ask without permission. Important follow-up questions include:
- Where are you employed?
- What are your duties?
- How long have you been employed there?
- Can we contact your company for a referral?
- What is your monthly net income?
These questions give you key insights on the applicant’s stability and ability to pay the rent.
2. Can we discuss your move-in plans?
As with employment, this question opens the door to probe areas that may be slightly uncomfortable to dive into without permission. The key follow-ups here are:
- Why are you moving?
- When will you be able to move in?
- How many people will be living here, and how are they related to you?
- How many pets will you be bringing and what type of animals are they?
The reasons why a person is moving provide important insight: is it because of a pay cut or a pay raise? Was he/she evicted? Etc. Getting accurate information about occupants and pets can be challenging, which is why asking for specifics is important.
3. Can we run a complete background check?
Written consent is necessary to execute a background check. If the applicant denies consent, you can eliminate him/her — and probably dodge a bullet. A poor credit score, problematic rental history, criminal issues, and/or an unstable job history may disqualify an applicant.
4. Can you tell us about this issue that came up during our background check?
If something irregular crops up in a background check, it could be rash to automatically disqualify the individual. The person may have a reasonable explanation for the issue, and what on paper appears to be a high-risk candidate is in fact a perfectly acceptable tenant. It’s good business to give prospective tenants the opportunity to explain the situation. Being overly selective often leads to prolonged vacancies.
5. Can we talk to your current landlord?
Basic fact checking keeps you from being misled or missing an opportunity. If the landlord has never heard of your applicant, you can safely eliminate him/her. If instead the landlord gives a glowing review, you’ve likely identified a star tenant.
6. Can we take a tour of your current residence?
This takes the previous question a step further. A picture is worth 1,000 words, and nothing will give you a clearer picture of how prospective tenants will treat your property than a look at how they treat their current residence. A tour will reveal things like whether a person smokes, has a set of drums in the living room, owns five dogs — items he/she will likely try to conceal in an interview.
7. Can you pay a security deposit and the first month’s rent at move-in time?
This question provides insight about the person’s ability to pay promptly. Prolonged haggling or reluctance to say “yes” could indicate a chronic cash flow problem that will make timely rent collection difficult. It’s better to identify these issues before the lease is signed rather than two months in.
8. Why would you make a good tenant?
Often the best way to get insight about applicants is to ask an open-ended question and let them talk. If an applicant offers specific, compelling reasons — 10 years with the same company, a recent pay raise, an 800-plus credit score — you can get a handle on the person’s priorities. If, on the other hand, the applicant has vague responses, it could be a danger sign. Some people are better talkers than others, so don’t let a weak response close the door. Rather than rely on a single response, use all eight in concert — that way you’ll get the full picture.