So you’ve marketed your rental property and have multiple responses from prospective tenants — now what? While you can choose to proceed with the application process, it may be a good idea to ask tenant pre-screening questions before spending time and money on credit and background checks. Every landlord wants to find a great tenant — and asking the right questions is the first step.
Some factors that may help indicate an ideal tenant:
- They’ll be spending 30% or less of their monthly income on rent.
- They have a good credit score.
- They can provide positive references from past landlords.
- They have steady employment.
20 questions to ask potential tenants
With the above in mind, here are 20 tenant screening questions to ask potential tenants:
- Why are you looking to move?
- How long have you lived in your current residence?
- When are you able to move in?
- Can I contact your employer and former landlords?
- What is your monthly income?
- How many people will be living with you?
- Does anyone in your household smoke?
- Do you have any pets?
- How many parking spaces do you require?
- Are you familiar with our rental application process?
- Will you agree to a background and credit check?
- Are there any issues I should know about before I run a background check on all adults in the household?
- Have you ever been evicted?
- Have you recently filed for bankruptcy?
- Have you ever been convicted of a relevant crime?
- Will you be able to pay the application fee?
- Will you be able to pay the security deposit when you sign the lease?
- Have you ever broken a lease agreement?
- Could anything interrupt your ability to pay rent?
- Do you have any questions?
Keep in mind any fair housing laws (and exceptions to those laws) that apply to you as a landlord — there are certain questions you can and can’t ask. We recommend using the same script and asking the same questions to all prospective tenants.
1. Why are you looking to move?
This is a good first question to ask prospective tenants. Many renters move to be closer to their new job or for more space. Often, a renter decides to move simply because their rent is being increased — according to the Zillow Group Consumer Housing Trends Report 2019, 78% of renters who move from one rental to another experience a rent increase prior to their move.
2. How long have you lived in your current residence?
If the renter has a history of moving every year, the pattern will likely continue. Consider their answer along with your desired lease duration — do you want a tenant to sign a lease for six months, one year or longer? The majority of renters (61%) who plan to move in the next year plan to continue renting, so finding out their rental history should be one of your first rental screening questions.
3. When are you able to move in?
One-third of renters (33%) spend less than a month searching, while 38% spend one to two months. Since landlords typically require 30 days of notice to terminate a lease, your prospective tenant may not be ready to move in just yet. In many cases, a renter will be looking to move in at the beginning of the next month.
4. Can I contact your employer and former landlords?
You’ll always want this on your list of landlord questions for prospective tenants. Their references will be able to answer crucial questions, including:
- Were they a reliable tenant?
- Was rent paid on time?
- Would you rent to them again?
5. What is your monthly income?
You want a tenant who’s able to pay the rent on time. A good rule of thumb is that a renter should spend no more than 30% of their monthly income on rent. So, if your monthly rent is $1,200, you’ll want a renter who earns $4,000 each month. The median household income for today’s typical renter is $37,500 a year, and the monthly median rent is $1,067. While you can ask about total monthly income, some states do not allow you to ask about sources of income.
6. How many people will be living with you?
Some states and cities have laws around the number of occupants per bedroom. Check what the limit is for your area, and then verify the prospective tenant‘s household will be under the limit. Occupancy issues are rare — the typical American renter is a 33-year-old who shares a home with either a pet, children or a roommate — but you should always check. Make sure to comply with fair housing laws when dealing with families.
7. Does anyone in your household smoke?
This is an important question for renters, as smoke can cause property damage. As a landlord, it’s your right to have a no-smoking policy and deny an applicant if they or a co-applicant smoke.
8. Do you have any pets?
Pets occupy 46% of rental households, with dogs (31%) and cats (22%) being the two most common. If a renter has pets and you have a no-pet policy, then you’ll save time and money for both of you by asking this preliminary tenant screening question. If you do allow them, you’ll be able to find out if they meet any pet policy requirements, such as number and size of pets. It’s also a good time to inform them of any pet deposits or monthly pet fees. Be aware that federal fair housing laws may prohibit you from denying service and emotional support animals regardless of your pet policy.
9. How many parking spaces do you require?
Make sure you can accommodate the number of vehicles your prospective tenant has in their household. You can let them know of any off-street and street parking, along with any no-parking zones.
10. Are you familiar with our rental application process?
If they are, then your application and screening process should be straightforward. If they aren’t, it’s a good idea to explain the next steps, such as completing a rental application, paying application fees, and agreeing to the background and credit check process. Make sure they don’t have any rental application questions that may make them hesitate to apply.
Zillow Rental Manager offers an easy, secure online application and screening process that lets you review applications and run background and credit checks. Best of all, it’s free for the landlord and just $35 for the applicant.
11. Will you agree to a background and credit check?
Many landlords run background and credit checks on applicants. If you require these checks and a prospective tenant doesn’t agree to them, you can automatically remove them from your renter pool. Make sure the applicant provides written permission to run these checks when they submit their application — verbal confirmation is insufficient.
12. Are there any issues I should know about before I run a background check on all adults in the household?
By asking this simple rental screening question, you’ll eliminate any surprises that may pop up during the screening process. It’s always good to hear the prospective tenant‘s view on any issues — they may be working hard to improve on past mistakes.
13. Have you ever been evicted?
This is one of the most crucial questions to ask rental applicants, as no landlord wants to worry about renting to someone with a history of evictions. Maybe they fell on hard times but are now financially stable — or maybe they have a history of evictions due to property damage or excessive noise.
14. Have you recently filed for bankruptcy?
A credit report will show any bankruptcy in the past seven years. Asking this rental screening question gives the prospective tenant a chance to explain themselves. Look at their credit history after they filed — have they kept up on payments and worked to improve their credit?
15. Have you been convicted of a relevant crime?
You can’t necessarily deny a prospective tenant for committing a crime, but you should keep an eye out for relevant criminal convictions that may pose a threat to your property or community:
- Burglary, arson, drunk driving, etc.
- Illegal manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance
Make sure to be consistent when asking this question — either ask all candidates or ask none. Keep in mind that if a prospective tenant previously used drugs but is in a treatment program or stopped using them, they are protected by the Fair Housing Act.
16. Will you be able to pay for the application fee?
Be upfront about how much it will cost to apply — background and credit checks can run anywhere from $25 to $75 per applicant. It’s also helpful to discuss how you accept payments (in person, online, through the mail, etc.).
17. Will you be able to pay the security deposit when you sign the lease?
This is a much larger cost than the application fee — and an important question landlords should ask tenants. Although you can’t deny an applicant due to their answer, it will set expectations and help them prepare for the move.
18. Have you ever broken a lease agreement?
Sometimes, breaking a lease is acceptable — like if the prospective tenant had to relocate for a job. However, as a landlord you want to find a responsible tenant who will uphold their end of the lease agreement. It’s a relevant question for potential tenants, and it can be followed up with a call or email to their previous landlord (with the applicant’s permission) to verify the reason for breaking the lease.
19. Could anything interrupt your ability to pay rent?
Even if a prospective tenant meets your income-to-rent ratio, they may have loans or other debts that take up much of their income. If this is one of your pre-screening questions for tenants then you can anticipate any potential surprises when you run a credit check. Only 51% of renters can cover an unexpected expense of $1,000 — meaning nearly half of all renters are one emergency away from being unable to pay rent.
20. Do you have any questions?
Give the prospective tenant an opportunity to ask questions about the rental, the application process, the location and any policies you may have. While it’s your job to find a qualified tenant, it’s their job to find a place to call home. Being upfront and honest will benefit both you and your tenant in the long run.
Questions landlords cannot ask
There are many questions you simply can’t ask a potential tenant due to fair housing laws. This means questions about protected classes like race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status and disability are not allowed. State and local laws may provide further protection to renters based on additional protected classes. Make sure you comply with all applicable protections at city, state and federal levels.
Here are some specific pre-screening questions landlords cannot ask:
- Where were you born?
- Do you have children?
- Have you ever been arrested or charged with a crime?
- Do you need to know about the nearest church, temple or mosque?
- Are you engaged or married?
- How old are you?
- Can I get your bank balance?
- Do you have a service or emotional support animal?
While sexual orientation and gender are not protected under the Fair Housing Act, the HUD has an Equal Access Rule which protects against discrimination based on gender nonconformity and discrimination. In addition, many states and localities have enacted protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
For more articles, tips and trends on being a landlord and managing a property, visit our Rental Resource Center.