8 Screening Questions for Potential Tenants (and Some You Can’t Ask)

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The application and screening process for tenants is important for landlords because it allows them to find ideal renters. An ideal tenant is typically someone who has a steady income, pays rent on time, and is respectful of the property and other tenants. The last thing a landlord needs is a tenant who causes trouble in one way or another.

One of the best ways to screen tenants is to have them fill out a Rental Application. This can act as a preliminary qualifier before you interview them. It should be noted that you are not required to formally interview tenants. You can accept their application, show them the property, and allow them to move in if they meet all your requirements. However, landlords can benefit from being more thorough.

In this post, we’ll discuss questions you can ask that will allow you to weed out unsuitable tenants, as well as questions that could get you into some legal hot water.

Good Questions to Ask Prospective Tenants

Regardless of how many stages are in your vetting process, these are some questions that you can ask on a Rental Application or in an interview with potential tenants:

  1. Why are you leaving your current residence?
  2. When do you plan on moving in?
  3. What is your monthly income?
  4. Can you pay move-in costs once you’ve signed the lease?
  5. Can you provide references from your employer/previous landlord(s)?
  6. Will you agree to a background and credit check?
  7. How many people will be living in the unit?
  8. Do you have pets? Do you want them in the future?

These questions cover the applicant’s income, ability to pay rent, and some basic information, and they also give you access to other vetting avenues. For instance, the reference check from employers or past landlords will likely give you the most insight into what kind of person the applicant is.

Other great avenues for you as a landlord are the credit and background checks, which will show you if the tenant is good at paying bills and if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. Keep in mind, you can’t ban a tenant from housing based on them being convicted of a crime, except for sex offenses, arson, and the manufacturing and/or distribution of illegal drugs.

Questions You Can’t Ask Potential Tenants

It’s also important to discuss the kinds of question you can’t ask potential tenants. These are mostly questions that discriminate against specific people. It’s a good idea to review them because the last thing you want is a fair housing violation that leads to a lawsuit.

Essentially you can’t ask anything that violates the Fair Housing Act (FHA). This act keeps protected classes from discrimination when it comes to housing, which means you can’t bar a prospective tenant’s application based on certain characteristics.

These characteristics include:

  • Race
  • National origin
  • Skin color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Familial status (e.g. married or single tenants, tenants with or without children)
  • Disability

You might have noticed that sexual orientation and gender are not part of these characteristics. This is because technically sexual orientation and gender are not protected under the FHA. However, in 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued the Equal Access Rule which expanded protections for these two categories under the law’s “sex” protections. The rule frames the protection under discrimination based on gender nonconformity and discrimination in the form of sexual harassment.

Some states, cities, and counties have laws that include gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes, so it’s best to review the laws specific to your property’s location. Additional information can also be found on HUD’s LBGT Housing Discrimination page.

Fair Housing and Fair Screening

As a landlord, you want the best tenants, and the best way to find them is to use the exact same screening process for every single tenant you’re in contact with. What tends to get landlords in trouble is changing up their processes and questions for particular people; that opens them up to liability and fair housing violations.

If you can stick to the same list of questions for everyone and avoid questions that violate fair housing protections, you should have no trouble finding upstanding tenants while ensuring you aren’t asking anything that could be considered discriminatory.

Do you always ask potential tenants the same questions?

Spencer Knight

Marketing Writer at LawDepot
Spencer Knight is a writer in Edmonton, Alberta. His nonfiction has appeared in Spinal Columns, The Bolo Tie Collective Anthology: Volume I, and filling Station. When he's not writing, he's sleeping.

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