Warning Signs for Property Managers Screening New Tenants

By: Matt Faustman

Man Looking Through BinocularsThe process of screening tenants to find those who will pay their rent on time and treat the space you are renting to them with respect is a critical and ongoing part of property management responsibilities. The screening process should begin at your first contact with the prospective tenant because it can take time for some to show their true colors.Savvy residential property owners know to ask all prospective tenants to fill out a rental application that includes the following basic identifying information:

  • name, social security number and driver’s license number

  • current state of employment, income and references

Then, before choosing a tenant, a property manager will want to check with previous landlords, verify their employment, and obtain a credit report and background check. The credit report is helpful because it indicates whether a potential tenant has trouble paying their rent or utility bills late, for example. It will also tell a property manager details about whether a tenant has gone through bankruptcy or has ever been evicted. The background check will let you know if your tenant is a previous criminal, among other things. To avoid any trouble with fair housing laws, it’s important for a property manager to be completely transparent and fair in the screening process.

All of this is standard operating procedure for an experienced property manager, and it’s necessary because the effort involved in dealing with a ‘bad tenant’ is time-consuming, expensive, and messy. Avoiding this problem is ideal and expert property managers know to ask a series of questions to help them suss out those tenants who are likely to be a problem. How a prospective tenant answers the questions is an indication of whether they’re likely to be a good tenant or a problematic one.

7 Questions Property Managers should ask Potential Tenants

While most property managers have worked out their own set of favorite questions, the following come highly recommended:

  1. What is your reason for moving?

  2. When is your preferred move-in date?

  3. What is the length of time you need the space?

  4. How many people will be living on the property?

  5. What is your current employment status?

  6. Do you have pets?

  7. Do you smoke?

How the prospective tenant answers the first two is especially important because it can reveal whether the tenant is currently in trouble with their employment or current landlord, for example.

Warning Signs to Watch Out for When Screening Tenants

When the prospective tenant answers the questions above, listen carefully for the following warning signs:

  • If they give you a relatively long back story rather than answering the question directly.

  • If they are evasive about answering any of the questions.

  • If they seem desperate or are in a hurry to move (although factor in situations of abuse as sometimes people are simply escaping other people).

  • If they are viewing the space with their parents – even worse if the parents are asking all the questions and this is their first time away from home.

  • If they have moved every year for the past several years (although factor in the economic situation as many people have had to move for jobs over the past decade).

  • If they are apparently under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they’re answering the questions. (Yep, this happens all the time.)

All of the above are general warning signs that may not automatically mean they’re likely to be bad tenants. Discovering that they lied on their application, however, is a definite sign that they’re hiding something from you and likely to be a less-than-desirable tenant.

Whatever you do, as a property manager, you’re required by law to treat everyone equally and fairly. Ask every potential tenant the same questions. Tell every tenant about all the spaces you have available. Let each prospective tenant know you will be checking credit, criminal, and work history.

Landlord-tenancy laws can be quite complex and an inexperienced property manager should work with an experienced real estate attorney to ensure they understand what they can and cannot ask, what they can and cannot do, and so forth. Ideally, it’s best to develop and stick to a process for screening potential tenants to avoid getting into a legal mess later on.

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