10 Tenant Screening Questions to Ask Potential Renters

Screening tenants is the only true way to know that the people moving into your rental are the best fit. Make a list of questions to ask tenants so you can streamline the process and ensure that you're treating all applicants fairly.

Tenant screening questions can reveal a lot, such as the applicant's track record as a renter, their ability to pay rent on time and whether they'll adhere to the lease agreement. Discuss each of the questions to ask renters before conducting a background check or checking references to save you time and money.

Tenant question checklist

Top questions to ask tenants

Tenant screening questions to ask renters should revolve around a potential renter's income, their rental history and how they'll maintain the property's condition. So, what should (and shouldn't) you ask? Here are 10 questions to ask tenants during the screening process:

How long have you lived in your current residence?

This question gives you a sense of the applicant's stability as a renter and you should ask it early. If the applicant has skipped out on a lease or moves every year, that's something to think about. Ideally, you want a tenant who will live in your rental for as long as possible. Having to fill a vacancy after the lease ends, usually just a year later, will be a headache and cost you rental income as the property sits empty.

Why are you moving?

Finding out why someone is moving out of their current home also offers a glimpse into their rental history. It could reveal past evictions or issues of where they broke a lease. But, most renters have a legit reason for moving. The cost of rent inspired 27 percent of renters to move in the past year, while 24 percent needed more space and 18 percent simply wanted a change, according to a survey by Entrata.

Have you ever been evicted or violated a lease?

You don't want to rent to someone with a history of evictions or breaking leases. Asking about past evictions or lease agreement breaches gives renters the chance to come clean about past infractions. They might have experienced a rough patch and struggled to pay rent but are now more stable, or maybe they had to move out of a home unexpectedly due to an unforeseen event. Tenants might not answer this question truthfully, so that's why it's a good idea to talk to previous landlords.

What's your monthly income?

This is an important question to ask tenants because you need to ensure they can afford the rent and pay on time. Generally, renters shouldn't spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. If you charge $900 a month for rent, the tenant should earn at least $3,000 a month. Property managers and owners can ask for pay stubs and contacts for their employer and conduct a credit history. But, make sure you know what you're allowed to ask in regards to income in your area — some state rental laws let you ask about total monthly income but not how the tenant earns income.

Can I contact your employer and past landlords?

With rental history and income such important topics when screening tenants, it's a good idea to ask for references. Contacting past landlords and the renter's current employer will provide you with the information you need. Ask employers to verify that the tenant works there, how long they've worked there and how much they earn. Ask previous landlords if the tenant was reliable, if they paid on time and if they'd rent to them again.

How many people will live in the home?

You have the right to know everyone who is living in your rental. So, it's a good idea to ask how many people will live there and who will be on the lease. This question is especially crucial if your state sets occupancy limits for a rental property or requires a home to have a certain number of bedrooms per person. Just don't ask for too many details about family status, such as how the relation of tenants or how many children they have, which could violate fair housing rules.

Do you smoke?

Smoking is a source of property damage. As a property owner or manager, you have the right to set a no-smoking policy or designate certain smoking areas. When you ask applicants if they smoke, remind them of this policy and be sure to also include it in the lease agreement.

Do you have any pets?

Whether to allow pets in your rental is up to you. But keep in mind that most households have pets, so not allowing them automatically reduces your tenant pool. If you do allow pets, you can and should set parameters. A pet policy stipulates the type and size of pets allowed and if you'll charge pet deposits or monthly pet rent. Asking tenants this question lets you determine if their pets adhere to your policy and give you a chance to remind renters of what's allowed. Fair Housing laws don't allow you to prohibit service or emotional support animals.

Do you agree to a background and credit check?

A few other questions to ask tenants involve their criminal and credit history. First, ask them if they consent to a background and credit check (and get written permission). If someone won't agree to a check, you don't have to rent to them. Ask, too, if there's anything you should know before running the reports. Credit reports will show past bankruptcies and other issues, so this gives tenants a chance to explain what happened and how they're working to improve past mistakes.

You can't deny applicants for committing a crime or having been arrested. But you can deny someone if they've been convicted of a crime that potentially puts you, your property, others in the tenant's household or the neighborhood at risk. Burglary, arson, illegal manufacturing of drugs or violent crimes are things you should note.

When do you want to move in?

Another critical question to ask tenants is when they would like to move into the home. Knowing their moving timeframe helps ensure you and the renter are on the same page. If you're looking to fill a vacancy immediately and they're not planning to move for a few months, it's not a good match. Once you establish that the timing aligns, be sure to let them know about the security deposit and other fees that you charge and ask if they'll be able to pay everything when they sign the lease.

Unimpressed young woman

What you should not ask tenants

When crafting your list of questions, be mindful of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing based on sex, race, color, national origin, disability, religion, disability and familial status. Some states extend Fair Housing laws to other protected classes, including sexual orientation or marital status. So, there are several topics you should not bring up with renters, including:

  • Where they were born
  • Their race or nationality
  • Their sexual orientation
  • Which languages do they speak
  • How many children they have — or, the ages and gender of their children and where the kids go to school
  • Whether they're interested in nearby religious congregations
  • Do they have a service dog or a disability
  • If they've ever been arrested
  • If they receive public assistance

The best tenant screening questions to ask tenants

Screening tenants and learning more about their rental history and monthly income will help you choose someone who's likely to pay rent on time and take care of your home. Listing your property on Rent.com lets you accept applicants and screen tenants online. Creating a standard list of questions to ask everyone will ensure that you're being as fair as possible.

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Erica SweeneyErica Sweeney covers real estate, business, health, wellness and many other topics. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Good Housekeeping, HuffPost, Parade, Money, Business Insider, Realtor.com and lots more.

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