Tenant Screening Questions – Expert Insight from a Statewide Real Estate Instructor with 48 Years of Landlording Experience:
Judy Stevens is a Realtor with Skogman Realty who has been in the real estate industry since 1978 and has owned investment properties for even longer. She served for 6 years on the Iowa Real Estate Commission and has been an instructor for the Iowa Association of Realtors and for Skogman Realty. She also does independent teaching of insurance classes. On top of all of this, Judy and her husband have been landlords for about 48 years and have recently cashed out on their final investment property.
Judy is well aware of the importance of a rental application. We learned a great deal from her experiences and we are excited to share it all with you. Check out the video above to hear the full interview! Judy uses her teaching and instructing skills to deliver a compelling presentation, flash cards and all! If you’d prefer to keep reading, we will also outline all of the steps here. Learn what tenant screening questions to ask, what you should include on the rental application, and what kind of information you should collect from them.
1. Ask for a Real Name or Other Aliases
This sounds obvious at first, but many people have nicknames, aliases, and maiden names. They aren’t always for nefarious purposes and sometimes people just forget to supply the background information. Also, don’t neglect the fact that you need a rental application from every adult living on your property, unless they are related. “In fact, if you have two people who are going to live together and they are not married, you want to get a rental app from each one of them,” said Judy.
2. Get a Birth Date
Unless the tenant has an extremely unique name, chances are that a first and last name on record will not single out that individual. “For example, my name is Judy Stevens,” explained Judy. “I have a lot of interesting people who also are named Judy Stevens. You want to get the birth date and you don’t necessarily want to get the year because some people are a little hesitant about doing that. The only time you really want to get the year [is] if you see someone who’s quite young and you want to make sure that they’re 18 years of age so that they can sign the lease. If they’re any younger than that, that lease would be voidable…”
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3. Ask for Present and Previous Addresses
Where is the potential tenant living now? What about others who want to live in the house too? Are they living together or living apart? You need to have this all in writing. “This is especially true when someone is first living together, that can be a volatile situation,” warned Judy.
Don’t just stop once you get their current address. “You want to go back at least five, seven, eight years and get all their previous addresses,” said Judy. One great way that you can fact-check a tenant is to go on to your county assessor’s site and see who owns the property. “Some people say, ‘well, I own that or my parents live there,’ or whatever, so you need to check it out and make sure, first of all, that there’s really that address,” continued Judy.
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4. Who is the Applicant’s Current Employer and How Much Income Does He/She Make?
Make sure you get information on the potential tenant’s current employer and all sources of income. “You can set your boundaries as to how much you expect them to have as income over and above what the rent is,” said Judy. For example, you may want to screen for a gross income of 3 or 4 times the amount of rent. “People will tell you they’re very used to being poor. Well, if you only have $50 a month leftover after the rent, you’re not used to being that poor,” continued Judy.
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5. Ask What Type of Vehicle He/She Drives and How Many Vehicles Will Park at the Property
This one is often overlooked, but “if you’ve got a single family dwelling especially and you don’t have a lot of parking, you need to know who’s there,” said Judy. Set rules on inoperable vehicles and maintenance that can or cannot be done on the property. If you own a multi-unit property, if a tenant has too many vehicles, it could prevent other tenants from being able to park at all.
6. Who Will Occupy the Property?
Sure, you asked for real names and applications for anyone staying in the property, but figuring out how many dependents (i.e. children) will live there is important. Judy expands on this and points out that most people forget to ask about children who may not live at the home year round. “People will have custody of children over the summer, which is fine, but you may not have enough bedrooms for them, so that’s what you need to ask also,” cautions Judy.
BONUS: Click HERE to get our FREE Tenant Screening Checklist that outlines the same 12 steps discussed here!
7. Has the Potential Tenant Ever Been Evicted or Asked to Move?
Evictions are a huge red flag when it comes to proof of an unreliable tenant. This can be checked via an online state or county courts database. Most countries (or entire states) have records online for public viewing. Since an eviction is a civil case, all civil cases are on the public record, unlike criminal convictions that sometimes can be expunged. An eviction should show up on a District Court case filing.
As Judy explains, in her home state of Iowa, a portal called Iowa Courts Online allows you to do these state-wide searches.
Since this is an area where a potential tenant may choose to lie, Judy recommends that “you definitely need to say, ‘Any falsification of this document will result in termination of your lease.'” If he/she lies on the tenant screening application and then you check the online court system and find an eviction, you have grounds to refuse renting to this individual.
8. Has the Potential Tenant Ever Broken a Rental Agreement?
If the applicant has broken a rental agreement before, make sure to find out the details on why it happened. This may be for legitimate reasons due to a new additional in the family, an unexpected layoff/change in job location, or family care emergencies. In some cases, a tenant will sublet the property or pay rent on the property until a new renter occupies the property. This eliminates vacancy gaps and sometimes works out even better for you as a landlord. Other times, breaking a lease could be due to being just plain irresponsible, so it’s important to know the true motives behind a lease break.
9. Has the Applicant Been Convicted of a Felony?
This can be checked out through your online court system while checking for evictions. Find out if they are on the National Sex Offender list–it takes a felony to get on the list.
10. Ask if He/She is Currently Using or Has Been Convicted of Using a Controlled Substance
“Those are good questions, especially since in Iowa, if you knowingly allow your tenant to use drugs on the property, they can confiscate your property,” said Judy. “Consequently, this then is an indication that you have tried to screen so that would not happen. This looks good in court for you.”
11. Run a Credit and Criminal Background Check
“At the bottom of your rental app along with the falsification of record, get their permission to run a credit check, to do a criminal background check, and to verify anything on these rental apps,” added Judy. Make sure you get permission from the applicant to run it!
We go into a lot more detail on this in Two Crucial Steps Every Landlord Must Take and we give you some examples of websites you can use to perform a credit and background check on your prospective tenants.
12. Who to Contact in an Emergency?
Make sure you have someone to contact if something were to happen to that individual inside of the property. “I had an investor who told me that he found a woman passed in his apartment, 28 years old. He said he had no idea how to get a hold of family,” recalled Judy. “Since then, he always asked who to contact because he said there is some mother who would rather have him call than have the highway patrol come find her.”
“That’s also kind of been funny because that’s a good screening question because I’ve had people say, ‘Well, if I put my mother down, when will you call her?’ In case of emergency. ‘Oh, well, like parties or something, will you call her?’ No, so that’s an indicator. That’s always been a good screener,” added Judy.
The Importance of a Rental Application
“Get a rental app and use it. It’s not discriminatory,” said Judy. “You have to just make sure that you use it with everybody, ask all the same questions.” Listen to Judy’s extensive real estate investing, real estate agent, landlord, and Realtor® experience and take heed of this “12 step program” using these excellent tenant screening questions! I’ll leave you with this truism from Judy, who suggests you take your time to rent intelligently:
“A vacant apartment or house is 10x better than a bad tenant.” – Judy Stevens
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[00:04] Jeri: Hello investors. My name is Jeri Frank and I’m co-founder and CEO of AssetRover. Today, I’m here with Judy Stevens from Skogman Realty and Judy Stevens has been in real estate since 1978. She served for 6 years on the Iowa Real Estate Commission, has been an instructor for the Iowa Association of Realtors and for Skogman Realty. You do independent teaching of insurance classes, correct?
[00:31] Judy: I do. I have been a landlord. My husband and I probably have been landlords for about 48 years, but we just sold our last one this year.
[00:41] Jeri: Congratulations.
[00:43] Judy: All of them in Iowa, one in Arizona.
[00:46] Jeri: All right. When we first spoke and we were talking about topics that we might want to talk about, you actually brought up the idea of talking about rental applications and I was curious what brought that to the forefront of your mind as a topic.
[01:01] Judy: If you could only have everybody fill out one piece of paper, it would be the rental app. I think you can eliminate headaches on the rental app than you can with the lease or your rules or regs or anything else because it is always said that a bad renter will put you out of the business, but a good renter will keep you in the business and keep the whole business fun. Now is that time to eliminate that bad renter is on the rental app.
[01:28] Jeri: All right, so let’s go through the rental application. What should you include, what kind of information should you collect?
[01:34] Judy: Okay. The very first thing you should do is to ask their name and you should have this all in writing and there’s websites also, free websites that you can do your own application. I also talked about the Linn County landlords. They have an excellent rental app, but you have to join them and I strongly recommend that you do that, but if you’re making up your own, the very first thing that you want to do is get their name and you’ll also want to ask them if they have any aliases or have used another name during their time that they have lived here in Linn County. You need to get this from every non-related party that is going to live on the premises, so you do that. In fact, if you have two people who are going to live together and they are not married, you want to get a rental app from each one of them.
[02:18] Judy: After you do that, then you want to make sure you get a birth date because that will sift out … For example, my name is Judy Stevens. I have a lot of interesting people who also are named Judy Stevens. You want to get the birth date and you don’t necessarily want to get the year because some people are a little hesitant about doing that. The only time you really want to get the year and you can explain this, if you see someone who’s quite young and you want to make sure that they’re 18 years of age so that they can sign the lease. If they’re any younger than that, that lease would be voidable, so you want to get that.
[02:51] Jeri: In that case, does a parent sign the lease for them if they’re trying to …
[02:56] Judy: Whatever your rules are, whatever your rules are. Usually, I would usually get a co-signer, yes, and make sure that they would be held responsible. Then you want to ask their present address, where are they living now, and this is why you need to ask this of every person who is going to live in the premises, where are they living now? Are they living together? Are they living apart? This is especially true when someone is first living together, that can be a volatile situation. Anyway, then you also ask them their previous addresses. You want to go back at least five, seven, eight years and get all their previous addresses. Then you need to … This is something you can do yourself when you check out your rental app, the next thing you need to do is you need to get on the assessor site for Linn County or the city of Cedar Rapids and find out who actually owns that property because some people say, “Well, I own that or my parents live there or whatever,” so you need to check it out and make sure, first of all, that there’s really that address, so that’s what you do.
[03:55] Judy: Next, you ask who their current employer is and how much they make. You can set your boundaries as to how much you expect them to have as income over and above what the rent is. People will tell you they’re very used to being poor. Well, if you only have $50 a month leftover after the rent, you’re not used to being that poor. You need to found out who their current employer is and how much money they make. You need to look at this also and also you can ask them about other sources of income because other sources of income are acceptable. For example, they might have some children who are on social security. You may have an elderly person who receives social security. You cannot discriminate on that. If they’re getting child support, that’s a source of income, you can also ask them if it is current. You can be awarded child support, but you may not be getting it.
[04:50] Judy: Then you’ll also want to ask what type of vehicle they drive and how many vehicles will be on this property because if you’ve got a single family dwelling especially and you don’t have a lot of parking, you need to know who’s there. The other thing is you’re renting apartment houses, you may have people working on their cars out in the parking lot and that’s not acceptable. Then again, you also ask them who will occupy the property because now is the time where they will put down dependents who are living there, the children and so forth, and that’s fine, but the most important thing also is you need to find out are they living here year round because what can happen and happens a lot in our society is people will have custody of children over the summer which is fine, but you may not have enough bedrooms for them, so that’s what you need to ask also.
[05:39] Judy: Have you ever been convicted of or have you ever been asked to move? No, that wasn’t right. Have you ever been evicted or have been asked to move? This one you definitely want to check out because this would appear on Iowa Courts online. You always look for evictions. The other thing that you want to put at the bottom of your rental app, you definitely need to say, “Any falsification of this document will result in termination of your lease.” On top of that, if they lie here and then you get on Iowa Courts online and find out they’ve been evicted, we’re not renting to you. Have you ever broken a rental agreement? If so, why? Have them explain. Have you ever been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor? Again, this is something you can check out on Iowa Courts online.
[06:33] Judy: The other question you also want to ask and this was a little lengthy so I didn’t write it down, you want to ask if they have ever committed a crime which would put them on the sex offender list which is a felony and the other one is you want to ask them if they are currently using or have ever been convicted of using a controlled substance. Those are good questions especially since in Iowa, if you knowingly allow your tenant to use drugs on the property, they can confiscate your property. Consequently, this then is an indication that you have tried to screen so that would not happen. This looks good in court for you.
[07:12] Jeri: In the event they put something on their rental application, they’ve lied, but you find out about it later …
[07:19] Judy: After you rented to them?
[07:20] Jeri: Correct.
[07:21] Judy: If you have it in there that you can terminate the lease, but you must put that on your rental app.
[07:26] Jeri: Okay.
[07:27] Judy: At the bottom of your rental app also, along with the falsification of record, get their permission to run a credit check, to do a criminal background check and to verify anything on these rental apps and you get their permission to do that and that’s what you do.
[07:45] Jeri: Have you ever had anyone who has declined that?
[07:48] Judy: What?
[07:48] Jeri: Having any of those …
[07:50] Judy: Oh yeah, absolutely. The best part about a rental app is that people will say, “Okay, I need to fill this out right away because I need a place to live,” and you say, “Okay, have at it. Fill it out.” Then they get to certain questions and they say, “Well, you know what, I need to get back to you. This is kind of lengthy.” You know what, you just lost … You’ll never see them again, but you know what, that is exactly why you did this.
[08:11] Jeri: Right.
[08:12] Judy: A vacant apartment or house is 10x better than a bad tenant. Those are some of the things that I look for. Now when checking out this rental app then here’s the things that you do. Number one, you check the address to make sure that someone actually lives there and who it belongs to. When you ask for former … I’m assuming that you also will ask for the former landlord’s name where they lived before. You can call those landlords. Again, some landlords are a little hesitant to give you a lot of information for the privacy acts, but the one question that you can ask is, “Would you ever rent to them again,” and that will tell you a lot.
[08:54] Jeri: Do you find that if that person is currently trying to leave their current residence, the existing landlord is sometimes hesitant because maybe they do want that tenant to leave?
[09:07] Judy: Yeah, and they may give you some bad information. That’s why you check the previous ones. That’s why you ask for the previous ones. I learned a lot from a lady who was a very, very good landlord in Waterloo and what was interesting is when she called for references, the first thing she asked, the first question out of her mouth was, “How are you related to this person?” She screened a lot of people that way because people would just pop, “Oh, I’m her mother or I’m her sister or whatever.” “Oh, that’s interesting.” The other thing then you start calculating that income. Sometimes if people are working in restaurants, the restaurants are famous for keeping all that less than 40 hours. They will say, “Well, I make so much an hour, but I work there 40 hours.” Well, I really question that, and so you need to calculate.
[09:48] Judy: I know I had a tenant who was working all these jobs. She had just all kinds of income. I called her and I said, “When do you sleep?” She says, “Well, I just got that one job and I’m going to be quitting these other jobs,” but she put it all on the rental app because she wanted this house I had. Well, you know what, I didn’t rent it to her because she was dishonest right there. That’s the other thing that you check. I absolutely always check Iowa Courts online. There are also organizations here in Cedar Rapids who will do that for you and of course if you’re right in Cedar Rapids with our new ordinances, you turn this all over to the police department and they do it for you for $8. That is a bargain. Again, that’s part of the ordinance that we have in Cedar Rapids that you have to do this. Now, it does not mean that you do not rent to them. You can rent to them. If this guy’s a registered sex offender, you can rent to him, but they want to know that you know who it is. They’re not telling you who to rent to and who not to rent to.
[10:48] Jeri: If you get through the entire process, they filled out the paperwork but you have a bad feeling. What do you do?
[10:55] Judy: Don’t rent to them. Here’s another thing I have done. I have rented to two people in my career that were being evicted. They were being evicted. I knew the landlord and I just decided, “You know, there’s something going on here.” I honestly went over and visited the people and saw what the house looked like and everything and I rented to both of them and I had very good tenants. Their references were excellent. I had one gal whose employer called me and he said, “Just give her a chance. Please give her a chance.” He says she’s talented and there’s a lot of things going on in her life and she has to get out of this unit, so I went over and visited her. She’s sitting there on boxes. She’s going to get evicted the next two days and she had children and we rented to her and we had a good tenant. It happens. It doesn’t hurt either to … It doesn’t hurt to visit them and see what their houses look like and what’s going on.
[11:55] Jeri: Is there anything that we’ve missed in this conversation or additional advice that you would give to someone who’s just going in to the landlording business and figuring it out for the first time?
[12:04] Judy: Get a rental app and use it. It’s not discriminatory. You have to just make sure that you use it with everybody, ask all the same questions. The other one that I might add that I’ve always used, I also ask who to contact in case of emergency. I have worked with investors. I had an investor who told me that he found a woman passed in his apartment, 28 years old. He said he had no idea how to get a hold of family, anybody and since then he always asked who to contact because he said there is some mother here in Iowa who would rather have him call than have the highway patrol come find her. That’s a good one.
[12:44] Judy: That’s also kind of been funny because that’s a good screening question because I’ve had people say, “Well, if I put my mother down, when will you call her?” In case of emergency. “Oh, well, like parties or something, will you call her?” No, so that’s an indicator. That’s always been a good screener. The questions that have been the best screeners for me is income, emergency and have you used a controlled substance. Those are really good screeners because you can just see them when they get to those they’ll decide they don’t want to fill out the app. You do not have to take the app immediately. You say you’ve got to do your checking and again in all fairness and you want your unit rented, so you do it as quickly as possible and then you get back to them. If you do turn them down for credit, the laws now say that you’ve got to put it in writing and you have got to let them see the entire record.
[13:37] Judy: Again, you have to remember also, I rented a house in Phoenix, Arizona for 13 years and I was told by my manager down there that, “If you’re looking for somebody with good credit after the big crash in Arizona, you’re never going to find a tenant.” Everybody has their story. That’s what we do or did. We don’t do it anymore.
[14:01] Jeri: All right.
[14:02] Judy: Okay.
[14:02] Jeri: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it.
[14:04] Judy: Well, thank you for asking me.