Essential Tenant Reference Check Questions

A good tenant screening process illuminates your applicant’s ability to pay rent and how they’ll treat your rental property. History is typically a good indicator of future behavior, so contacting an applicant’s previous landlord should be a part of your screening process. But what are you allowed to ask – and what questions can cost you up to $16,000 for breaking the rules?

Let’s walk through appropriate questions to ask your applicant’s former landlord and pitfalls to consider when having this crucial conversation.

Questions to Ask Former Landlords

Before we dive in, it’s only fair to point out that not every landlord will tell the truth about their former tenant. That’s why the questions below should serve as a portion of your tenant screening process, not the only factor. Exaggerated figures, refusing to take ownership of issues, and grandiose statements should be weighed against your interactions with the applicant. Additionally, check your local landlord-tenant laws before chatting with your applicant’s former landlord.

That said, here are questions to ask your prospective tenant’s former landlord:

  • How long did the tenant rent from you? The answer will provide context for the rest of their feedback. A landlord who’s rented to your applicant for a decade but swears that they’re the worst tenant alive might not be telling the truth about their experience.
  • What condition was the unit in post-move out? Most landlords fear the state their rental will be in once their tenant says goodbye, so eliminate the dread by asking this question.
  • Did the tenant have any animals? Emotional support animals are top of mind for many rental property owners. The answer to this question may inspire follow-up questions for your applicant.
  • Were there any issues between the tenant and their neighbors/other tenants? If something pops up that you weren’t expecting, ask your applicant for their perspective.
  • Can you rate their communication on a scale of 1-5, 5 being fantastic? A good communicator often shares maintenance concerns earlier, along with maintaining a positive landlord-tenant relationship.
  • Would you rent to them again? The answer to this question summarizes the applicant’s relationship with their former landlord.
  • Questions that apply to your property type. For example, if your vacancy is in a multi-family property, ask if they have insight into the applicant’s experience with shared utilities.

Beyond checking your applicant’s landlord reference(s), an ideal tenant screening process* includes reviewing their:

  • Criminal background check
  • Eviction report
  • Credit score
  • Lines of credit
  • Credit inquiries
  • Debt in collections

*Some states and localities, such as New York City, don’t allow eviction reports to be used as a tenant screening tool. Check your local landlord-tenant laws to ensure compliance.

Pro Tip:

Are you worried about fake pay stubs or other dubious behavior? Watch our tenant screening webinar to learn how you can perfect your process.

Tips to Make the Most of Your Landlord Reference Call

If possible, have a phone call or face-to-face meeting with the previous landlord. Hearing their tone of voice or seeing the expression on their face can contextualize the answers they give you. To increase your chances of connecting, reach out via email or text message first to schedule a call. Explain who you are and why you’re contacting them, along with a request to chat.

Need some help writing your message? Copy the landlord reference call template below, swapping in the relevant details:

Hi [Landlord’s name]! I’m reviewing an application from [lead’s name], and I would love to ask you some questions. Are you free at [date and time you’re free] for a [type of meeting: phone call, Zoom call, coffee, etc.]?

Once you start talking, be cordial and professional. If your applicant explained why they’re moving out, don’t bring it up with their previous landlord. Remember that your goal is to assess how the applicant might treat your rental property – not to meddle in interpersonal drama.

Take notes while the previous landlord answers your questions. Thank them for their time, and ask for permission to follow up with additional questions as needed.

Now that you know what you can ask former landlords and prospective tenants, it’s time to chat about what you can’t ask: namely, anything that violates the Fair Housing Act.

Questions Not to Ask Prospective Tenants: Don’t Break the Law

The Fair Housing Act is the only protection tenants currently have at a national level (though the White House’s proposed Renters Bill of Rights may shake things up). Specifically, the Fair Housing Law forbids landlords from discriminating against tenants due to their:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National Origin
  • Religion
  • Sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation)
  • Familial Status
  • Disability

That means you cannot ask questions relating to the protected classes listed above – not of the tenant, and certainly not of their previous landlord.

Avoid asking questions like:

  • Does the tenant have kids? : discrimination based on familial status
  • Do you think the tenant is Deaf?: discrimination based on disability
  • Is the tenant a Christian?: discrimination based on religion
  • What gender is the tenant? (discrimination based on gender)
  • Where is the tenant really from?: (discrimination based on national origin)
  • What credit score did the tenant tell you they had?: (nonconsensual credit check)

Pro Tip:

There are also questions you can’t ask applicants with Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), so study up to learn more!

Your tenant screening process should be multifaceted to give you the best picture of each applicant. Touching base with a previous landlord or two helps you understand how their tenant might treat your property. Make the most of your conversation by using our questions, taking notes, being cordial, and steering clear of Fair Housing Act violations.

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