When screening potential tenants, the most important thing is to be consistent.
QUESTION: My husband and I have recently bought and fixed up a triple-decker that we plan to rent out. In screening tenants, what are we allowed to ask?
ANSWER: A good screening process can help eliminate in advance a great majority of rental problems. When screening potential tenants, the most important thing is to be consistent. Treat all applicants the same and ask similar questions of all applicants so you cannot be accused of discrimination or violating any Fair Housing laws.
At the very least, you should have all applicants complete a rental application and authorize a criminal background and credit check. Any applicant who refuses to submit an application and undergo a credit and background check likely has something to hide, and you should disqualify them immediately. Make sure you let everyone know this is a requirement of all applicants.
Other questions to ask: Why is the applicant moving? In evaluating the answer, listen for reasons that paint a bad rental situation – eviction, bad relationship with the landlord or other tenants. If the last rental situation was bad, chances are yours might be as well. More promising answers might be a job transfer or a new baby and a need for a larger apartment, etc.
Ask the applicant when they plan to move in. Within 30 days is reasonable. Anything longer, and the applicant is asking you to give up rent until they are ready to move. Make sure the applicant’s timing works for you.
What is the source of the applicant’s income and amount? You want to make sure the tenant can afford the rent. Ideally, the rent should not exceed 30-35 percent of the applicant’s gross monthly income. To verify income, you may want to ask to see pay stubs for the last month. Also confirm that the tenant has the security deposit and first month’s rent in hand. Ask if you can contact the applicant’s employer, as well as a former landlord. Do not ask to contact the applicant’s current landlord. If there is a landlord/tenant issue, the current landlord might give you a glowing reference just to get rid of the tenant. Better to ask for a former landlord. Ask if the landlord would rent to the applicant again. If not, move on.
How many people will be living in the apartment? It is not unusual for two people to rent the apartment, and the next thing you know six people are living there. This can violate community occupancy standards. Get the number and names of adults and children living in the apartment before they move in.
Linda Goodspeed is a longtime real estate writer and author of “In and Out of Darkness.” Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.