10 top tips for a successful tenant background check

by CRE05 Feb 2015
By Freedom Malhotra

We've all heard the horror stories of tenants who destroy property or fail to pay rent. A bad tenant can be a nightmare for any landlord, as well as both emotionally and financially draining.

Fortunately, there are many steps that landlords can take to avoid being put in such situations. With the right tenant screening processes in place, landlords can detect the bad tenants before it's too late.  

As a landlord, your job is to verify the legitimacy of the information a tenant has provided to you through their rental application and supporting documents. You're looking for anything that might be suspicious or doesn't support the claims made by the tenant through their paperwork. If you find one red flag, it's probably a good idea to pass on the tenant altogether.

These 10 tips will help you conduct a tenant background check with total confidence. 

1. Ask the right questions 

Asking the right questions is the first and most essential step to a great tenant background check. Before you meet tenants face-to-face, you will likely talk to them over the phone. This is your opportunity to prequalify them.  

There is no point in showing your rental property to someone that is not the right candidate. For example, if a tenant is looking to move into a place immediately and your rental unit is not available for another two months, it would be a good idea to uncover that over the phone before you waste more of each other’s time. This is where asking the right questions can help you ensure the best tenant screening possible.

It's also important to not assume anything about a tenant from the way they come across over the phone. Remain objective while asking your questions. It's always helpful to be genuinely curious about a prospective tenant while simultaneously looking out for any inconsistencies.   

8 Questions to ask during a tenant background check
  1. When do you need a place by?
  2. Have you given notice to your existing landlord?
  3. How is your job?
  4. How is your credit report?
  5. What is your maximum budget?
  6. How many bedrooms do you need?
  7. Do you have pets?
  8. Who else will be living with you?
2. Get them talking

How one ends a relationship tells you a lot about them. That's why it's a good idea for a landlord to get a prospective tenant to talk about his current or previous landlord. If a tenant left the relationship on a bitter note, it is helpful to know what happened. You can bait a tenant into opening up about their current situation by saying the following: “I know a lot of landlords can be difficult to deal with. How has your experience been with your current landlord?”

If you happen to uncover a prospective tenant that is suing his current landlord, don’t risk taking that person on as a tenant. You could be the next landlord they go after.  

As a landlord, you cannot rely on the paperwork alone to carry out a tenant background search. You have to be creative and willing to engage with tenants on a personal level. Conversations can help you better understand the way your tenants relate to others and how they handle conflict, all of which are essential to achieve the best tenant screening.
3. Look for troubling signs

As part of due diligence, it's important to look out for any suspicious signs. A lot of landlords mistakenly think that a tenant background screening is just about checking landlord and employment references. Though that is an integral part of the process, a good landlord will also do some extra detective work.   

Professional tenants are people who make a living from deceiving landlords. They know how to lie about their identities to get their rental application approved. Once they move into rental properties, they don’t pay the rent and disappear before landlords can ever take them to court. These are the worst tenants you can possibly have and it's important to watch for any telltale signs.   

Here are two signs you should be watching out for during a tenant background check:
  1. If a tenant acts really excited and wants the property right away, you should be cautious. Good tenants begin searching for a rental property at least four to eight weeks before they need one. That is why it's important to ask yourself why this tenant is so desperate. Could it be that the tenant’s application has been rejected by everyone else? Or does the tenant suspect you are so desperate to find someone that you will overlook serious problems with their application?  
Either way, you need to be cautious.There could be legitimate reasons for why a tenant might need the place right away. Perhaps you're dealing with a new immigrant or someone with an immediate job transfer. Regardless, it's your job to verify the facts to your satisfaction.
  1. There is the old saying: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”  This applies especially for tenant background checks. When a tenant starts telling you a bunch of things that you want to hear, you should be suspicious of them. For example, if they insist on taking care of certain renovations for you or tell you stories about how they helped their landlord fix things around the home for free. 
Though these may be true stories, you need to verify these facts as best you can. For example, when talking to the landlord ask them about the stories your tenant told you. Be as specific as you can about the details in case the landlord reference is phony as well.

4. Confirm their identity online

The internet is a helpful tool for carrying out a tenant background search. You can use large search engines, such as Google, Yahoo or Internet Explorer, to verify the identity of a prospective tenant. Simply type in their names and see what comes up.  

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