Being a landlord should be a steady source of income, and although managing a rental property is not easy, it’s a lot simpler when you have great tenants. Everyone has heard horror stories about nightmare tenants who trash the property, cause problems for neighbours and cast a pall on your property or the neighbourhood itself. In retrospect, it’s easy to see where one went wrong, but ideally, you can avoid problem renters by proactively screening tenants.
Here’s how to screen a tenant, what to look for and what to examine more closely. Remember that there are laws that govern what you can and cannot ask a tenant, but meeting with your prospective renters should give you an overall impression of what kind of renter they’ll be.
The initial meeting
When showing the property and offering an application to a potential tenant, take the opportunity to get a sense of their personality and ask them some preliminary questions. Make sure that you ask the same questions of every tenant—never deviate.
Questions you can ask include:
- Why are you moving to? “Good” reasons might include a change of job or relationship, moving to be closer to family or going to a local school, whereas potential red flags might be “I was evicted” or “I am suing my landlord.”
- When would you like to move in? It’s important to know that you’re both on the same page as far as a move-in date—you don’t want your rental sitting empty for months.
- What is your income? You need to know this to make sure that the tenant can pay the rent. It may not be legal to apply an income-to-rent ratio, however.
- How long have you lived at your previous home? This question will give you an idea of whether the person hops from apartment to apartment, or if they tend to be a long-term renter.
- How many people would be living here? Overcrowding is a safety risk, and most municipalities have laws against it. Two people per bedroom are ideal.
- Do you have any pets? Naturally, if you have a “no pets” policy, that could be a deal-breaker, unless they’re planning to re-home their pets. If they have illegal pets, that is another red flag. Note: if you live in Ontario, where “no pets” policies are unenforceable, avoid this question.
- Have you ever been evicted? Not everyone who has been evicted is an unreliable tenant. Some people are victims of unforeseen circumstances, while others simply fall on hard times. Asking them in person offers them the opportunity to explain what happened, and what changes they’ve made to prevent it from happening again.
- Will you consent to a credit and background check? If someone is hesitant about a credit or background check, it may be because they’re afraid of what it will reveal.
- Do you have any questions for me? This allows you to get a sense of what the tenant feels is important and where you might have potential sticking points. It also allows them to decide whether they’re a good fit for the location, neighbours and nearby amenities.
Know what you can and cannot ask a prospective renter
Generally, income, credit history and employment are all questions that a landlord can ask about—but the Fair Housing Act prevents discrimination based on “race, colour, religion, sex, and national origin, disability and familial status.” Avoid all questions that could be construed as trying to find out more about these attributes—for example, you can’t ask someone for their marriage license, whether they’re on welfare or force them to tell you about their private health matters. Depending on the province, there may be even more restrictions on what you can ask when screening a tenant.
Not to worry, however—the questions you can ask should be illuminating enough on their own.
Look for these red flags
- Low income. Income lower than the amount of rent is the easiest way to determine someone won’t be able to pay for your property unless they’ve pointed to another way they’ll be paying the rent.
- Bad credit score. Credit might not be everything, but it’s a good indicator of whether this person pays their bills on time. Look for tax liens and prior evictions—the more of a pattern there is, the more likely it is that the tenant will continue the said pattern.
- Criminal convictions. Criminal convictions—especially multiple convictions in five years or less—can be a major red flag. Get information on their nature and resolution; don’t count traffic violations unless they’re DUIs. Even a series of minor convictions are a good indication that this tenant cannot follow rules or laws.
- Bad landlord references. Don’t use this as your deciding factor—after all, some landlords will give anyone a good reference—but do ask questions. Did they get all of their deposit back? Why or why not? Did they make their payments on time?
- Refusal to submit to a credit or background check. This can indicate the tenant has something to hide—and you don’t want to rent to someone who won’t be forthcoming about either of those requests.
- Incomplete applications. This may be a minor red flag in the grand scheme of things, but combined with any of the other items on this list, it can form a pattern. Whether the tenant has something to hide or they’re just too lazy to fill it out, it doesn’t necessarily bode well for their reliability. On the other hand, if it’s a simple error, ask them to correct it.
Finally, trust your gut. Even a renter who looks great on paper and says all the right things in your face-to-face meeting can still raise doubts. As long as you’re complying with the Fair Housing Act and all province and local laws, you’re allowed to pick a tenant who makes you feel more comfortable than an equally suitable person who rubs you the wrong way.