Bill Gray – The Landlord Doctor

Insider Advice on Collecting Tenant Debt and Screening Tenants

Don’t Miss an Important Component to Screening New Tenants!

Posted by Bill Gray on October 7, 2009

[tweetmeme source=”your_twitter_name” only_single=false vital part of tenant screening requires more than learning about applicants, their employment and credit history—it’s learning everything you can about theirtele-interview2 previous rental history. Yes, former landlords who have rented to this tenant before have a wealth of information which should be weighed carefully before you approve an application.

Think about it. For six months or six years, former landlords have received or not received payments from your applicant. They know how the tenant left the property and about any complaints made when they leased it.  Their file and recollection can provide you with more insight than you’ll find by calling employers or ordering a credit report.

Start with the end in mind and weed out any applicants who might not treat your property with a gentle, kind, and caring hand. Was their former landlord impressed with the condition and cleanliness of the property when the tenant moved out?  Or were they overwhelmed and disappointed with the lack of attention and personal consideration they showed by leaving the unit a mess?

Screening former landlords can reveal much more, though, and the information you gain is worthy of your time. Does the tenant have a history of short-term housing, indicating problems with payment or other terms of the lease? Was the tenant a nuisance to other tenants? Did the tenant honestly disclose past information to previous landlords, and did that information hold true?

I should note here that all applicants are not Honest Abe.  Dishonest applicants know that telling the truth on applications could hurt their chances of being

accepted—as it very well should.  So, they come prepared, armed with a list of references, addresses and phone numbers—of imposters. I’ve seen cases where tenants provide false names or contact information for previous landlords, steering potential landlords to friends or family members who agree to aid and abet them in their quest for housing. For that reason, you might want to ask more specific questions—like how many units do you have, please verify the applicant’s social security number so I know we are talking about the same person, and can I have the name and address of another tenant so I can ask them for a written reference for this tenant.

By asking more questions, you’ll be able to do a better job of determining whether this landlord is legitimate—or not. In addition, be aware of legitimate landlords who will tell you exactly what you want to hear because they will do anything, including lie about a tenant’s past, just to get rid of them. So, suffice it to say that while screening should include interviewing former landlords, it should be considered just one piece of the whole and weighed accordingly.

The American Apartment Owners Association recommends landlords ask these questions when talking with the current or previous landlord:

1.            What was the tenant’s payment history?

2.            Did the tenant give sufficient notice according to the lease?

3.            Did the tenant fulfill all of the terms of the lease?

4.            Did the tenant give a reason for moving?

5.            Were there any complaints from neighbors about the tenant?

6.            Would you rent to this tenant again?

Most landlords stick together, understanding the difficulties and headaches caused by bad tenants. If you’re lucky enough to contact one who is willing to honestly divulge information, you’re a step ahead of the game. Their glimpse into the tenant’s past can play a vital role in helping you to determine whether a tenant will pay their rent on time, fulfill the terms of their lease, and take proper care of your property.

It is worth the extra effort to screen applicants, and just as important to screen their former landlords. When you do, you can save yourself a lot of time, effort, money, and elbow grease when you part ways.

Email me with your tenant screening questions.

Bill Gray

Copyright 2009



7 Responses to “Don’t Miss an Important Component to Screening New Tenants!”

  1. Great post Bill! Lots of very good points. Another way to try and determine if an applicant’s reference is really a past landlord or merely a friend trying to help them out is to call the “past landlord” and ask them about the rental they have available. If they reply that their units are full or they tell you about their vacant unit then you know that you are talking to a real landlord – and most likely a legitimate reference. But more often if the “past landlord” is really a friend of the applicant trying to help them out their response to your question about their rental property will give them away … “what do you mean my rental, who’s this”

  2. Bill Gray said

    Thanks for your comment Tristan. I had never thought of it, or heard anyone use this type of question before, but it certainly would help in determining if who you are talking with truly is a landlord.

    For my readers who are not familiar with who Tristan is; he is a shareholder with the Milwaukee law firm of Petrie & Stocking S.C. You may visit Tristan’s blog at:

  3. Kelly said

    It is tough to get the truth from a landlord on tenant history. Those are some good questions to use, but asking the landlord shouldn’t be the only way you screen. Ultimately, people do make mistakes, and just because someone struggled with rent payments one year doesn’t mean they aren’t doing better or shouldn’t be given a chance. Consider other things.

    • Bill Gray said

      Hi Kelly, thanks for visiting my blog. I could not agree with your comment more. That is why the title of this article says that contacting a prospects previous landlord is “one component” to proper screening. For more information please take a look at my other articles about screening tenants. Thanks again for your comment Kelly! Bill

  4. Jamie-Norman, OK said

    Hey Bill–I appreciate all you do for us “out here”. However, I have run into a couple of situations that pose a problem. Now that more former homeowners are having to rent, or even homeowners that need to rent while finding a home to purchase–there is no “rental history” and may not have been for a very long time. Also, young couples, or roommates that may not have any rental history because they have been living with their parents. In both these circumstances, I have been left to use my gut feeling-which I am getting better at, but certainly not always correct. What do you suggest??

  5. Tammy said

    I find it very easy to get the truth from previous landlords – we do stick together and so far none of the landlords I’ve contacted about potential tenants have pointed me in the wrong direction. Ironically, in the nearly twenty years that my husband and I have had rentals we have NEVER gotten a phone call from a landlord about one of our tenants – NEVER! Where do the tenants go when they leave my properties?!

    One way you can verify that the person you’re calling is the landlord and not someone else is to check the tenant’s address on your county’s tax assessment website. I always check to see if the landlord name they write on the application matches the owner of record. If it does, I then do a reverse phone look-up to see if the phone number from the application matches the public phone listing. I try never to call cell phone numbers (could be anybody).

    In my experience, a good tenant’s application information always matches what I search for on my own. If I have to go on a scavenger hunt to figure out where someone used to live or who there landlord is/was, I put that application aside and move on to the next one.

  6. Trixie said

    I have found if I sign the lease with them at thier current residence, it gives me a fairly good idea on thier lifestyles, and only giving them 5 minutes or so before I arrive is not enough time for them to hide very much.

    I have attended as many Landlord meetings in Red Deer as I am able, and wish that I could have the same positive response from other landlords when calling for past rental history.
    I have had one landlord tell me, that he would lie straight up and say that the tenant in question was great, so he could get rid of them. I know most people are not like that, and would like it if more landlords would phone me as well. We need to stick together.

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