As we mentioned in part one of this series, categories like credit, rental, and employment history are important to consider when establishing your tenant screening policies. We also offered an example list of criteria you could use to develop your own tenant screening questions, which you’ll find posted below in case you need a refresher. As you’re putting together your list of questions to ask potential tenants, feel free to lean on this list as a guideline. 

What to Ask Prospective Tenants

While some of these examples may seem inflexible, remember that your screening policy can be adjusted to your personal preference. Let’s consider some potential exceptions to this list as you start preparing your questions:

  • Credit History
    • Minimum credit score of 650
  • Rental History
    • No prior evictions
    • No more than two late rental payments in the past two years
  • Employment History
    • Verifiable employment for the past two years
  • Income Requirement
    • Proof of gross income greater than or equal to 3x the rental rate
  • Public Records
    • No criminal convictions that could negatively affect your other tenants or property (e.g., theft, robbery, assault, arson, kidnapping, sexual offenses, and murder).
  • Other
    • No animals, except when medically necessary
    • No smoking
    • Limit of two people per bedroom, not including infants

Related: What Do Landlords Look For When Screening A Tenant: Useful Tips

TenantCloud TenantScreening Tips

Creating Nuanced Policies: What to Do

How far can you stray from the guidelines mentioned above? You can create an exception to any rule you’ve established in your policies as long as you apply those exceptions equally to each applicant. 

For example, if several applicants have credit scores that fall below your minimum threshold, but they all have a history of paying rent on time and have verifiable income, you may not see a reason to rule them all out. In a case like this, you could create an alternative requirement for your tenant as a safety measure, such as requesting a higher security or rental deposit.

Criminal History Guidelines

Another special area of consideration is criminal behavior. It’s important to follow the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines when addressing a tenant’s criminal background information. These guidelines were put into place in 2016 (and recently updated in 2023) to give applicants with a criminal history better access to housing. 

These guidelines suggest that a tenant’s criminal background be evaluated on a case-by-case basis rather than discriminating against every applicant with a criminal history. 

For example, it may be that an applicant has committed criminal offenses when they were young, and they’ve had a clean record ever since. If you’d like to follow HUD guidelines and be lenient in these situations, outline your exceptions in your policies. 

Whether or not you choose to include nuances in your tenant pre-screening questions, keep in mind that some states are passing laws that don’t allow landlords to deny rental applications solely on criminal convictions. Be sure to consult a lawyer or research the specific rental laws in your area.

Pre-Screening Questions for Tenants with Criminal History

While you can ask applicants if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, you can’t deny a rental application based on someone who’s been arrested. An arrest is where a person was arrested on suspicion, whereas a conviction is the official declaration that they were found guilty of a crime.

But whether you choose to discuss criminal topics with applicants or not, you should be able to find out if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime when you conduct a background check. Consider answering these additional tenant-screening questions to widen your screening process:

  • What crime were you convicted for?
  • How long ago was the conviction?
  • Has the tenant maintained a good tenant history prior to and after their conviction?
  • Did the tenant participate in any rehabilitation efforts?
  • What facts or circumstances are involved with the conviction?

What you’re looking for as a landlord is if their past behavior will be an indicator of whether or not they will be respectful to other tenants on the property and follow tenancy policies. For example, someone who committed a nonviolent crime several years ago may still be a good candidate for your rental, whereas someone who has a recent assault charge may not be a good fit.

Other Unique Circumstances

You may have other circumstances come up during the application process that are unique to your policies. For instance, applicants new to the area may be starting a new job and won’t have two consecutive pay stubs to offer you for employment and income verification. In this case, you can consider asking them for their offer letter. In the case of self-employed applicants, use their tax statements from the past two years as verification. If applicants’ annual salaries don’t meet your income criteria, you can add other forms of what you deem “eligible income”—such as savings and checking account balances, balances from investment statements, and other similar financial statements—to their total income. For students, they likely won’t have much money coming in, but you could count their student loans as income. You’ve probably encountered or can think of other unique situations. Planning for each of these circumstances will help you round out your policies.

Prepare Policies for Each Property

If you own units in different locations, you may want to create different screening policies for each property. Be sure your rental criteria clearly state which property your screening policies belong to and who the contact is for that property. If you are the contact for all your properties, keep your policies straight by having easily accessible copies readily available. These quick references will ensure you describe the right details as you talk to prospective tenants.

Document and Explain Your Guidelines

Once you’ve decided on your policies, describe everything in a written document, one for each property. Detail all the exceptions you’ve thought through as clearly as possible. Be sure to include a statement that explains you follow fair housing laws. Once you finalize your document, pass it by a lawyer to be sure it follows all the necessary tenant-landlord laws. Always keeping up-to-date, well-written policies, as well as updated logs, will help you consistently use the same standards for every applicant and will explain any policy changes you make over time.

Many landlords like to reference a copy of their policies as they walk interested applicants through the application criteria. This guarantees they don’t miss important points, and they cover the same points for each prospective tenant. By talking with applicants about your rental requirements before they apply, you can help them discover on their own if they should apply. With qualified applicants applying to live in your units, you’ll be able to approve the majority of applications you process, spending less time processing applications you ultimately have to deny.

Also, by explaining the criteria to applicants ahead of time and by having it posted on your website through a service like TenantCloud, you can protect yourself. If HUD called you about a discrimination claim, you could send them a link to your policies, describe how you discussed these policies with the potential tenant, and explain that they were preestablished.

Conduct Background Checks as Described in Your Policy

After developing your screening policies and questions to ask tenants, be sure to have a process in place so that you follow them. With so many tasks on your plate competing for your time and attention, it’s easy to get pulled away. However, a complete tenant screening checklist will help you keep track of where your tenant is at in the application process. Having your policies and process in place also allows you to break up the application duties into smaller, more manageable steps. 

If you keep hard copy files, staple this paper checklist on the inside cover to find it easily. If you use an online portal like TenantCloud to guide the application process, it’ll easily keep track of where you are with each application for you.

If you use a company to run your background checks, like TenantCloud, this will make the process much easier. Once your vendor has completed the background research for you, you’ll receive an electronic report of the results on your portal, which you can save or print off. You may still need to call previous landlords and current and past employers, but the background report will cover all those additional details for you. 

If a potential tenant completes the background check, and you find a reason to deny their application, be sure to let them know what it was in the report that persuaded your decision.