30 Important Questions You Need to Ask Your Renter’s Personal References

by Lesly Gregory | Updated: Sep 7, 2022

Having a high demand for your rental property is never a bad thing, but handling prospective tenants the right way is essential. That's why tenant screening is so important. The process includes a few different steps — credit history, rental history, criminal history, references and more.

Both personal references and those from previous landlords and employers can add dimension to who your prospective tenant is. It can show you what they're really like as opposed to how great they made themselves out on paper.

If you've got a rental property, and are currently going through the tenant screening process, make sure you include talking to references. Whether it's the tenant's current connections or previous ones, a prospective tenant's references should get looked at and talked to.

Landlords should have a tenant screening process

As a landlord, creating specific tenant screening protocols helps ensure you find good tenants. Screening tenants helps weed out bad tenants by ensuring the applicant has steady employment, a strong credit history, no criminal record, no past evictions and a history of paying rent on time.

Speaking to references helps you make informed decisions as to whether a new tenant is a great tenant.

How to ask your tenants to submit references

Most landlords prefer the ability to speak directly with a potential tenant's references. If that's the case, you'll want to add a space on your rental application for a reference list that includes contact information.

Some landlords may prefer tenants submit a reference letter from each reference when they complete their application. This is perfectly fine, too, but you'll want to provide proper notice that reference letters are available at the time prospective tenants submit their applications.

A boss is a good reference.

Acceptable references from your prospective tenant

There are a few different types of references that can help show if you've got a high-quality tenant in front of you, or not.

  • Personal references can come from friends, family members or co-workers. Anyone who knows the applicant personally can make a strong character reference.
  • Professional references can come from a current employer or past employer. They'll attest to whether the applicant will make a responsible tenant based on their professional performance.
  • Landlord references can come from a current landlord, a property management contact or a former landlord. Most important, this reference will show if the tenant will pay rent on time, based on past behavior, and will treat the property well.

It's OK to ask for one reference from each category or set other requirements. However, you may want at least one professional reference, since personal references can skew a little toward making a tenant look better than they are.

An acceptable tenant reference will be able to speak to the applicant's character and rental history. A landlord should always check renter references before signing a lease with a potential tenant.

Preparing for a reference check

Phone calls are the best way to make quick contact with a tenant reference. When you call, it's best to have a list of questions prepared in advance. You want to make sure each question helps establish whether you'd rent your property to this tenant or not.

Additionally, it's important to take notes during the conversation so that you remember what the reference said later.

Finally, be sure to thank the reference for their time after the conversation.

Cover all your bases!

Questions to ask all tenant references

In order to keep reference checks consistent, it's best to pre-plan the questions to ask with each call. You want to find the best tenant, and to do that, you have to compare everyone on the same playing field.

Whether you're talking to a family member or a previous landlord, this list of possible questions will make it easier to screen potential tenants through their references.

Questions to ask current or previous landlords

A previous landlord reference is so helpful. They have the best insight into what this person is really like as a tenant.

  1. How long has (was) the applicant been a tenant? This question helps establish how much history a landlord has with the tenant, validating whether they're a reliable source to show how often the tenant pays monthly rent on time.
  2. Has the applicant ever missed a rent payment? If the landlord answers 'yes,' make sure to find out how many times it happened. Whether it was a one-off or a recurring issue makes a big difference.
  3. Has the applicant ever been late on a rent payment? This is also a good indicator of how responsible a tenant will be. Even if they pay eventually, you don't want to have to chase them down to pay rent each month.
  4. When the applicant missed rent or was late, how amenable were they to catch up? Asking about how willing they were to pay rent, even late, and how easy it was to resolve the issue is definitely important to know.
  5. Has/Did the applicant ever cause damage to the rental unit? Landlords don't want to deal with damages to their rental properties, so finding out if a tenant has a history of mistreating their home is worth knowing from a previous landlord. Make sure, if they did do any damage, you ask about the circumstances (accident or intentional) and how serious the damage was.
  6. How does the applicant handle conflict? You'll want to know how they handled any conflict with previous landlords, as well as any neighbors.
  7. Would you rent to the applicant again? If any landlord references say 'no,' you might not want to rent to the tenant either.
  8. Does/Did the applicant smoke in or on the property? Especially if you have a no smoking policy as a lease term, you need to know if this tenant is a smoker. They may not admit to it themselves.
  9. Did the tenant follow all the house rules? Find out if the tenant ever received any complaints about noise, trash or even having a pet that wasn't allowed. You want to make sure they can follow all the terms of your lease.
  10. Is there anything else you think I should know about the applicant? Giving the reference an open question to add anything else can bring to light something you may not have thought of, but are glad you know about.

Questions to ask current or past employers

The best way to ensure monthly rent lands in your hands, on time, is to know a tenant's income. To do this, you need to talk to their boss. All employer references, though, will help you understand more about how responsible of a tenant you may have.

  1. How long has the applicant been employed? Knowing this adds clarity to how well this employer knows your potential tenant's behaviors.
  2. What is the applicant's job title? This should match what the tenant wrote on their application. If it doesn't, you've got a potential red flag.
  3. What is the applicant's salary? Confirming this number helps establish if they can afford to rent your property.
  4. Is this position full-time, trial or contract? You want to establish the permanence of their role since a temporary position could mean the tenant loses income while renting.
  5. Does the applicant have a history of missed workdays? And if so, how many in a row? Missing a lot of work is a sign of an irresponsible person, not someone you may want to rent to.
  6. Does the applicant get to work on time most days? This question can help prove reliability.
  7. Why did the applicant leave their position at your company? This is a question for a past employer rather than a current one. Knowing the circumstances around a job switch can shed insight into their character.
  8. What are the applicant's strongest traits as an employee? A question like this allows you to get a character reference from a tenant's employer in addition to employment verification.
  9. Do you like working with the applicant? If they say 'no,' dig a little deeper and ask if the applicant has even gotten into trouble at work. You want to know if this is a global issue or something between just them and their boss.
  10. Is there anything else you think I should know about the applicant? Again, this open-ended question is a great way to wrap up the call and get any information you may not have thought of in advance.

Mother/Daughter duo.

Questions to ask family or friends

If an applicant's references include family or friends, it's fine, but these references are often more emotional than you'd get from other sources. As a result, you should take them with a grain of salt and realize information might be slightly exaggerated to make the prospective tenant look good.

  1. How long have you known the applicant? Establishing the length of the relationship can show how well this reference knows the tenant.
  2. What is your relationship to the applicant? This question helps establish how well the reference knows what it's like to live with the applicant.
  3. Could you describe the applicant's character? Look for a list of qualities that you'd want in a tenant.
  4. Does the applicant have a history of missed rent payments or evictions? A personal reference may not have a full answer to this question but could clear up any situations where you don't feel like you've got the complete story yet.
  5. Has the applicant ever caused damage to a rental unit? A friend may know of some damage that wasn't caught by the landlord.
  6. How does the applicant handle conflict? Finding out about situations outside of the tenant's living situation can shed insight into what they'll be like when communicating with you.
  7. Would you rent to the applicant if you were a landlord? Asking the personal reference to put themselves in your shoes could provide a lot of insight.
  8. If you've spent time in the applicant's current or previous home, what condition was it in? The reference's observations could help you understand how this tenant will treat your property.
  9. Does the applicant smoke? Make sure the tenant didn't lie on their application.
  10. Does the applicant have pets? If the reference says 'yes,' ask about breed, pet age and pet temperament. If you do allow pets, you want to know a little bit about who's moving in before you sign a lease.

Know who lives in your rental property

Asking questions that touch on all of these key areas, with each type of reference, makes for an extremely thorough tenant screening process. You'll gain valuable insights into what kind of tenant a person might be, and feel more confident about who's moving in when you sign the lease.

Categories: Landlords

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