What to Look for During a Tenant Evaluation
One of the most important responsibilities for any landlord or property management company is finding a qualified renter. This individual has a few important characteristics, including being financially responsible, respectful of your property and to their neighbors. Your first tool in evaluating tenants for these requirements is the online rental application. As the Internet has shown us though, people can be different in person than they seem behind a screen. How else can you realistically (and legally) evaluate future tenants? One way is through an in-person tenant evaluation.
What does a tenant evaluation look for?
A tenant evaluation looks for red flags in behavior. Red flags don’t include a person's race, age or gender — discriminating based on any of these is illegal. But there are certain indicators from an in-person meeting that can give you a clearer understanding of the renter’s expectations before they sign a lease and see if they are qualified. Knowing a few tenant evaluation basics allows you to develop a list of both positive and negative characteristics to keep an eye on.
Keep in mind that there are no definitive rules and various people respond to tenant evaluations in different ways. The following aren't strict deal-breakers that should prevent you from excluding a renter from consideration. They're only guidelines that should prompt you to think through any possible red flags.
Be aware of extremes in behavior. Is the potential tenant unreasonably excited or disappointed, showing excessive positive or negative emotions when you meet them and show them the rental? This unusual behavior may indicate they are trying to get on your good side for some reason (perhaps to distract you from a negative detail on their online application or screening reports), or they're trying to lowball you on a monthly rental price. If these unusual reactions heavily sway from those of others who've toured your property and your knowledge of the specific local market you're in, you'll want to tread lightly.
Another indicator is if the tenant is an excessive storyteller and often portrays themselves as the victim, particularly in situations involving previous landlords. Are they trying to cover up a potential bad reference?
When it comes to rules, there are always people who think the rules only apply to others. While it may be normal to clarify things, such as whether a deposit can be paid in installments or not, it can be a red flag if unusual exceptions are requested prior to or after submitting an application. These include a prospective tenant asking if he or she can only pay part of the first month’s rent and submit the remaining balance for the second month, requesting you don’t meet their roommate who will also be moving in or asking if they can bring their dog after you mention your rental isn’t pet-friendly.
And when it comes to rules, there are also the people that seek to follow every rule around — even ones that don’t exist. Excessive complainers can make both the landlord and their neighbors unhappy. While it isn't legal to turn down someone simply for being unpleasant, excessive complaining may motivate you to take an additional look at the individual clauses in your lease. It may also benefit landlords to go over all guidelines that must be enforced by future tenants to establish rental expectations upfront before a tour takes place. If a potential renter disagrees with one or more of these, you won’t waste your time showing them your rental home.
In-person meetings can give you a good overview of the type of person you’re considering renting to. An older car or dated/worn clothing can simply mean a person is frugal — it's best not to judge. A spilled lunch across the front of a shirt might be an accident or an obvious lack of personal hygiene, which may indicate poor cleaning habits that could affect the cleanliness of your rental. Perhaps smoking isn’t permitted anywhere on your rental property and the potential tenant smells strongly of cigarettes. These are not indicators that you can or should turn down an applicant, but it's a good idea to review both the cleaning and smoking policies with the potential tenant and make sure he or she agrees to them before signing the lease.
What questions can you ask during a property showing?
When you meet a potential tenant, there are some questions you may ask during your tenant evaluation. For example, seeing a number of dog hairs on a sweater may motivate you to ask if the person has pets and how many. If your rental isn’t pet-friendly, clarifying this information with the prospective tenant is key. You can always ask if any members of the household smoke or have visitors who plan to smoke in the home. Landlords are also expected to ask about income, rental history, references, employment and may also request criminal background checks. You can also ask if the potential renter has ever violated or broken a lease.
What questions should you avoid with a tenant evaluation?
While there are questions you can ask, there are also questions you legally can’t. Many cities have very specific laws around rental applications. Make sure you understand these before conducting a tenant evaluation or leasing a property. Asking certain questions may put you at risk for violating discrimination laws or even worse, at risk for a lawsuit. Never ask a tenant their nationality, race, religion or sexual orientation. You'll also want to avoid questions about disabilities beyond asking if they would like to be shown accessibility amenities, and avoid questions or assumptions about a person's mental health. Other than for immediate occupancy, you'll also want to refrain from questions about a person's plans for children or marriage.
Find the right renter
In short, a tenant evaluation can provide you with useful information, but you must be smart about how you execute it. Use your first impression to dive deeper into fact checks and lease addendums, remembering not to judge on a person's appearance or beliefs.