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Great Tenants: How to Locate and Screen the Best Tenants for Your Rental House

Updated on April 12, 2011

Sooner or later, you may find yourself in the role of landlord. You didn't want this experience, or maybe you did. Maybe you intentionally bought an investment property in a good rental area. Maybe your mother is going into a nursing home permanently, and you need to rent out her house until you can decide what to do with it. Or perhaps your family has to go on a military assignment for three years and you need someone to live in your house while you are gone.

No matter the reason, some of us, as property owners, will get to this point. If you can just find a suitable tenant, you will not have to worry about covering the mortgage, nor letting a house sit vacant for too long. And, you will get a nice tax deduction as well.

The screening process for tenants can be long and arduous, especially in a slow market. But you must do your best to find responsible tenants. Without investigating your applicants, you may get renters who will trash your house, move in their friends, or go delinquent on the rent after two months. And you will probably lose more money getting them out of your house than you would by taking an extra few weeks with the screening process. Where do you start?

Who Will Live Here?

Start by visualizing the kind of tenants you want to live in your house. I can't say who should be the steward of your property. That's up to you. But I know who my ideal tenant is - she is a divorced woman with a decent but not fabulous job, who is fed up with men and hasn't been on a date in ten years, who is quiet and reclusive, who has grown children or a teen who will graduate from high school soon. This is the kind of tenant who will, if you treat her well, stay for a long time and who will not be delinquent on her rent. But, no matter who your ideal is, you'll be paid many times over if you can find him or her. It will be worth your time to at least attempt to market your house to your ideal tenant.


Beginning The Search

Unless you already have fantastic contacts who can provide prospects for your house, you will need to advertise. You can place an ad on a web site or use the classified section of your local newspaper. But what about just placing a sign in your front yard? In my experience, this is the worst way to advertise your home's availability, because you'll get calls from weird people or from individuals who just aren't serious about finding a house.

You can interview prospects on the phone, and discover right away that some of them aren't right for your house. But if, after a phone conversation, you believe you've found some good prospects, set up a time to meet with them and walk through the house.

If you find a prospect who might be a good fit, require them to fill out an application, or if they are two unrelated roommates, have each of them complete a separate application. It's up to you if you want to charge an application fee - I never did. Your memory probably won't serve you well without having a paper back-up, and you want them to supply answers that can be confirmed as you do your background search.

You can make up your own application, or just Google "rental home application" and find some good examples on the Internet. Above all, to check their background, you will need their full names, social security numbers, current and past addresses, prior rental history, names of past landlords, and their places of employment, going back about 5 years. In the wording of the application, you must make them understand that, by signing the application, they are giving the property owner the right to run a credit report and/or a background check.

Additional Steps

Most of my experience has been in large metropolitan areas. However, I have rented out a home in a small town. If you own a house in a small or rural area, you do have an advantage in a way, because it will be very easy to find people who know the prospective tenant, assuming the prospect has lived in the community for any length of time. You can ask your prospects for references, or just go about asking on your own. Inquire about them with a trusted realtor or a business owner. You may be surprised what you'll find out.

But, in a large metro situation, you'll probably have to rely on paper trails and database searches to get information about your prospects. The number one thing you should be looking for is a positive rental history. If you can get the prior management company on the phone, they will tell you of any history of late payments or of skipping out on bad debts. If their past rental history checks out, consider yourself fortunate.

The next most important thing you should look for is stable employment and/or adequate monthly income. Once you learn how to read a credit report, you will have some valuable information on how well the prospects handle their debts. And you'll get a good reading on whether they can afford to rent your house.


  1. Tenant screening companies are found on the Internet. Pay their yearly fee and you get credit checks on demand for a fee.
  2. A FICO score of 630 or above on a credit report is great. But don't give the greatest importance to the score without weighing other factors.
  3. If necessary, you can do a criminal background check as offered by your tenant screening company. Expect to pay an additional surcharge.

Final Thoughts

The recommendations above have been tested over time. They have worked so well for me that, in eight years, I have never had to use the legal process to evict a tenant that I selected.

Sometimes, despite your best research, things will go wrong with a tenancy. That's just life. Sometimes, your gut instinct to take a gamble on a particular tenant will lead to a stunning success. That's just playing the odds.

Most of all, though, remember the advice about visualizing the kind of tenant you want. You may go through a couple of years with lots of turnover in your rent house, but if you keep that imagery alive in your mind and you do a fabulous job as a landlord, one day your ideal renter will appear. We move toward that which we think about. Count on it. Good luck!


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