9 Tips on Screening and Your Gut Feelings
By Jim Straub
Let’s have an honest conversation about screening. By now, we’re all aware of Fair Housing laws
and how they apply to screening potential tenants. We all have written screening requirements and
we stick to them. Sometimes, though, we just have that feeling in our gut that something’s not
quite right with an application. How do you listen to that feeling and still follow Fair Housing
Law? I’ll talk a little about what I do with
my potential applicants and hope that will help clarify things.
(1) Personal Demeanor and Interactions With Me or My Employees
Let me be absolutely clear about this first point. I am NOT saying to judge someone based on how
they look. Nothing is more discriminatory and will get into Fair Housing hot water faster. That
being said, though, I do look at the application process a little like a job interview. I expect
the applicant to put their best foot forward.
I don’t care how their clothes are or if they’re dressed like punk rockers. I do care that their
clothes are clean and that they don’t have an unpleasant odor. Applicants who don’t care for
themselves may be les likely to treat your property in a caring manner.
(2) The Vehicle They Drive
Again, I don’t care what the make, model or age of the vehicle is. In fact, if the applicants have
listed a meager salary on their application, I’m more impressed when they are driving an old model
vehicle that looks like they are living within their means. When someone lists little income and is
driving a Cadillac, I’m wondering where the money is coming from and this is a red flag for me.
Again, I look to see that the vehicle is clean and cared for.
(3) Interactions Between Applicants
Do the applicants interact with each other with respect? Do they listen when the other is talking
and appear to work well together? Again, let me be clear. Applicants who are arguing may not end
up in a domestic violence situation “ that’s NOT what I’m implying. What I’m saying is that I look
for tenants who appear to get along well and will therefore stay in my rental for some time. They
won’t turn it over the first time the get in a heated argument.
(4) Keep Your Ears Open Around the Kids
I am NOT saying to question the kids. Obviously, you want to make a decision about an application
based on the statements of a six-year-old. However, I did have a situation when a small child said
to me, I wish our landlord wasn’t kicking us out. I liked where we used to live. When I
questioned the adult applicant, they admitted that they had been less than honest about why they
were leaving their last rental. So, whenever you
overhear something from a child, make sure you give the adults present the opportunity to
(5) Check Government-Issued Photo ID or Other Photo ID Against Their
Not only am I checking to be sure they are who they say they are, I’m checking what address is
listed and what the issue date of the ID is. I can’t tell you how many times there is an address
listed on the ID that is not accounted for in the application. Give the applicants the opportunity
to clarify discrepancies against Land Information Database available for free use at the County
Courthouse Tax Records Department.
(6) Criminal Background
This should be addressed in your written screening requirements. For instance, I don’t allow any
criminal background that involves drug manufacture/sale/distribution or any Felony 1 offenses
(usually burglary and felonious assault). Otherwise, though, I’m usually willing to work with an
applicant as long as they’re honest up front about their background. I ask the applicants about
potential criminal background and assure them they are better off telling me up front. I’ve been
doing this long enough that you can’t shock me, and it is not an automatic refusal as long as they
are up front with me about their background.
(7) How Did You Like Your Last Landlord?
You would be amazed how much this question can tell you about an applicant. It will give you
insight about what the applicants think of landlords in general and how willing they are to work
with you. Though, don’t be afraid of tenants who have been the victims of bad landlords, as we all
know they are out there. Just last week, I rented to tenants who had a bad prior landlord and it
was clear that the tenants were in the right. Don’t be afraid of these tenants “ they may be some
of the best you’ve ever had.
(8) How Does This Property Compare to Others You’ve Looked At?
This is another question that will give you a wealth of knowledge. One, it actually lets you know
how your property compares. Two, it will also let you know what they think
of your rental. Someone who answers this question by bashing your rental and listing everything
that’s wrong with it might not stay long and might not treat it like the valuable property
investment you know that it is. In fact, as further insurance, I ask tenants to do
a walkthrough and list their complaints before I hand them the keys. This allows you to come to a
meeting of the minds about the condition of the property before the tenants move in and you’ve lost
(9) Bank Account Information
Always make sure you ask for this. It is a huge red flag if they don’t have it. Although tenants
are within their rights to choose not to have a bank account, someone is looking for their money to
garnish it “ the same money you’re expecting them to pay you in rent. ‘s the first piece of
information a collection agency will ask for right after their date of birth and social security
number. Make sure you have it.
So, it is possible to ask many of these behavioral questions and observe interactions while still
staying firmly within Fair Housing law. Unfortunately, there may be times when
your gut and these questions are still ringing a loud bell, but because they meet all of your
screening criteria; you still must rent to them.
In this case, at least forewarned is forearmed. Use these concerns to be sure you are
inspecting the property on a regularly scheduled basis and as a reminder to develop good
relationships with your tenants’ neighbors. If you still have doubts, even though you’ve rented to
them, follow up in a legal and responsible manner.
Finally, remember that at the heart of Fair Housing law is the concept that gut feelings can be
wrong. Be sure to follow your written screening guidelines, listen to your gut and act on it
appropriately, and chances are, you won’t go wrong.
Jim Straub is with Oregon Rental Housing. Reprinted with permission of the Wisconsin