Landlord Basics: Checking Tenant References

(This post is part of our “Landlord Basics” series, which seeks to help the new landlord / investor understand some of the basics of tenant relations and property management. Click here to view the entire Landlord Basics archive.)

Tenant screening is an important, but often overlooked, responsibility of the investor.  Prospective tenants are not always truthful on their rental applications (assuming one was filled out to begin with!).  Because of this, it is important to check prospective tenant references.  This is a quick and dirty guide to the questions you should ask.

Before you start making phone calls, I suggest doing reverse phone number look ups on all references. offers a reverse search.  Generally a business number will come back to the business address, and a landlord will come back to an address as well.  However, you may see some numbers that come back to “disposable” cell phones.  These instantly throw up a red flag to me, because it could easily be someone covering for a prospective tenant.

Rental applications should, at a minimum, include workplace references and previous landlord references.  Some applications also include a personal references section, where prospective tenants can give you the names of a couple friends who will tell you more about them.

When calling a previous landlord, there are several questions you can ask to help you get more information on the tenant.  Some landlords will answer questions over the phone, and some will require a fax and a signed release of information from the tenant.  You  DID include a release at the end of your application, didn’t you?

  • Were there any other people on the tenant’s lease?
  • What was their address? (They should know this relatively quickly, or they could be a bad reference)
  • Was their rent $xxx? (Give an amount other than the correct amount and see if they correct you – otherwise this may be a bad reference!)
  • Is their rent current?
  • Are they being evicted / have they been evicted? (If rent is not current, this may be why they are looking for a new place!)
  • Did they have any pets?
  • Were there any complaints from other tenants?
  • Did they cause any major maintenance issues?
  • Would you rent to this tenant again?

Workplace references are generally going to end up going to the Human Resources department of any larger company, and will have to be sent via fax.  You’ll need the signed release from the application for this fax as well.  Employers are very limited on what they can give you, but you can request more information (such as pay stubs) from the tenant.

  • Is the employee’s address _________? If not, please provide correct address.  (Give address they are currently using on their application.  People tend to update workplace records quickly when they move, so they continue to get paid!)
  • When did the employee start?
  • What is their position?
  • Are they full time or part time?
  • What is their current pay rate? (Check against the application and pay stubs)

Tenant screening can be challenging, but it is important to check out a prospective tenant fully and completely before turning over a very costly asset to them, your rental property!  Not completing a tenant screen can cost thousands in evictions, lost rent, and repairs.  It’s impossible to catch every bad apple, but proper screening will certainly reduce the number of bad apples you have to toss!

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18 comments to Landlord Basics: Checking Tenant References

  • Diana Hayes  says:

    Hi! Just an FYI, I appreciate the time you took to put this together. 🙂 Anything helps!

  • Debbie  says:

    Good information thanks!!!

  • Brenda Beach  says:

    Great info. Thanks for putting in the time to educate others.

  • Elda  says:

    Also Google them and check social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. You can learn lots of useful info from these pages about their lifestyle, friends etc

  • Drew  says:

    Excellent point, Elda! Just be careful that you don’t use information you find in such a way that violates fair housing laws.

  • Jacob  says:

    “Before you start making phone calls, I suggest doing reverse phone number look ups on all references. offers a reverse search. Generally a business number will come back to the business address, and a landlord will come back to an address as well. However, you may see some numbers that come back to “disposable” cell phones. These instantly throw up a red flag to me, because it could easily be someone covering for a prospective tenant.”

    that can be true drew but where i live in michigan 90% of landlords are private landlords and are not affiliated with any business or corporation and most of them use a “disposable” number. so using that method may be unfair for people who may have this kind of landlord and may be unfailrly red flagged because of that.

  • Drew  says:

    Very true. You have to look at the preponderance of evidence in cases like this. Do the tax records match the name given? Is there reverse number information available? Maybe you can give an incorrect piece of information and see if they catch it and correct you. There are lots of ways to catch a sneaky potential tenant!

  • Josh  says:

    FYI: Everybody should look up the definition of slander or defamation and know it before you call anyone (or are called upon) before you answer or ask questions like these. And also understand that there could be legal consequences for such an act. Think before you ruin someone chances of finding a place to live.

  • Kirsty  says:

    Thank you so much for these helpful tips, do you have a copy of a really good credit application that you use or have tips where to go?

    Again, so thankful.

  • Madeline  says:

    With all due respect, not all tenants are “sneaky” and as a person with good credit, history and all the things a landlord is looking for, I do not recommend to anyone to rent from an individual or person not affiliated with a management company without checking HIM out the same way….So “Sir”, it goes both ways. As a renter that isn’t a “bad apple”, it doesn’t make you any better because you OWN the property because there could be as many creepy things about you as a landlord as there would be about someone as a tenant.
    Ever look at things that way??

  • Drew  says:

    Madeline – You’re absolutely right. MOST people are very fair and honest in their dealings when looking to rent. And there are a lot of landlords that should NOT be in the business. There are also a number of services where someone can rate their experience with an apartment, landlord, etc. A good tenant should perform their due diligence just like a good landlord would.
    (And my apologies for not approving your comment and replying earlier!)

  • Drew  says:

    Hi Kristy – I’ll send you a copy of our rental application with the required disclosure that the applicant has to sign off on. Just shoot me an email.

  • Shawn  says:

    Hi Drew – Would it be possible for you to send me a copy of your rental application with the required disclosure as well. It would be greatly appreciated.

  • Stonehouse  says:

    What is defamation?
    Defamation is communication about a person that tends to hurt the person’s reputation. Defamation is a strict liability tort, which means that the intentions of the defamer are not relevant. The communication must be made to other people, not just to the person it’s about. The statement must be false to be classified as defamation. If it is spoken, then defamation is termed “slander”. If it is written, it is termed “libel”. It can also be a gesture, which is a type of slander.

    As a reference you are free to speak the truth to the caller

    1. Truth or justification
    A statement may hurt your reputation, but if it is true, anyone who says it has a valid defence if you sue them for defamation.

    3. Qualified privilege
    This defence is where remarks that may otherwise be defined as defamatory were conveyed to a third party non-maliciously and for an honest and well-motivated reason. Say a former employee of yours gave your name to an employer as a reference and that employer calls you for a reference. You say, “Well, frankly, I found that this employee caused morale problems.” As long as you act in good faith and without malice, and your statement is not made to more people than necessary, then the defence of qualified privilege protects you if the former employee sues you for defamation. You gave your honest opinion and the caller had a legitimate interest in hearing it.

  • Pauline  says:

    I love this website! I am a first time landlord and find the prospect of finding a good tenant a bit terrifying. Of course all the stories I have heard about tenants are horror stories. I would love a copy of the rental application and disclosure form that you use. The questions for tenant references and all the other “landlord basics” have been very helpful. Thanks!

  • MIKE WILLIAMS  says:

    HEY DREW, I am not Kristy, but I would like to see your rental application form. thanks mw

  • Bill Bush  says:

    Thanks for the information.

    My concern is the people will purchase their own house if they have good credit, good income. They would not stay for long time. You will lost a lot if the tenant move out every year.

  • […] more insight into questions to ask references, check out these tips from Andrew […]

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