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Boston Apartment Landlords: You should ask these question s to prospective tenants

Tenant screening is a critical part of being a successful Boston apartment landlord. But screening is not just about eliminating irresponsible tenants, it is also about reducing the number of problems you have as a landlord and finding rental applicants who will be good fits for your properties.

Screening out someone who might be a bad financial fit is relatively easy. A simple credit check will turn them up. Finding tenants who will be good personal fits for you and your properties is however a bit more nuanced.

The rental application process always begins with that first point of contact. That first phone call or e-mail can say plenty about who is looking to rent your property.

But the rubber really hits the road with your application. A completed application that asks the right questions can go a long way towards easing your pain later on.

1. What is your apartment tenant’s name and phone number?

This is key. After all, you may need to contact them again later to set up a showing or just to follow up with further questions. If you do not ask for this information on the front end, you may forget to ask later on as the conversation progresses.

2. When do you need to move into the apartment?

You might be surprised at this question, but we get numerous calls from people who are looking to move three or more months down the road. While I applaud them for being proactive, we tell them that while we will be happy to show and discuss any apartment, we really cannot help them at the current time, as any rental they are interested in will likely be rented and off the market by the time they are ready to move.

3. Do you work or go to school?

This question is designed to determine if someone has the income needed to afford a Beacon Hill apartment and also to understand if their lifestyle fits with your property.

First, find out if the caller has a job. Then help them determine if they can afford your property. If you have an income requirement, explain it to them. Sometimes, prospective renters will withdraw themselves from consideration at this point.

4. Will anyone else be living with you?

You must find out about all of the adults that will be living in the Boston apartment and insist that they go through your screening process. Nail down the precise number of people who will officially be living in the space and write in your lease that those specific people—and only those specific people—are allowed to live there.

You should add other questions to your list depending on what your rental criteria are. For example, you may want to ask about pets or smoking depending on whether you allow pets or smoking in your properties. There’s no sense in setting up a showing appointment, meeting the applicant, and then finding out they have a dog when you do not allow them.

Potential tenant screening questions

First impressions mean everything.

When you first meet your prospective tenant, you should ask a few key questions. A good tenant’s answers will shed a good amount of light on what type of experience you can expect from this candidate.

Tenant screening is not always a cut and dry, yes or no process, but it is one of the most important things a landlord can do. As a landlord, you need to develop your application and screening process with the goal of finding the best fit for you and your properties. Asking insightful questions will help you in achieving that goal.

1. Why are you moving out of your current apartment?

This is probably the single most important question for potential renters. Their stated reason for moving out of their current home can shed a lot of light on the experience that you’ll have if you accept this person as your tenant.

If the person has just moved to the area, changed jobs, or wants to up-size or downsize their space, you probably don’t have much to worry about. That’s the ideal tenant. If the person launches into a long-winded complaint about how much they despise their next-door neighbor, watch out! Be particularly cautious if they complain about their current landlord. Yes, there are bad landlords out there, but a tenant who immediately launches into tirades about their landlord is a red flag.

2. When would you like to move into the apartment?

If your applicant answered “today,” or “ASAP,” be very careful during your screening process. A tenant wanting to move quickly could mean a few things:

  • They are being evicted
  • Their landlord asked them to leave
  • They do not plan ahead
  • They are not currently renters (everyone needs a place to live—where are they currently living and why?)
  • A variety of other reasons that don’t bode well for you

However, it could also mean that they need to escape a negative situation with a roommate or partner, which isn’t a reflection on them as a tenant.

Another answer to be aware of is if they write a date in the distant future. For example, if they apply for your vacant rental in April saying they would like to move in July, that’s probably not going to work for you. It’s highly unlikely it would be financially advantageous for you to hold your rental for three months! The answer you will want to see to this question is anywhere from one to four weeks out. Anything else you will want to scrutinize closely.

3. Do you have any pets?

This question is phrased in such a way as to not appear negative. If you were to ask, “Do you have any pets?” they may write “no,” thinking a “yes” will immediately disqualify them. Asking “what” instead of “do you” increase the chances of their being honest with this question. If they do have pets, discuss your pet policy with the tenant.

4. Have you been evicted from an apartment before?

An eviction filing identifies an irresponsible tenant. But it’s not always an automatic no. If their stated answer is yes, take note of whether they accept responsibility and indicate that they have since turned their life around, or whether they continue to blame the eviction on some external force that was outside of their control.

5. Have you ever broken an apartment lease?

This information should also be discovered when gathering your landlord references, but by asking here you again will be able to determine your applicant’s honesty. If they have broken a lease, find out the details from the previous landlord and be prepared to require additional securities should you decide to rent to them.

6. Who is your emergency contact (including to contact regarding rent or tenancy)?

Every landlord has experienced a tenant (or multiple tenants) who are late on their rent and bury their heads, making it impossible for the landlord to communicate with them. That’s where the emergency contact comes into play.

Most applicants will list someone close to them, such as a parent or a close friend. These are people you want to know. As long as you have specified that the emergency contact is also a contact for rent or tenancy issues, you may contact that person in the event the tenant doesn’t pay rent or has some other tenancy-related issue that a kick in the pants from the emergency contact may help solve.

7. Is there any additional information we should know?

As stated on the application itself, the applicant is invited to, “Please use this optional space for additional information, comments, or explanations.” This is where a tenant can explain why they were evicted two years prior or the fact that their former landlord is a sleazeball who won’t fix anything. This section can give you a little more insight into the person you are screening.

Boston Real Estate and the Bottom Line

None of these questions are deal-breakers in and of themselves, and there can easily be extenuating circumstances. If any answers alarm you, take the time to dig deeper before automatically rejecting someone and you may be surprised by what you find.

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