It’s easy to imagine the ideal tenant:

  • Pays rent on-time
  • Respects your property
  • Respects the neighbors
  • Complies with rental policies
  • Communicative and reliable

It’s equally easy to imagine the kind of tenant who keeps you awake at night, tossing and turning with worry. A tenant who is months behind on their rent and is a danger to your property or the neighbors. How do you determine who is an ideal tenant? The right tenant screening process can help you get a great tenant that will provide you with a steady rental income and reduce future headaches.

This quick guide to tenant screening outlines the most important steps to take, and discusses the role that online tenant screening plays in the process. From setting expectations upfront to writing a strong lease, there are many ways to ensure that you are placing the best potential tenant in your rental and protecting yourself from bad outcomes — like an expensive eviction.

Before you get started with choosing a tenant, however, you will want to familiarize yourself with the Fair Housing Act and your state’s fair housing laws.

1. Set expectations upfront

Screening your tenants properly

Many of your applicants won’t meet your criteria, so it’s best to set expectations upfront. This reduces the chance that you’ll waste the applicant’s time and that they’ll waste yours. The process starts with your rental advertisement. Include information in the advertisement that outlines your financial requirements, pet policy, and list other deal breakers, like an eviction record.

2. Schedule a property tour

Once you’ve established a short list of possible candidates, schedule a face-to-face meeting at the property. This is your opportunity to explain your rental criteria and for your applicants to ask questions. If you clearly explain your criteria during this step, you can avoid wasting time and money screening applicants who aren’t a fit.

A face-to-face meeting with the applicant also gives you a chance to ask them questions and further determine whether or not they would be an ideal tenant for your property. A few examples may include:

  • Why are you moving?
  • What do you like about this property?
  • What is your ideal lease agreement?
  • How long are you planning to stay?
  • How is your job going?

An effective way to make the full use of your time and resources is to host an open house. This way, you’ll have the opportunity to meet multiple applicants within a single day. You can also list it in your rental advertisement.

Where allowed, you may also want to collect a non-refundable application fee to cover the cost of tenant screening, and weed out those who aren’t serious. Certain tenant screening services such as SmartMove allow you to pass on the cost directly to the applicant.

Where allowed, you may also want to collect a non-refundable application fee to cover the cost of tenant screening, and weed out those who aren’t serious. Certain tenant screening services such as SmartMove allow you to pass on the cost directly to the applicant.

3.Perform a comprehensive credit, criminal, and eviction check

tenant screening reports

A complete tenant screening is one of the most crucial steps in finding a good tenant. Checking an applicant’s credit, criminal and eviction history gives you a well-rounded view of their ability to pay and helps you gauge the risk of renting to them. It also offers you a way to verify the information on an application, since this information is self-reported.

Let’s review the most important elements of a complete tenant screening:

Credit Report: Credit worthiness is an important factor when evaluating an applicant. A credit report gives you more insight into their financial situation, and allows you to look for warning signs that suggest a candidate poses a higher risk. Past bankruptcies, collections for unpaid rent, and eviction judgements may indicate potential problems in the future.

Criminal Report:Finding a criminal hit is not as unusual as you might think. In fact, 22%* of SmartMove users had a criminal hit on their record in 2015. A background check of relevant criminal history is an important way to find out if your applicant could put your rental property or the neighborhood at risk.

Eviction Report:An eviction report can help you find out if your applicant has previously been evicted, since past evictions are highly predictive of future evictions. In fact, analysis done by TransUnion found that evicted residents have nearly three times as many prior eviction and rental-related collection records as non-evicted residents.

What’s A ResidentScore?

TransUnion SmartMove ResidentScore

If you use SmartMove online screening, you will be provided with a ResidentScore on your applicant. ResidentScore is tailored to the unique needs of landlords, predicting evictions more accurately than a general credit score. It is designed specifically for rental screening and helps to predict the risk of eviction, 3+ late rent payments, and/or not sufficient funds (NSF). By looking at a ResidentScore in combination with a full SmartMove tenant screening package, you can get an in-depth understanding of an applicant’s background.

4. Verify employment, references and income

While credit, criminal and eviction reports are a great measure of an applicant’s financial and rental history, it is also important to verify employment and references. You should have an actual conversation with their employer (on a company line). It is also important to speak with at least two past landlords and their personal references. This step can give you great insight into your applicant’s reliability, treatment of the rental, and overall behavior as a tenant.

Verifying their current income is also an important step you don’t want to skip. Ask to see current pay stubs as proof of current income. Requiring a monthly income that is two to three times the rent is standard and helps you to better gauge their ability to make monthly payments.

It is critical that you request a pay stub as proof of income because it contains important information including:

  • Applicant’s name
  • Current address
  • Monthly income
  • Employer’s name
  • Year-to-date earnings
  • Court-ordered wage garnishments

5. Have a strong lease in place

A strong lease can go a long way when it comes to preventing problems in the future. Make sure that it outlines all your policies (number of persons in the rental, pets, smoking, renter’s insurance requirements, etc.) and review it with the applicant in order to prevent misunderstandings down the line. Additionally, a lease that specifically outlines late fees and payment policies will motivate tenants to make rent a priority. It’s important to consistently enforce the policies in your lease so that your tenants take the terms seriously.


By implementing a consistent tenant screening process, you will have a much greater chance of finding reliable tenants. Armed with the information provided by SmartMove online tenant screening, you can make more informed decisions about applicants -- protecting both your property and rental income.

*Based on 2015 SmartMove user data