Just taking ownership of your new rental property does not turn on your cash flow. You want to be sure you have the best possible tenants in place, people who pay their rent on time, communicate well, and treat the property with respect. Effective tenant screening is a crucial part of the process, and one piece of that screening pie is the references you get from a tenant’s previous landlords. 

Making that call to a previous landlord can be sensitive; after all, you may know nothing about the tenant’s decision to move and have only the information they provide with their application for your property. It’s a 50/50 call as to whether you are stirring the pot about a landlord/tenant relationship that ended badly, or finding confirmation that everyone parted on amicable terms. 

When you ask a few key questions – the right way –about the tenant and their tenancy, you can find the information you need without ruffling too many feathers. 

What types of questions do you ask a landlord when you call for a tenant reference? 

First, it’s essential to know that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allows you to ask certain types of questions and prohibits you from asking others. HUD is the federal agency that governs housing regulation and sets standards to ensure that all tenants are treated fairly. When you prepare a rental listing, the Fair Housing Act prohibits you from asking for – or discriminating against – specific tenant characteristics. Similarly, when you speak to a previous landlord, you need to avoid any questions about the tenant’s color, race, religion, gender, national origin, disability, and familial status.

To help you understand whether the applicant will be a good tenant, the most important questions you want answers to involve whether they paid rent on time and whether they kept the property in good condition. 

In our scenario below, we ask the landlord questions about “Jane,” a previous tenant, who has applied to rent your property. 

Here are 12 questions you should ask the previous landlord. 

1) What was the physical address of the unit that Jane rented from you?

This may seem like an unnecessary question, but an irresponsible tenant does not want the new landlord to know they trashed the previous rental and owe their landlord a lot of money. To cover their tracks, the tenant might provide a friend or family member’s number to pretend to be the landlord on the phone. The real landlord will always know the exact property address, while a friend or family member may not.

2) What dates did Jane reside at your property?

This is simply to corroborate the applicant’s information. If they gave you inaccurate dates, it could signal they are not trustworthy. Did they lie? Or was there a mistake on their application?

3) What is/was Jane’s monthly rent amount?

Again, you are just double-checking the facts you’ve been given and noting any pattern of inconsistency.

4) Did Jane ever have any checks returned due to non-sufficient funds? If so, how many times and when?

This can help you understand if Jane is responsible and a good money manager. If the previous landlord had to chase down rent, you would know it might take more hands-on management to rent to her.

5) Did Jane ever pay rent late or miss any payments? If so, how many times and when?

Similar to question #4, this question will help you determine how responsible Jane might be, or whether her financial situation presents any risks to you.

6) Did Jane cause any damage to the property? Or did she have unusual maintenance needs as a tenant, or did the landlord have to do any excessive repairs? If so, what was involved?

Renting to someone with a history of taking good care of the property can help you avoid risk and financial losses.

7) Did you receive any complaints regarding Jane or her unit while she lived there?

Leasing to a tenant who behaves respectfully to their neighbors can eliminate common complaints about noise or other activities.

8) Does Jane currently owe you any money for any reason? If so, how much and for what?

This tells you that Jane takes her obligations seriously and pays what she owes.

9) Did you ever serve Jane with a Pay or Quit notice, eviction notice, or asked her to move out? If so, what was the outcome?

Learning whether there was mutual respect between the landlord and tenant is essential. A tenant that needs to be pushed to the point of eviction before they pay rent they contractually agreed to pay could turn out to be a management nightmare.

10) Did Jane have any lease violations?

Landlords and tenants do not always view situations through the same lens. The landlord would like Jane to follow the lease agreement to the letter. On the other side, Jane may not see her action as a lease violation. Clarity about any problematic situations will help you understand if Jane is likely to be an easy tenant to manage.

11) Did you allow pets at the property? Did Jane own pets at the time?

If you allow pets, you’ll want to understand if your prospective tenant is a responsible pet owner. Do they clean up after their pet? Do they keep the pet from damaging the property? If Jane had pets in the previous unit, the landlord would be able to tell you if she’s a responsible pet owner.

12) Would you rent to Jane again?

This is the most important and telling question to ask a previous landlord. If the landlord does not answer with a positive “yes,” you’ll want to understand the issues between them.

Based on all of the answers to these questions, you will have a better sense of whether the tenant is trustworthy, made factual statements on their application, and seems likely to be a good tenant.

What happens if the applicant has not had a landlord before?

This could be the case if our fictional tenant, Jane, is just moving from Mom and Dad’s house, lived previously in a college dorm, or owned a home and has decided to rent instead. You can still get the address and call the parents, but you will need to rely more heavily on verifying her employment and completing a credit check for the information you need.

Suppose any of the answers you get from Jane’s previous landlord suggest that she’s a less-than-ideal tenant or learn other information from your employment and credit checks. In that case, you are entirely within your rights as a landlord to tell Jane she’s not a good fit as a tenant for you. As long as your reasons for declining the application are based on your questions – and are not discriminatory in any way, you can politely thank them for their interest and move on to the next applicant.

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