Most screening is intuitive.  You go with your gut on this, mostly. How do they talk to you on the phone?  Are they nice, bossy, demanding, already negotiating about the rent?  True character shines through in those first phone conversations.  These are some of the questions I like to ask:

When are you looking to move in?
Why are you moving?
How many people will be living in the rental?
Where do you work?

Though we use a screening company to verify employment, credit, landlord history, etc, we don’t always go with their suggestions.  Screening companies are good for providing information though (b/c sometimes your gut is wrong).  We’ve gone with a person that the screening company recommended and not had the best experience and we’ve gone with a person that the screening company didn’t recommend and they turned out the be great tenants.  It’s important to take the screening companies advice and combine it with what your gut tells you.

The screening company is great at digging up information that you might not have access to so I still recommend using them.  And the screening company has their own rental applications, etc so you don’t have to worry about coming up with your own (not that it’s that hard, but just another plus). We use Credit Verification, LLC: http://www.creditverification.com/  The application fee is $55 for singles and $65 for a married couple – you need to have them pay you the application fee up front when they fill out the application.

Note: If you do decide to do the screening yourself and not use a screening company, then I highly recommend that you have access to CaseNet – this reports any previous landlord judgements or actions. This has saved us tremendously from bad tenants!

I also like this article on screening tenants:
http://www.reiclub.com/articles/lease-to-jerk

Have qualifications for the tenant. These are some of ours:
1.) Tenant should have a gross income that is 3 x rent.
2.) Credit score > 600, preferably – some exceptions can be made based on situation.
3.) Good debt to income ratio.
4.) Good rental history – current and previous landlord (beware of them using a friend as a landlord – there are ways to check this out).
5.) Let them know that you use a screening company, if you do.
6.) No cats or dogs. (we don’t allow pets b/c of the smell that lingers sometimes)
7.) No smoking.

Usually a tenant that you don’t have a good gut feeling about will fail one of these qualifications.  But sometimes a tenant fails one of these qualifications (credit score, for example), but you still want to take a chance on them b/c they seem like they have good character.  I usually don’t overlook the rental history though – that rule is hard and fast – we don’t want any drama.  :-/

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