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Tenant Screening 101: A Guide to Finding and Keeping Great Tenants

The best way to find a good tenant is to retain the good tenant you already have. That said, I know that you can’t always control how long a good tenant stays. I’ve had experience being both a landlord and a tenant, as well as founded my own tenant screening company. Through these experiences I’ve gathered a few useful best practices you can employ during your next renter search to be well on your way to eliminating bad tenants.

1. Create a Game Plan

Before you write your ad or start meeting potential renters, you need to create a game plan for your property. This will force yourself to answer some key questions about what your expectations are and what kind of tenant you want.

Key Questions to Ask Yourself

  • How much rent CAN I charge for this unit? Price the property according to the market value. Start a little bit higher, you can always negotiate down.
  • How much rent SHOULD I charge for this unit? Sometimes getting the most rent money out of a property actually costs you more in the long run. Good/long term tenants may not be able to afford rent increases.
  • What is the vacancy rate of the market? Knowing how tight the rental market is gives you an idea of how long it will take to find a good tenant, and how picky you can.
  • What are the legal regulations around tenant screening in my region? Make sure you know what you can and cannot ask a potential tenant based on where you live, otherwise you could end up opening yourself up to legal liability.

Establish a reasonable timeline for finding a tenant

Set a reasonable time line where you are not pressured to accept the first tenant that applies. Many landlords want to minimize vacancy time and not lose the rental income. This kind of pressure only leads to brash tenant decisions. Remember: one month without rent is almost always better than a bad tenant.

2. Screen with Your Ad

The way you write your listing can mean the difference between a good and bad tenant. Professional tenants are attracted to certain keywords like “Urgent” or “ASAP” and are able to identify inexperienced landlords by how they post their rental property.

Spend some time to write a good listing will attract quality tenants. This is your business, do a good job.

Take Good Photos

Clear photos that are well lit show what the property is really like, you’ll save time by helping tenants determine if the property is the right fit without having them view the property in person. Well lit, professional photos also send a signal to tenants that the property is well cared for and that the landlord is professional.

Be Accurate and Upfront

Let the tenant know If the property has a few quirks. You don’t want to land a tenant just to have them move out because something isn’t as described.

Use Professional Language

Come across as a professional landlord, even if this is your first rental property. Don’t include your life story in the ad. All they need to understand is that the property is available and you want to rent it out.

Explain Your Expectations for the Application Process

Tell the tenant upfront you will be screening them (pulling a credit report, background check & letter of employment etc.) This will stop most bad tenants in their tracks.

Don’t Negotiate in the Ad

Set your price and stick to it. There will be a time to negotiate the price of rent or the inclusion of utilities but that time is not before you’ve met the tenant in person.

3. Screen Through a Phone Interview

When a tenant expresses interest in your ad, direct them to call you or set up a time for you to call them.

Before the call, make a list of key questions you want to ask. Try to get the tenant to talk about themselves. Remember: bad tenants are more likely to oversell themselves with false information that you can’t verify later on. This helps you spot the red flags when you meet them and review their application information.

Phone Screening Tips:

Steer the Conversation – Make sure you don’t get off track during the call. Learn who the tenant is and to get them to reveal as much about themselves as possible.

Explain Your Expectations – Being direct with what is required will scare many of the high risk tenants off before they apply.

Don’t Negotiate Over the Phone – You’ll be able to negotiate after you know that the tenant is someone you want to rent to.

Let Them Do the Talking – Your life story is not what is important during the phone screening. It’s time for you to gather intelligence on the tenant before you meet them in person.

4. Strategies for the Viewing

If it is possible, the best strategy with setting up viewings is to host an open house on a weeknight so that you can compare all the potential tenants at the same time. If your city has a high vacancy rate, then you probably need to be more flexible.

Tips for the Showing:

Forget What You’ve Heard – There is no one-size-fits-all rule for tenant screening. Removing your bias is the best way to make sure you’re making a good decision based on facts, not on stories you’ve heard.

Don’t Sell, Don’t Negotiate (Still) – Let the tenant decide if the property is right for them. Answer their questions, but don’t force a sale and don’t negotiate. If they ask about price flexibility feel free to simply say “I’m willing to discuss negotiating terms for the right tenant.”

Ask Questions, Be Nosy – While the tenant is walking around the property, casually ask them about themselves, their work, roommates, how they plan to pay rent etc. Get a sense of who they are and let them explain anything that doesn’t make sense to you.

Keep an Open Mind – Your gut is important, but be aware that your biases can lead to bad tenant decisions. Good tenants come in all ages, colours, shapes, and sizes. Don’t let your personal bias rule your business decisions.

5. Use a Great Rental Application

Tips for taking Rental Applications:

Know the Law – Make sure you’re not breaking any laws by asking questions that are considered illegal. Consult with an attorney or a professional property manager before risking a Fair Housing complaint.

Explain the Process – Let the tenant know that you require them to complete the full application, this means no blanks if you’re still using a paper form. Online application forms like Naborly’s requires tenants to fill out all fields or note N/A to make sure their application is Fair Housing Complaint.

6. The Screening Process

I believe the best approach to tenant screening is to use a professional screening service like Naborly to analyze the information the tenant provides. But if you decide to screen them yourself, here are some tips.

Tips for Self-Screening:

Establish a Screening Process and Stick to it – Remember the Game Plan you made at the beginning? Stick to it. Your excitement about getting tenants is understandable, but be diligent through the whole process. Just because you like someone doesn’t mean you can skip their credit check, or proof of income documents.

Verify, Verify, Verify – The simplest place to start is to ask for government issue ID and a supporting piece of Identification.

Ignore Personal References – While references can help make a case for a tenant, your real goal should be to find why you should not rent to them. Come to your own conclusion based on the data, not on the opinion of someone you don’t know.

Trust Your Gut / Sleep On It – If something bothers you even a little bit, trust your gut. Sleep on the decision, and if you still are concerned the next day then you shouldn’t rent to that tenant.

7. The Lease

Once you have someone you want to rent to the final step is signing the lease, and if necessary, a bit of negotiating. The lease is designed to protect you and the tenant, but you can use it to mitigate some of the risk you haven’t been able to remove during your screening process like unplanned property damage or unpaid rent.

Tips for the Lease:

Use a Professional – The lease is an important contract between you and your tenant and you want to make sure it’s well written and legally binding. It’s worth the $150-$250 you will pay a paralegal or lawyer to do it right.

Ask for Deposits – If you are legally allowed to ask for a deposits, make sure you do it. Be it the first and last month rule or first month and a damage deposit , it will help mitigate the risk of the tenant skipping out on the rent.

If applicable, this can include a pet damage deposit so that you can pay for the carpet/air system cleaning after the tenant moves out. You might also want to consider creating a separate pet policy for your rental.

Require Renters Insurance – Make sure the tenant has an insurance policy in place protecting you from their actions, property damage, or any liability issues that may arise during the term of the lease. Make sure they provide you with proof of insurance and ensure that the insurance policy is still being paid every few months.


Remember the best tenants come in different colours, shapes and sizes and sorting out the bad tenants is actually more complicated than it seems. Try to keep your bias in check and follow a strict process for everyone, don’t skip steps because of a good feeling or because you like one applicant more than the others. Do your due diligence, trust you gut, and take your time.

Dylan is the Founder & CEO of Naborly. He purchased his first rental property at the age of 22 and started Naborly after evicting a tenant that cost him over $22,000 in unpaid rent and property damage. Previously, Dylan built and sold two companies in Technology and Finance. He studied Computer Science at the University of British Columbia.

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