Background Checks and References

You can learn a lot about prospective tenants by talking to the people they've listed as job references, personal references, and former landlords. Along with a credit report, this information will help you to determine which of the candidates is the right one for your apartment.

Always double check. Use the telephone book to determine whether the people listed actually live in your community and if the telephone numbers are correct. You want to know how truthful applicants were in filling out the form. (Keep in mind, however, that more and more people rely solely on cell phones or have an unlisted number.)

In addition, members of your local rental property owners association may have compiled a list of prospective tenants in your area who repeatedly cause problems for landlords. Call the office or check the organization's website.

Employment History

Your goal is to find out whether the applicant has enough income to rent your apartment. An employer will often only verify the monthly gross income an employee earns, so ask if the amount reported on the application is accurate. Ask when the applicant started working there and whether she still is employed and verify dates of employment with former employers as well.

This information is available in the Personnel or Human Resources departments of most companies and businesses. Don't forget to write down the name and title of the person who gave you the information and the date and time you called. And before you hang up, ask whether the company would employ the applicant again.

Sometimes applicants ask friends to field calls from prospective landlords. Use your intuition. Listen to how the “employer” answers questions. When she picked up the phone, did you hear the name of the company the applicant allegedly works for? Were responses businesslike or not quite right? What did you hear in the background? If something doesn't ring true, you have reason to question the validity of the information you're getting. Make a note of it.

Anytime you suspect that you're not talking to a bona fide employer, you might double check the business listings in the phone book. If the “company” is located outside your calling area, call information for that city and ask for the company's telephone number.

Some companies will not release information unless they get authorization from their employee. You can mail or fax them a copy of a consent to background check form signed by the applicant when she filled out the rental application. Some books say you can forward a signed copy of the rental application instead of a consent form, but if you do that, be sure to black out confidential information like the prospect's credit card numbers and information about bank accounts.

Previous Landlords

Talking to an applicant's previous landlords will tell you a lot about the applicant you're considering. If they didn't have problems with the tenant, you probably won't either. The information you need is:

  • When the tenant moved in and moved out

  • Whether the tenant was prompt in paying rent

  • Whether the tenant was considerate of neighbors

  • Whether the tenant had pets (and whether the pets caused problems)

  • Whether the tenant gave the required notice

  • Whether the unit was left in good condition

  • Whether the security deposit was used to repair damage

Before you hang up, ask if the landlord has anything to add and if he would rent to that tenant again. The answer to this question may be more revealing than anything else the former landlord said.


Checking references can be tricky. Nothing bars an applicant from listing close friends or relatives. You want to know how long the reference has known the applicant. Ask “Would you recommend this person as a prospective tenant?” Then follow it up with “Why?” Take notes on their replies and, again, use your intuition. Did that person sound truthful?

Always take notes: write down the name of the applicant and what unit he wants to rent if you have more than one. Get the names and titles of people you talk to. Make a file for each applicant that contains the rental application and credit report. Don't throw anything away.


When you see shaky credit reports, you may want to check with the bank(s) listed to find out whether the applicant actually has an account there. Banks only verify that a person does have an account with them, and you will be expected to provide a signed release before they give you even that scant information. Fewer landlords ask for account information because of increasing concern about identity theft today. Talk to your professional organization to find out what they recommend.

Court Records

It's possible to get information about your applicants from court records. Bankruptcies are usually listed on credit reports, but you can also get information through the state court. Landlord-tenant records and lawsuits pertaining to collections or eviction will be held at your local district courthouse. You can expect to pay a fee whenever you check court records. If you do this, however, don't check only one individual. Look for records on everyone you're considering.

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