How landlords can ask prospective tenants the right questions

Landlords quite naturally want to learn as much about a prospective new tenant as possible. However, you need to be careful as to what questions you ask.

As specialist property solicitors, we hope that this post can help steer a landlord’s questions tactfully in the right direction. While this post is largely aimed at residential landlords and tenants, many of the questions and certainly the approach could be used for commercial landlords too too, especially small business landlords.

It might be a bit of an understatement, but being a landlord at this time comes with its fair share of risks as a business venture. The biggest risk though is in finding the right tenant.

What are you looking for in an ideal tenant?

Most landlords are simply looking for a tenant who is going to repeat the property, look after it and pay their rent on time.

The driver for this maybe the basis upon which you, as a landlord acquired the property and what you aspirations are in this field. For instance, maybe you acquired through inheritance and, rather than sell it, want to see a return. As part of your family’s ‘estate’, perhaps even your child-hood home, you want it to be respected. Or, you may have decided that now is the right time to explore buy-to-let. In which case, you will have a mortgage to pay and so regular payments are essential.

The point is, at some level, it is personal to you and should things go wrong, the costs (to varying degrees) will be yours to bear.

To kick off your search, write down the criteria you think your prospective tenant should fulfil. These might include the following:

  1. A good tenant track record
  2. A solid job, steady employment history
  3. An income that is a good multiple of the monthly rent
  4. A good credit score
  5. A stable lifestyle
  6. Pets / no pets?
  7. Good employer references

It helps to have a good dose of realism too. Naturally, if you are too picky, you may never find the right tenant, so tradeoffs are inevitable, but it is something that should be thought through carefully and examined in detail.

What kind of questions should you not ask a prospective tenant?

If you are a naturally chatty or inquisitive person, you’ll probably want to engage your prospective tenant in a casual and friendly manner, rather than in a more formal manner kind to a job interview.

Doing so though, it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking questions that are taboo or grey areas, even though quite innocently. This may put make the prospect somewhat sensitive and suspicious. After all, at this point, you don’t really know them or what they may be hiding, especially as property fraud is a very real problem in today’s markets.

So here are some recommended areas to stay away from:

1. Avoid asking questions about a tenant’s place of birth, as these can be viewed as discriminatory.

2. Don’t ask if a tenant has kids.

3. Avoid questions that hide their real intent, such as asking about local amenity needs – e.g. churches, mosques, etc.

4. Don’t ask about criminal convictions

5. Marital status

6. Age-related questions

7. Disability needs

8. Direct questions regarding your cash situation

9. Service animals

Many of these, such as enquiring about service animals, look like legitimate questions, however, they could be viewed as discriminatory.

So, what are the right questions and how should I ask them?

It’s not what they say, it’s what they don’t say that can give you the clues you need and insights into whether they will be a good tenant.

While still be somewhat guarded, honest tenants will want to help you come to the right decision in your decision quest to find a tenant. They will want to display a level of ‘openness’ to help show you who they are. Therefore, any prospect that appears over defensive and seems reluctant to engage in conversation is probably one you should avoid.

One way to get a good insight is by getting a prospective tenant to talk about themselves and their circumstances openly. Invite them to tell you about themselves. Ideally, as a landlord and if you are managing the property yourself, you need to have a friendly working relationship with your tenant. When information is offered openly you may avoid many awkward questions. It shows a level of engagement that may be important in maintaining a good working relationship.

Overly-talkative people though could signal another danger. Although they may be naturally talkative, it can be a warning sign, as they may be trying to cover something up by trying to give you too much somewhat irrelevant information.

What conversation trigger questions could I use?

Any prospective tenant is going to expect the landlord to ask some challenging questions – it’s only natural.

Showing genuine interest and being openly honest about your intentions is always the best policy. If you don’t behave this way, it invites a similar approach by the prospective tenant. Typically, these are ‘open questions’. Questions that can’t be answered with a yes or no, tend to prompt the prospect into talking about themselves. Also, try to about questions that start with ‘why’. Why? Because it naturally suggests you are asking the person to justify themselves and tend to confer an element of negativity in the question. We’d suggest trying the following open questions:

  1. What is your ideal rental? Continue the questions about themselves.
  2. What has prompted your move? Break the ice and get them talking about themselves.
  3. How familiar are you familiar with this area? Here, you are looking to get an insight as to whether they have roots in the area, such as family and friends that may help understand if they will stick around.
  4. What has attracted you to this area? Many things about your area may give insights into the prospect’s lifestyle that may be desirable or less so.
  5. What other properties have you viewed and how many more are you likely to see before making a decision? Are these genuine renters and are they likely to just be a waste of time.
  6. How long have you been renting for? Are they a long-term renter or is this to see them through until they purchase. Are you as a landlord looking for long-term renters.
  7. How are you finding the levels of rents in the local area? This may uncover more about their suitability and ability to afford your property long term.
  8. Tell me a little about the type of work you do? Do you enjoy it? A happy employee is a stable employee, at least from their perspective. Once you know who their employer is, something you’ll need anyway for references, you can check with Company House to get an idea of size and relative stability. You can also do a Google search on the company to see if there is any negative news on it.

Here are a few more questions that are a little more direct but perfectly legitimate include:

  1. How long are you looking to rent for?
  2. Where do you work?
  3. Will your previous landlord provide a written reference?
  4. Will your employer provide a reference?
  5. Have you ever broken a rental agreement?
  6. What is your income?

Lasting relations are built on good intentions and honest actions.

Just as you are looking for the right tenant, prospective tenants are looking for the right landlord. There are too many horror stories out there about unscrupulous landlords and bad tenants.

Remember too, that the tenant needs to be comfortable too and will want to ask you questions about the tenancy and what they can expect from you, such as keeping the place a safe and pleasant place to live, especially if they have children.

So, when interviewing a prospective tenant, maintain a balanced and open approach to the meeting. Take care in answering the prospect’s questions with the same level of attention as you would like given to your own questions answered.

For all your landlord and tenancy agreement needs and concerns, feel free to call Foys and discuss how we can assist.

This post is not legal advice and should not replace professional advice tailored to your specific circumstances. It is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues. Also, please note that although we may use the word solicitor, your case could be carried out by a legal advisor, legal executive or paralegal depending on the nature of the case.

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