Applying to rent can feel like a job interview sometimes. And like a job interview, it helps to prep for it, so you’re not caught off guard. And if you’re a landlord, it helps to ask certain questions so you know if you found the right candidate. Here are some common questions landlords ask, and why.
Money questions landlords ask
A lot of questions landlords will ask have something to do with money. It makes sense. It’s a monetary commitment and a rather large one. While the landlord probably is making a profit off the transaction, there are expenses involved with owning a rental property, and paying those does depend on the rent arriving reliably.
Do you make $x per week or month?
The most important question landlords ask is how much money you make per week. And the right answer is equal to or greater than the rent. If the place rents for $900, life goes much better for both of you if you make at least $900 a week.
The IRS recommends not spending more than 30% of your income on housing. They have way more data than I have, but I can tell you from my experience running applications that the vast majority of people who overspend on housing fall behind on their rent or mortgage. I’m sure they have good intentions. But the consequences of falling behind on the electric bill or not buying enough groceries are more immediate.
Notice that the guideline works out to more than the IRS guideline. That’s because the math is easier. Many people get paid weekly, or twice a month, so they can estimate what they make every week more easily than they can figure 30 percent. Some people underestimate their weekly income, so here’s how to calculate it in advance.
This shouldn’t be a gotcha question. Here’s some guidance on figuring out what you can afford, rent-wise.
Can you provide two recent paystubs?
A landlord will want to see two recent paystubs. This verifies you make what you say you make, and also serves as evidence you have a job. I don’t insist that it’s the two most recent paystubs, but I do want to see two, and I want one of them to be pretty recent. This is pretty standard, so, when you go to view a property, if you think you’re going to want to apply, have a couple of pay stubs in the car.
Have you recently filed for bankruptcy?
This is another question landlords ask that can make people nervous. Be honest. If it’s a medical bankruptcy, that’s not terribly unusual. Even if it’s a nonmedical bankruptcy, it will come up in your background check. If you make enough money to afford the house, have a budget and stick to it, I can live with an imperfect financial past.
As a landlord, when I see an applicant’s credit report, I can see who they owe money to. It tells a story. My tenants whose major debt is a car payment and student loans do well. When people owe a lot of money on things that one could deem non-essential, and they’re behind on those payments, they tend not to do as well.
I had more than one tenant who lost their homes in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. I rented to them as long as their credit report matched the financial story they told and it was clear they could afford the house. All of them eventually ended up buying a home again. I’m happy for them.
Can you afford to pay the application fee?
Costs can vary, but it can cost a landlord $100 to run a background check. It’s not uncommon to credit that amount toward the first month’s rent and call it a cost of doing business, but getting that cost up front keeps people honest. The landlord can’t necessarily afford to front that cost for everyone. But it also reveals problem candidates. For example, I once asked this question, and the candidate had a relative two states away mail me a check for the application fee. She worked at a fast-casual restaurant and he was an unemployed personal trainer. I didn’t have to run their background check to see this wasn’t going to work. I mailed the check back.
Will you be able to pay the security deposit when you sign the lease?
I take pride in how much of the security deposit I usually can give back. But move-in is one of the times damage is most likely to occur. And if a candidate can’t pay the deposit at signing, that’s frequently a sign that they might not have money for rent every month either.
Could anything interrupt your ability to pay rent?
This isn’t intended to be a gotcha question. More often than not, the answer is yes. But what the candidate says besides yes can separate a good candidate from a great one. I’m more interested in the candidate’s reaction than I am in the answer in the end. It shows the person’s problem-solving ability, and I can tell you from experience that some of my tenants had better problem solving abilities than others.
Reference-related questions landlords ask
Landlords can ascertain a surprising amount from talking to you as they show you around the house, but there’s a lot they don’t know until they talk to your employer, previous landlord(s), and/or other references.
Where do you work?
This isn’t a gotcha question either. If you work five minutes away, you’re probably going to stay a while. If you work an hour away, you might get tired of that and look for housing closer to where you work. In some parts of the country, especially along the eastern seaboard, long commutes are normal so this isn’t much of a consideration. But in the midwest, I haven’t had good luck retaining tenants with long commutes. Unless they have some other reason they really want to live in a particular area, they tend to leave because it can be easier to find a home closer to work than a job closer to where they live. And I get it. Why would they want to give up their seniority over a house they don’t own?
May I contact your employer?
Closely related to the previous question, a prospective landlord will probably want to contact your employer. Of course the employer can’t answer a lot of questions, but they can answer basic questions like how long you’ve worked there and whether you’ve been promoted. And I’ve had employers volunteer information they didn’t have to that reflected well on the prospect. One time when I contacted an employer, the employer wrote “She is very trustworthy” on the form I sent. That carried a lot of weight with me, because most employers don’t do that. Guess what? She became my longest tenured tenant, and probably my best.
Even when the employer doesn’t say much, a landlord can infer a lot from that and from talking to you. If you’ve worked someplace a long time, that reflects well on you. But the opposite can also be true. If you just got a new job, that can reflect just as well on you, especially if you got a big raise.
Landlords want stability, and talking to your employer is a good way to gauge your stability.
Have you ever been convicted of a relevant crime?
Don’t be surprised if a landlord asks this question, and be sure to answer honestly. The landlord probably will pull your criminal record, and if it doesn’t match, don’t expect to get approved. Being convicted isn’t an automatic showstopper, so it’s important to be honest.
Keep in mind a landlord isn’t looking for perfection. I once rented to a doctor. Of course he was a good tenant. He paid the rent on time, had an amazing credit rating and no criminal history and behaved like the professional he was and is. But he left after two years because his residency was over and he got a permanent job. I knew that going in.
Why are you looking to move?
This is an important question for landlords to ask. Don’t be scared of this question, just answer honestly. There must be hundreds of right answers. Some examples of good answers I’ve heard are needing to be closer to work, or wanting to live in this particular school district.
This can lead to other questions.
Can we contact your current landlord?
Of course, if you’re currently not renting, this isn’t possible. And that’s a perfectly good answer. What concerns me is if someone is renting currently, and doesn’t want me to talk to the current landlord. Now, maybe you don’t want to tip off to your current landlord that you’re looking, and that’s something I can understand. If that’s the case, I’d like to be able to talk to your previous landlord.
Usually this is a straightforward conversation. As a landlord, I want it to be a boring conversation saying you lived there a while, paid the rent reliably, and didn’t make a mess of the place.
Have you ever been evicted?
There are any number of ways to phrase this question, and perhaps a less aggressive version of this question is whether you’ve ever had any problems with a previous landlord.
These situations can vary. I’ve talked to people whose landlords are selling the place. They may or may not be happy about that, and that’s completely understandable. I’ve talked to people whose landlords didn’t keep the place up. That’s also completely understandable.
I once had a prospect who had nothing good to say about her current landlord. I talked to the landlord, and he wasn’t exactly happy with her either. Someone in the household had burned the kitchen down, and he was evicting the family. Her story didn’t match his, though enough details lined up that I could tell they were speaking of the same incident. About all I can say is the landlord had less reason to be lying than she did.
Have you ever broken a lease agreement?
Sometimes there are reasons to break a lease, so this isn’t necessarily a showstopper. But there needs to be a good reason for it, and repeat offenses can be a real problem.
Questions about moving a landlord may ask
Lots of the questions a landlord will ask center around how long you’ve lived at your current place, and how soon you’re looking to move.
How long have you lived at your current residence?
Longer is better in this case, but there are situations beyond your control. You can’t have much of a history if you’re 22, and a reasonable landlord will take that into account. But someone who’s lived in the same place for a long time tends to be a good candidate, as long as everything else checks out.
How soon are you looking to move in?
This question helps a landlord plan. Six months from now isn’t a good answer. If the property is vacant, the landlord is looking to get someone in pretty quickly. Tomorrow is also not a good answer. If you’re in that big of a hurry to move in, something’s wrong. That sounds unstable.
Other questions a landlord may ask
Some questions don’t fall into any particular category, but the answers can still be very important.
Do you have pets?
This one’s controversial, but it can be a problem. One afternoon, I started getting phone calls at work from people who live near one of my properties. My tenant’s dog had gotten loose and attacked one of the neighbors.
As a landlord, I don’t want these kinds of problems. I know I’ll get 100 comments saying there are no bad dogs, just bad owners. You can buy properties and rent to whoever you want then. That’s your prerogative. I have to get along with the people who own homes near my properties, and they don’t like aggressive dogs in their neighborhood.
As a landlord, I also want to see it be a reasonable number. It gets chaotic when you have more than about three pets.
I’ve also had dog owners complain that I charge more if you have pets. That’s because dogs and cats do more damage. I know, I haven’t met your pets. But I’ve met mine, and I’ve seen my properties after pet owners move out. There’s always more to fix after pet owners leave than after people without pets leave.
There also may be municipal or HOA restrictions in place. Some areas that look way too old to have a HOA still have one.
How many people will live with you?
This is a safety issue. When the landlord gets an occupancy permit, the house is approved for a certain number of people. Municipalities allow people to double up on bedrooms, to an extent. It’s based mostly on the size and placement of the rooms. Not every room that you can put a bed in can serve as a legal bedroom. I once bought a house whose master bedroom couldn’t serve as a legal bedroom because the window was too small. In the event of a fire, a firefighter needs to be able to get into the window with an oxygen tank, and, ideally, be able to be carrying someone while doing so.
If it’s not possible for some reason to retrofit a window that size into a particular room, that room can’t be a bedroom. I have seen homes that looked like a three-bedroom home but it’s really two bedrooms and an office because one of the rooms doesn’t have any windows.
How many parking spots will you need?
This is somewhat related to how many people will live with you. The usual answer is one car per person of driving age of course. Some people work on cars for a hobby. There are a couple of rentals near me with large detached garages where the tenants do exactly that. And those houses always attract that kind of tenant.
Some landlords seem to specialize in renting to car hobbyists. Some landlords avoid them.
Do you or does anyone who will live with you smoke?
This is an unpopular question, but many people are sensitive to tobacco. It’s expensive to eradicate cigarette smoke from a house after someone has been smoking in it, and the smell of smoke will deter potential future renters. Smoking may not be a showstopper, but don’t be surprised if it raises the rent.
Do you have any questions for me?
This is a catch-all question to end the interview with. Sometimes the answer is no. But this gives the candidate a chance to ask any questions they may have for you. If they have any questions at all, it’s usually something about the grocery store, or if there are any parks nearby, or if I know which day trash pickup is.
There has been a time or two a candidate asked me something bizarre, and it’s better to get that out of the way immediately rather than after you sign a lease.