I have a residential rental unit standing empty now; the last tenant – the first I'd signed myself since buying the place – turned out bad. Thankfully, not in the tear-the-place-up sense, but rather, in the get-themselves-fired-can't-find-another-job-despite-plenty-available-no-more-rent sense.

What are some things I could ask for on the rental application to help me to better choose a tenant? Are there red flags I can look for that signal their employment isn't stable?

I'm already asking for the obvious stuff on the app — income & place of employment, current and previous residences and landlords.

  • Added tag USA, as both customary and legal-to-ask questions will likely vary by location.
    – sdg
    Jan 5, 2012 at 1:02

4 Answers 4


I'd suggest you run a credit check on the new tenant. If you reject based on this, they have little to argue as this is an objective number. It's no guarantee, but a high credit score says a lot.

Edit - I added a chart in response to your last comment. You can be as choosy as you wish, the request for credit check is to weed out the potential disasters more than to find a golden 800 score. I agree with Rob, a 650-700 cutoff would give you the top 1/2 - 1/3 of potential applicants.

credit scores

  • 1
    What would you suggest I look for as a minimum score?
    – Patches
    Jan 5, 2012 at 3:35
  • @Patches - Depending on the agency 660+ will put them in the good or above categories.
    – anonymous
    Jan 9, 2012 at 13:03
  • edited my response Jan 9, 2012 at 15:02

I'd be very careful about trying to "determine their income is stable" period, because that's a subjective standard and can open you to legal problems. You need to stick to quantifiable, objective standards that are applied equally to all possible tenants and that don't unfairly favor one class status over another.

The answer about length of employment is problematic and in some places, might be illegal. In DC, for example, you can't choose someone over another simply because they've been at their job longer because that's a type of employment-based discrimination. What about actors who work for a different production company every few months? Writers who are self-employed? People who have independent funds and don't have to work? Students?

Even credit-checks can run into problems, though they're not a bad idea as one criteria among many. It shouldn't be your sole factor because young renters might have low credit scores because they have a shorter credit history. If you continually choose older renters with higher credit scores over younger renters you might be de facto discriminating based on age, which is a protected class if the only thing different between the scores is the length of time they've had access to credit. If you use a credit score, set it very low for outright rejection, and then have another, higher standard whereby you require the lease be co-signed with someone with a better score or charge a higher security deposit, if your state allows that.

What you can usually safely do is require that the tenant demonstrate a certain level of monthly income, say 3x the monthly rent. That's been the standard I've seen and I've rented six different apartments in three states over the last years. In many places, you can't favor one source of income over another (ie, a stable job vs. social security benefits vs. trust fund vs. savings vs. self-employment income).

  • +1 for highlighting the legal complexities around how you choose to rent to people. You know, there doesn't seem to be an easy answer to this question.
    – Patches
    Mar 1, 2012 at 0:08

You can ask how long they've worked somewhere, and only rent to people who have been working the same job for a longer period.

  • "only rent to people who have been working the same job for a long period" -- I consider this a terrible idea. You can ask how long they've been at a job, and if they recently changed, call the old supervisor to find out whether they were welcome to stay, but don't assume changing jobs = fired.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 7, 2012 at 5:16
  • Ben, that is not what exactly I meant. I have seen a number of layoffs over the past few years, often under the last-hired first-fired principle. If someone is working a job for a few years, they are more likely to be in a stable job.
    – MattMcA
    Jan 7, 2012 at 19:24
  • 1
    For that, you need to assess the financial situation of the employer, not the employee. Still, an employee who can find a job in a scarce economic environment has a better shot at finding a new one if the company downsizes, than someone who hasn't updated their resume in a decade. And companies who follow "last-hired first-fired" are right on track to shutting their doors and firing everyone. The companies that do well are the ones who eliminate dead weight during downsizing, not the candidates who met the most current needs.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 7, 2012 at 22:34
  • How do you handle prospective tenants who are relocating for work?
    – anonymous
    Jan 9, 2012 at 13:04

This is a though question to answer as different states can have different standards as to what is and is not a legal question to ask a prospective tenant. Generally most states have standard lease application form that you can use that can provide you with pretty much all of the standard legal questions that you can ask.

In terms of establishing payment stability (as income stability is hard to establish), a credit check is likely to be your best option and it depends on the agency, but usually a credit rating of 660 or higher will correspond to good or higher credit. That said though, there are a lot of traps you can fall into by only going off of the credit report as someone could have a low credit report because they don't use much credit but actually be a very good tenant.

Another issue that you might want to take into account is that depending upon what someone does for a living, they income might not be stable, but it might not be an issue. For example, engineers that are contractors or consultants may not want to work the entire year which limits their month to month income, but they may have enough income when they are working that they can cover all of their obligations for the year.

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