5:10pm. Ten minutes late. Noted.
Car looks pretty beat up. Noted.
Two dogs barking like crazy in the car. Noted.
The husband tosses his cigarette on the freshly swept driveway as they step out of the car… Noted…
We start talking… They’re between jobs and getting kicked out of their current place for some “unknown” reason and need a new place pronto… Noted?
Wait! Why I am here? Why did I clearly waste my time driving over to meet with them when they clearly do NOT meet my screening criteria?
Oh yeah. It’s because I didn’t ask any questions on the phone before agreeing to meet with them…
Don’t be this person.
Screening Starts On The Phone
When someone responds to your ad, it usually starts with, “Hi. I saw your ad on Craigslist and would like to set up an appointment to view the rental.” Our ads are fairly detailed, so people know a lot about the unit and are ready to do a walk-thru. Here’s how to write a great ad on Craigslist.
If you only set up a time to meet, you risk the scenario above. Instead, you want to respond with, “Fantastic. I would love to set up a time. Would it be OK if I ask you some questions first?” Usually they agree. “Great. We have some screening questions that we ask everyone to see if they qualify. The first is…”
Then go into your pre-screening questions. Take your time and get to know them. It’s better to spend 15 minutes on the phone to find out they’re not a match than 5 minutes at the property… and then another 20 while they walk around (not to mention the time spent driving to the property). It’s rare someone gets annoyed talking for 10-15 minutes on the phone. Remember, they called you because they liked what they saw in the ad.
Pre-Screening Questions To Ask
You could only ask basic screening questions like, “Do you make 3x the rent?” But that won’t be super helpful. Instead ask more generally:
- What’s the combined income of all applicants before taxes?
It’s harder to lie when they don’t know the answer ahead of time. Then follow up with…
- What’s the source of that income?
- How long have you had those jobs?
- Will you be able to pay all move-in costs?
Boom. Now you know a whole lot about their financial situation and whether or not they meet your screening criteria. Then ask about their credit history:
- How would you describe your credit history?
- If it’s bad, what steps have you taken to improve it?
- Do you currently owe money to anyone?
Having a large income is great. But if their expenses are huge (and they don’t pay them!), it doesn’t matter. I also ask about the criminal history:
- Is there anything I should be aware of on a background check? If yes, explain.
Typically they’ll offer this up at the beginning of the call if there is something, but it’s good to explicitly ask and get their answer on record. Also ask:
- How may people will be living in the rental?
- Do you have any pets or animals?
- Does anyone smoke? If they say yes, it’s usually quickly followed by “but only outside”. You need to decide from your criteria ahead of time what you’ll allow.
From here I like to dive into what they’re specifically looking for.
- Why are you looking to move?
- How long have you lived at your current place?
- What’s wrong, if anything, with your current place?
- What features are important to you?
- Do you keep your home clean? How?
- When do you plan to move?
- How long do you plan to stay?
I know it’s a lot of questions, but these questions give you a solid idea about their plans. If you can, try to keep it conversational and you’ll find the questions go by quickly. Then ask about their rental history before finishing up the call.
- Have you rented before?
- If yes, what kind of recommendation would your previous landlord give you?
- Have you ever received any notices? You might need to prompt them: like late payments? Too much noise? etc?
- Has a landlord ever asked you to move out?
And finally, I give them a chance to run the conversation:
- Do you have any questions for me?
By this point, both of us have a good idea of whether or not they would qualify. That’s because I give feedback during the questions. For example, if someone says they smoke, I let them know it’s a smoke free building and we don’t rent to smokers. They’re free to apply, but their application will be denied. If someone has no income, I’ll give a similar line.
Stick with your criteria. If it’s clear someone won’t qualify, let them know. Offer to let them apply, but be honest. That way they don’t get their hopes up and neither of you waste your time.
Show Interest In Their Answers and Follow-Up For Clarity
As part of the S.O.L.I.D. Screening Method (Systematic, Objective, Lawful, Interested, Discerning) after you ask each pre-screening question Systematically, be Interested in their answer. That means you need to pay attention and ask follow-up questions. This happened to me recently: I asked the criminal background pre-screening question (“Is there anything I should be aware of on a background check?”) and a lady said, “Well, I have a record because I shoplifted 4 years ago and I’m in recovery now.”
If you’re interested in what she said, you’ll notice this seems strange. 4 years in recovery for shoplifting? That seems abnormal.
ME: “Really? That must have been some crazy shoplifting to be in recovery that long. How does that work?” I’m attempting to dig deeper. I’m not necessarily trying to catch her in a lie. I’m just trying to better understand her situation.
HER: “Oh no. Shoplifting and ‘in recovery’ are two separate things. I shoplifted 4 years ago and am also in recovery for drug use.” Apparently ‘in recovery’ is the socially acceptable way to say ‘I used to take drugs.’ I didn’t know that until this conversation.
It’s a good thing I showed interest and wanted to learn more. A record for shoplift four years ago is one thing. Drug use is a whole different issue.
By the way, let’s say it really was only shoplifting on her background. I would ask further follow-up questions: What kind of items did you take? How often? What is the recovery process like? What systems do you have in place today to hold yourself accountable? I get that nobody’s perfect and if she could demonstrate that she’s genuinely changed, I’m OK with that. Be Interested and dig deeper.
Phone Questions Download
That was a lot of pre-screening questions! Wouldn’t it be nice to have all of them on a single sheet that you can print and fill out during each phone call? Yes. Yes it would. Well… it just so happens I have exactly that. You can download, for free, the pre-screening phone questions I use. Check out the video where I walk you through the document and click the link below to download it.