Let’s discuss one of the most avoided topics in tenant screening… renter references.

You’re in the minority as a landlord or property manager if you’re calling your renter references because a lot of people just skip this step entirely.

They chalk it up to “it’s a waste of time.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth…

… in the past four years at RentPrep, we’ve made over 61,500 tenant verification calls as part of our Platinum Screening service. We call these renter references on behalf of our landlord and property manager clients.

To clarify, we’re talking about the phone calls you make to the references your tenant applicant provides you. For example… their past landlord or current employer.

We’d suggest looking at questions to ask your renter if you’re looking for a list of questions to ask your tenant directly.

Will there be fake renter references?

Absolutely!

Will the occasional landlord not give you the full scoop because they’re trying to unload a problematic tenant?

You betcha!

But… there are tactics we will share with you to spot the fakes and pull out the crucial information you need.

We’ve found the three most important renter references (in order of importance) to be the following:

  1. Previous Landlord
  2. Current Employer
  3. Current Landlord

We do suggest calling to confirm contact details for personal references (in case of emergencies) but we don’t put a lot of importance on their opinion of the applicant since they are personal friends and family.

As you scroll down in this post you’ll see three mock phone calls where we show you how to call each one of these renter references.

How to call tenant references

We created these videos because many landlords have “phonophobia” when it comes to calling tenant references.

Our hope is to remove the anxiety by letting you follow along with Steve as he calls a previous landlord, current employer, and the current landlord.

Below is a clickable list of content that will be discussed in this post.

A table of contents for renter references:

A word of caution before we begin.

Be sure you have proper written authorization from your tenant applicant to make these calls. This authorization typically is included on the rental application.

On the RentPrep renter application, the verbiage is on the back and includes a line that says “I authorize the release of information from previous or current landlords, employers, and bank representatives.”

Without written consent, a landlord could be in violation of the laws laid out by the FCRA.

What are renter references?

Renter references are the contacts a tenant applicant provides on their rental application. These will typically include the current landlord, previous landlord, current employer, emergency contact, and personal references. You will want to call most of these references to confirm the accuracy of the application and to identify any red flags.

List of landlord reference questions

Here’s a quick list of landlord reference questions to ask your renter references.

Current Landlord Questions

  • Are you currently renting to this tenant
  • Has he paid on time?
  • Has there ever been any neighbor complaints or noise complaints on file?
  • Do you know when he moved in?
  • When does that lease end?
  • What’s the monthly rent amount he’s paying?
  • What’s the address he’s renting from?
  • What’s the zip code?
  • Would you rent to him again?

Previous Landlord Questions

  • Did you formally rent to this tenant
  • Did he pay on time?
  • Was there ever any neighbor complaints or noise complaints on file?
  • Do you know when he moved in and out?
  • How much was he paying for rent?
  • What’s the address?
  • Was he evicted from the property?
  • Would you rent to him again?
  • Were there any pets at the property while he was staying there?

Current employer questions

  • Is this the tenant’s current employer?
  • Is he full-time or part-time?
  • What was the hire date?
  • What’s his position there?
  • What is his hourly or annual salary?

Employer references will be split on if they will provide salary information or not.

Some will ask for a copy of the authorization form before speaking with you.

We will cover this in more detail later on in the post.

Questions to ask the current employer

This is an important call because you’ll want to verify they’re employed and will be able to afford your rental.

This phone call is a good step to verify that the applicant passes your rent to income ratio. Most landlords require that a renter make 2.5 to 3 times the monthly rent.

So if your rental is $1,000 a month you’ll want to call the current employer to verify that they’re making at least $3,000 monthly (assuming a 3x rent to income ratio).

You may also want to consider asking for pay stubs or a 90-day bank statement from an applicant. We’ve found about half of employers are unwilling to release this information.

We covered the questions to ask the current employer above but this video will break down a typical employer reference check.

Steve mentions our RentPrep rental application that you can download for free.

Here are the questions he asks in the video above:

  • Can I speak with Tony the supervisor?
  • Can I have your name please (HR)
  • Is this the current employer?
  • Is he full-time or part-time?
  • What is the hire date?
  • What’s his position there?
  • What is his hourly or annual salary?
  • How do you prefer I send you the signed rental application?
  • Do I need to send that to attention to anyone?
  • Do you require any other type of form I need to fill out?
  • When will you be able to get that back to me?
  • I emailed you yesterday a release and wondering if we could complete the verification over the phone now?
  • What is the salary?

Questions to ask previous landlord reference

Here’s Steve White (CEO of RentPrep) doing a mock call to a previous landlord.

In this video, Steve is calling a previous landlord that is a property manager.

Here are the questions Steve asked in the video above:

  • Hi, I’m calling to verify the residence of Regan Smith
  • He/she filled out an application and listed you as a previous landlord. Can I ask you a few questions?
  • Was he/she a responsible party on the lease?
  • Can you tell me when they moved in? (loaded question)
  • When was the move out date? (loaded question)
  • While (applicant name) was there did he/she pay rent on time?
  • Were there any neighbor complaints or noise complaints on file?
  • Was the tenant evicted?
  • Can you verify the rental address that they were staying at? (loaded question)
  • Overall, would you rent to this person again?
  • What was the monthly rent amount they paid? (loaded question)
  • Did that include utilities?
  • Were there any pets at the property while they were staying there?

The questions labeled “loaded question” are intentional to make sure that the person on the phone knows all the details.

You want to use these questions to verify they are the actual property manager or former landlord.

In the next video, we show you how to call a current lanlord. This is very similar to the video above but in this case, we will show an example when the current landlord is a private landlord and how that call may go.

Calling the current landlord

Here are the questions Steve asked to the current landlord who is a private landlord:

  • Hi, is this John Drake?
  • Are you currently renting to Regan?
  • Has he paid on time?
  • Has there ever been any neighbor complaints or noise complaints on file?
  • Do you know when Regan moved in?
  • Regan is still there correct?
  • When does that lease end?
  • What’s the monthly rent amount he’s paying?
  • What’s the address he’s renting from?
  • What’s the zip code?
  • Would you rent to Regan again?

Make sure your applicant is aware you will be calling their current landlord. You don’t want to be the one to break the news that they’re moving.

Be sure to ask when the current lease ends as you’ll want to know if they completed their lease or not. If not, why did they break the lease?

This information can help you uncover potential issues you didn’t know existed.

If you’re a landlord who doesn’t like the phone-tag hassles of making verification calls, we can do that for you.

In our Platinum Package we will call the current landlord, previous landlord, and current employer and leave detailed notes in your report.

How to spot a fake landlord ref

There is some investigative work you can do upfront to spot a fake landlord ref.

Let’s first start by using the previous landlord ref

Questions to ask tenant references

This is a screenshot from our rental application and that’s a real address. It’s a two-unit rental that I own in the city of Buffalo.

First things first… it looks like this person only lived there for four months. That’s going to be a question we want answers to when you call the landlord.

Before we call let’s verify who owns that property.

Start off by searching your town + “property records” like this:

How to spot a fake landlord reference

The first listing is the public property records provided by the county website.

The next screen looks like this.

What does S-B-L mean on property records

I’ve highlighted S-B-L because that’s the Section, Block, Lot and is the most accurate way to find a property record.

This is also known as the parcel number. An easy way to find this is to type your address into Zillow and do a quick search on the page for “parcel” and you’ll find this number. It should be located in the drop-down menu titled “Facts and Features.”

The parcel number is 140200785616 for this property.

Not to get too far into the weeds but the JTWROS stands for “joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.” In my case this was my first property purchase and at 23 I didn’t have the credit I needed and I had to have a co-signer on the loan (thanks Mom and Dad!).

It’s important to understand that some tenants are confused and will put a property manager’s name into the “Landlord Name” section. If I had a property manager at that property that can create a discrepancy and you can verify this on your call.

This property record search will take just a few minutes before you place your call.

Now if I were applying to a rental I would list my current employer information like this:

renter references

I would recommend that you Google the employer with the name of the provided supervisor.

The information listed above is all of my real data. Fidelis Screening Solutions is the parent company that RentPrep exists under.

So if you Google “Fidelis Screening Solutions Stephen White” you would see these search results.

employer reference check

Now I’d suggest clicking on the LinkedIn link but right click and open it in a private window. This will make it so people can’t see a history of you viewing their profile.

When I scroll down on his LinkedIn profile I’ll see this:

Employment reference

This tells me two things.

  1. He’s the CEO of this company and the employer info checks out so far
  2. Steve needs to update his LinkedIn because we have over 40,000 clients 🙂

I’d also check the company website (if there is one) to see if the phone number matches up with the company number.

Lastly, I would Google your tenant’s name and company. For me you’ll find a quick listing that will verify (at least on LinkedIn) my employer information.

Landlord employer ref

All of these searches can be done before making a phone call.

If the information isn’t matching up don’t jump to conclusions, just get answers on the verification call.

Questions to ask tenant references

For the personal tenant references consider asking these two questions:

  • How do you know the tenant?
  • Would you recommend them for a rental property?

Really, the point of this call is to verify the phone number and contact details.

It’s highly unlikely a personal tenant reference would give a bad reference.

However, if there is an emergency or if your tenant skips town you’ll want to have these personal references to call.

It’s a good idea to verify this information before a problem occurs.

Does Every Landlord Make Verification Calls?

Answer:
No

How do we know?
When we speak with previous landlords we have plenty that say something along the lines of, “I’ve owned  30 rentals for 10 years and this is only the third time I’ve been called about a former tenant.”

This isn’t surprising to hear. Especially considering there were 2.7 million evictions in 2015 and that number is trending upwards.

Based on this data, there’s an eviction every 11.9 seconds in the United States. The tally below adds an eviction every 12 seconds for this year.

Number of Evictions In The U.S. This Year

2,530,549

Landlords who don’t make verification calls are putting themselves at risk of a tenant eviction that could have been avoided.

If you’d prefer to have us call your renter references we can do that for you.

It’s an available add-on to our tenant background checks.

Hopefully, this guide will encourage you to make those calls and help you avoid a potentially hazardous tenant.

About the author

I believe the biggest mistake you can make in life is not learning from them. I've been a landlord since 2009 and still learning all the time.

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