Updated: May 03, 2023

What Landlords Are Looking For in Tenant Screening Credit Check

Tenant screening is a major factor in how landlords and property managers decide who qualifies as a rent. Here we breakdown the most important factors.
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Tenant screening is a major factor in how landlords and property managers decide who qualifies as a rent.

There are a host of warning signs that can cause a landlord to reject a rental applicant. Ultimately, they’ll be carefully seeking a renter who poses the lowest risk, both financially and personally.

That doesn’t mean your next apartment search needs to be filled with rejections and surprises. Here are some red flags for landlords you can avoid to improve your chances of being approved for that apartment rental:

A criminal record

A criminal history may make it harder to find a job, but housing, too. Landlords don’t want to rent to an ex-convict because one’s criminal past might spell out future problems for other residents in the building.

If it was a violent offense, what are the chances of a tenant starting trouble with other neighbors? Will a prior DUI imply too many late-night, alcohol-fueled parties?

Property managers will conduct extensive tenant screening background checks, and even a simple misdemeanor charge may disqualify an applicant in favor of more law-abiding applicants.

Too many jobs

Landlords want tenants looking to stay put for a while.

If jump from job to job, it sends the signal that you’re not looking to stay very long. It could also give the message that you’ll be late with the rent if you’re in between jobs too often.

A career-driven applicant, to property managers, is more likely to be on time with the rent, won’t break their lease, and be a trouble-free tenant.

Leases are often 12 months long; landlords often look for candidates employed in the same job for the same period of time.

Negative landlord references

Too many bad references from an applicant’s prior landlord can reduce your chances of approval during a tenant screening.

If a potential tenant received too many complaints from past neighbors, this doesn’t spell good news for them.

If you’ve been evicted, late (or nonexistent) with your rent payments, or been an overall lousy resident, it won’t leave a good impression on the property management. And, word will get back to future landlords.

Large, aggressive dogs

Even if the property is pet-friendly, landlords may look unfavorably on applicants who own several large or aggressive breeds of dogs, since it may reflect on the personality of their owner.

Resources cite pit bulls, chows, akitas, or any wolf cross breeds as dogs that landlords may look out for, since they can pose a danger to other tenants and small children.

Another reason applicants may get rejected is that their dogs may not be covered under the landlord’s insurance policy.

Poor credit

Undeniably, the biggest judge of your suitability as a renter is your credit report and FICO score. Many apartments for rent will require a credit score check.

A bad credit score and negative credit report indicate that you may not be financially responsible enough to afford or maintain your monthly rent payments. It’s a big liability that most landlords cannot ignore.

fico credit scores

If your credit is low (roughly 620 or lower), it could be the result of past debt, unpaid/late credit payments, or just a lack of credit history.

Even if the bad credit was largely unintentional, your rental application is likely to be rejected.

A good FICO credit score is considered anything above 700. FICO scores can range from 300 to 850, with 850 being the best credit score possible.

How do Landlords and Property Managers Check Credit?

Even if you only raise the credit score red flag, it may be enough for a landlord or property manager to pass on you in favor of a more financially qualified candidate.

In fact, your creditworthiness is so important that landlords may double- and triple-check your report and score through several ways as part of the tenant screening process:

All three credit bureaus: Each (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) offer special tenant screening credit checks available to landlords.

These aren’t always free, and can cost up to $30 for credit checks, sometimes including criminal background reports, but for the sake of finding good tenants, most property managers will pay the price -- and you may be charged a fee as part of the application process, too.

Landlord organizations/associations: Groups like the National Association of Independent Landlords offer landlords and property managers the ability to check the credit of potential tenants.

Various tenant screening resources: There are several websites, as well as the credit bureaus, that offer a range of tenant screening services for landlords to filter out the best (and worst) renters.

Building and Improving your Credit

Young and first-time apartment hunters may find themselves in a tough situation.

They need good credit to get an apartment, but they don’t have enough credit to get through the tenant screening process. Work on building up your credit (even from scratch) with some of these tips:

Open a secured credit card

If you’re moving out on your own for the first time, you should have your own credit card.

But, if your credit is nonexistent, a secured credit card is the way to go. Unlike a regular credit card where the credit card company provides you with a credit limit based on the strength of your credit, a secured credit card is backed by your own cash deposit that acts as your spending maximum.

Use it like any credit card, and pay your balance in full, on time. The behavior will reflect positively on your credit report and score.

Take out a credit builder loan

With a credit builder loan, the lender (usually your bank or credit union) loans you money into savings account that you’ll pay back in monthly installments.

The money is not yours to spend on anything -- just to pay back. It’ll be reported to the three credit bureaus and reflect positively as good and current revolving credit that may aid your search for an apartment.

Get a co-signer

For any transaction requiring a good credit history, be it buying a car, getting a credit card, or renting an apartment, try asking a trusted family member or friend with good credit to co-sign.

Just remember that you’re both responsible for the payments, even if one co-signer fails to pay.

Have your rent payments reported to the credit bureaus

If you’ve tried the above methods, built up your credit, and landed that dream apartment, congratulations!

What many renters don’t realize is that they can keep the momentum going by arranging for their landlord to report their monthly rent payments to the credit bureaus.

Just because it isn’t a mortgage or other loan doesn’t mean your rent payments have to go unnoticed when you’ve paid them on time, and if possible, a few months in advance. It can go a long way to building superior credit when you need it most.