What Do Landlords Look For in a Tenant?

young couple getting keys to newly purchased house

Landlords want tenants who pay rent on time, respect property and don't cause trouble. When it comes to finding a renter, landlords look for information that will help them determine whether prospective tenants fit these criteria. It's not a perfect science. Routine tenant screening may include credit checks, rental history assessment, employment or income verification or criminal background checks. Generally speaking, there's no universal definition for who's a good prospect and who isn't.

When you're applying to rent or lease, be prepared for some scrutiny. Standards vary from one rental to another, but building the following strengths can help your rental application pass muster.

Good Credit

A landlord may check your credit to get a sense of how responsible you are with debt and payments. Among the information in your credit report landlords find useful:

Your credit score also provides a quick indicator of how creditworthy you are, and a higher score may mean you're more likely to be approved for a unit. However, there isn't a magic threshold that separates a good score from a bad one here. The credit score you'll need to rent an apartment can vary quite a bit from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, and landlord to landlord. According to rental listing site RENTCafé, the average renter's credit score in 2020 was 638. In dense San Francisco it was 719, while it was 580 in the more suburban Arlington, Texas. Renters in luxury accommodations had higher scores on average than those living in modest units, according to the RENTCafé analysis.

Before you start submitting rental applications, check your credit report and score to get an advance read on where you stand. If you find that your scores aren't where you'd like them to be, you can take steps to improve your credit scores.

If there's negative information on your credit report, consider these steps to secure an apartment with less-than-perfect credit:

  • Find a landlord who doesn't check credit. They're rare, but they do exist.
  • Look for a landlord with credit requirements that are in line with your score and history.
  • Add a cosigner with good credit to your lease or rental agreement.
  • Offer more money upfront as a security deposit or advance rent.

Solid Rental History

Your credit report can provide insight into how you manage your debt. There's information it doesn't show, however, such as evictions, bounced checks, broken leases and property damage. Money owed to previous landlords could appear on your credit report if it was sent to a debt collector.

To learn more about your history as a renter, a landlord or tenant screening service can also run a separate eviction report that will show any evictions you've been party to during the last seven years. They may also look at your rental history from an informal angle, taking into account how long you've been a renter or how long you've stayed at each address, for example. Reference letters from previous landlords could help provide reassurance if you feel it's necessary.

Sufficient Income

Along with your credit and rental histories, your income helps determine how desirable a tenant you are. While there's no universal standard when it comes to how much income is enough, a higher income pretty much always trumps a lower one.

Common budgeting guidelines may help you figure out how much rent is reasonable for your level of income. As a simple starting point, calculate 30% of income before taxes. For example, if you earn $6,000 a month, your projected rent would be $1,800. Match that figure up with rental costs in your area to see whether this projection is realistic for the type of unit you're considering. If not, try adjusting your rent budget up just a bit or think about looking for a smaller or more modest place. Finding a roommate is another option.

Tenant screening may include an employment check or another type of income screening to verify your income. Also be prepared to prove your income by providing pay stubs, W-2 tax forms or bank statements.

Positive Criminal Background Check

Landlords often run criminal background checks as a routine tenant screening measure. A criminal background check may surface:

  • Past felony or misdemeanor convictions
  • Active warrants
  • Pending criminal cases
  • Sex offender registry listings

Depending on what information is revealed, a criminal background check can affect whether a landlord views you as a risk—either to property or to the safety and well-being of the other tenants. If they decide to take adverse action, such as declining your application or requiring a larger security deposit as the result of a criminal background check, they must notify you of their decision and their reasons why. You have the right to see the report, including the name of the consumer reporting agency that provided it, and to dispute erroneous information with that agency. If you think this is an area of concern, learn more about Fair Housing Act guidelines and your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

Applying to rent or lease an apartment can require a fair amount of disclosure. Landlords may look at your credit, rental history, income and criminal background—all to get a sense of what kind of tenant you would be. Remember that landlords aren't necessarily expecting to find perfect credit scores, sky-high incomes and spotless backgrounds. If it helps to take some of the suspense out of the process, consider checking your credit first; your credit report and score are available for free from Experian.