Documents Needed When Renting An Apartment

Amsterdam-rentalsAfter two years, my beloved tenant is leaving me for another man. My tenant is a single woman in her 50s who sold her house on the east coast to start a new life in San Francisco. She’s always wondered what the west coast fuss was all about so she decided to see for herself. After a year of work, she met someone and is now moving in with him.

I’m so sad to see my tenant go as she’s been wonderful. Yet, I’m so happy she’s found new love! I don’t know what it is about my rental property but every single tenant ends up marrying or finding someone special. Good feng shui perhaps!

As I wrote in my real estate vs. stocks post, real estate takes more effort to manage. I’ve got to now host multiple open houses and carefully vette my future tenants like the CIA to ensure the least amount of headache down the road. Thank goodness everything is so easy to do on Craigslist nowadays. I’ve got all the application forms and after almost 10 years of being a landlord, I know exactly what to look for.

If you are an aspiring landlord or a new renter in a hot market, this post should help provide some prospective to getting what you want.


* Income and Paystubs: The general rule of thumb for a landlord is for renters to make at least 40X the monthly rent as annual income. In other words, if the rent is $2,000 a month, the minimum the tenant should make is $80,000 a year. Prospective tenants should bring in their latest two paystubs and prior year’s W2 if you feel comfortable. If you operate a business, then please highlight your income statement.

* Duration of Employment: The longer you are at one firm the better. If there’s a history of moving around every year, the landlord will put you in the bottom pile because the last thing a landlord wants is to have to go through the entire tenant screening process again so soon. Seeing a letter from your Human Resources department verifying your employment and duration puts your landlord at ease. Landlords want a tenant who will ideally stay for two years or longer.

* Assets: It is preferred to have six months of rent in liquid savings or semi-liquid investments or more. A landlord’s fear is that a tenant loses his or her job, runs out of money in several months, stops paying rent, turns into the psychopath from the movie Pacific Heights, and destroys all your property! Bring a copy of a bank statement and brokerage accounts that show liquid assets. You don’t have to show everything, just enough where the assets cover at least 6 months worth of rent. If you have tons of assets, feel free to show up to 36 months worth of rent but not much more. Having too much money makes your landlord think you’re only here for a pitstop until you find something better.

* Letters of Reference: Almost every single landlord will experience some type of problem tenant if they landlord long enough. Letters of reference are important to verify a tenant is worthy. Please also provide the telephone number(s) of previous landlords so we can speak to them about their experiences with you. Many times, letters/emails don’t mean anything because the landlord is just being nice so that you can hurry up and get out of their place! As a result, please also provide work references or outside activity references as well.

* Credit Report and Credit Score: The first thing landlords check is the credit score. The credit score is always used for screening purposes if there are many applicants. Even if there are only a couple applicants, a credit score is still used to gauge the tenant’s ability to pay the rent on time. It doesn’t matter how much you make or how much is in the bank if you aren’t a responsible payer. You need an actual score along with your credit report, otherwise, your landlord will suspect something is wrong.

* Emphasis On Duration: It should be deduced from your rental and employment history whether you are a short-termer or a long-termer. However, if you really want to increase your chances of snagging that apartment, write an explicit e-mail or letter stating your intentions of staying for the medium-to-long term. The sweet spot is around 3-5 years. Any longer and the landlord might start wondering whether they’ll be able to keep up with market rents and get their units back in case something doesn’t work out, or if they want to move back in.

* General Feel: One can do all the screening they want. At the end of the day, choosing the right tenant is a leap of faith. It’s the same for hiring someone for a job or admitting them to a school. You never know how the person will turn out until after they settle in. Tenants should consider bringing a friend as a good sounding board for the property they are considering. Landlords should also bring a friend to meet with prospective tenants as well. We are often blinded by our unconscious biases about people that it is always good to have a different perspective. For example, men go stupid over beautiful women. If you are one of those men, then bring a female friend who will think straighter during evaluation time.


The ideal tenant is someone who knows what he wants, has her financial ducks in order, and has a track record for stability and responsibility. Tenants should also try and get a feel for the landlord’s character. Is he super anal to the point where he is always checking up on you over e-mail or ringing your doorbell? Does he have a list of handymen for you to contact in case something goes wrong? Can you tell your landlord really cares about the property based on the upgrades? It’s as much a leap of faith for the tenant, but with much less financial fallout.

If both parties can be as upfront as possible about their requirements, I’m optimistic in a harmonious relationship between the landlord and the tenant.


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Updated 2H2015

Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship. Sam focuses on helping readers build more income in real estate, investing, entrepreneurship, and alternative investments in order to achieve financial independence sooner, rather than later.

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  1. says

    Isn’t it a sad day when good tenants leave! In the UK I have never been asked for my income and thought it was really weird, and as a landlady over there, I did the same and did not ask for income. So far so good but I don’t really like not knowing how affordable the rent is to my tenants. If you do ask for income you would have to consider disposable income, $50K with no car no debt is better than $120K with tons of debt payments and student loans!

    • says

      It’s definitely part art, part science. It’s all about ascertaining the ability to pay. Not sure how that can be done in the UK if you don’t know a tenant’s income.

  2. cashrebel says

    I wish I had known all this when I applied for my first apartment. Thinking about it from the landlords perspective certainly helps me understand a few things. Initially I had no idea why they needed to see mu paystub, I guess I was just naive.

  3. says

    I am one of the lucky landords. I have heard horror stories in the past from others.

    Three months is the longest any of my rentals have been vacant at any given time. I also have been spared the horrible process of having to take legal action against any of my tenants (*knock on wood).

    Before moving overseas two+ years ago I gave both of my rental properties to management companies. Sure they take a slice of the pie but they really do make my life easier. Each month a check is deposited with a statement itemized for taxes.

    • says

      Great to hear Roshan. I will definitely face the dilemma of whether to sell or pass of my rentals to a management company if I ever decide to move from SF.

      It does take a lot of time and patience during turnover, but it’s worth it to get the right tenant.

  4. Chris says

    Currently have a house for rent near Sacramento and not having much luck renting it out. I typically market it to military folks, which decreases the vetting I have to do on prospective tenants. I’ve found that being very upfront with the lease and expectations is a good thing. Also being responsive when something needs to be repaired seems to promote a harmonious relationship.

    On another note, just bought an abandoned Foreclosure and am just about finished rehabbing it and getting ready to move in. I’m very curious to see what the housing market does in the next 5-6 yrs.

  5. says

    When I was renting, landlords wanted my last two paystubs (no W-2) or my offer letter if I hadn’t started working yet, references to previous landlords, and my SSN so they could run a credit check. I didn’t like them knowing how much money I made since that told them I could clearly afford to continue paying the rent if they raised it. I’m glad I never had to give out W-2s – they don’t need to know how much I get in bonuses.

    Sounds like renting in SF is practically like applying for a mortgage!

  6. says

    This is a great list Sam and is interesting to see from the landlord’s perspective. I would agree that at the end of the day the feel you get is probably going to play a big role in whether or not you end up renting to the person. The rental market in our area, and real estate as a whole, is starting to see an uptick. We were somewhat sheltered from the big downturn, but things are definitely starting to turn around.

  7. Mike says

    I think you outlined very good points that any potential landlord should do! After all, it’s your livelihood that is at risk. Being able to pay your bills without having to unnecessarily spend more money than you should is essential, especially in this economy!

    • says

      Pretty relaxed landlords! It’s too much a risk for me to just ask about the credit report. All info I ask is voluntary, but obviously the more info I have, the better decision I can make. Often times people aren’t willing to apply due to the info, which is fine by me.

  8. says

    I remember having a hard time finding an apartment and worrying I wasn’t going to find something. After seeing several places I finally got all my docs printed before going to my next place and included a letter from my employer. I brought all those docs in a folder and got the apartment within 24 hours. Being prepared and showing responsibility works!

  9. says

    Personally, I would never ask for reference letters. I would rather call and ask questions. I think it is a better way to determine if they will be a good tenant or not. I also would visit them in their old apartment if possible. You can tell a lot about the perspective tenant from how they live there.

    BTW, when I used to rent, the rule of thumb was one week’s (gross) salary should equal rent. I guess things have changed.

  10. says

    I never really needed any of this back in my renting days. I think I had one landlord who had me sign something consenting to allow him to run a credit check. Other than that I was usually just fine with proof of employment and the phone number/reference from a prior landlord. Maybe it was due to the differences in the rental markets, maybe I just lucked out with a bunch of really laid back landlords…

    • says

      You might have lucked out. However, even if the landlord asked you for the documents, I’m assuming you’d simply print them out and hand them over if you really wanted the place.

  11. says

    Good luck with a new tenant. At least now you can jack up the rent without feeling too bad, right? Here, they usually only need credit report and pay stub. Which isn’t great for me because I don’t have a steady job anymore… The bank account will have to do.

  12. says

    Hey Sam, can you email me your listing? I know someone who is relocating to SF and is looking for an apartment ASAP. In fact, he arrived today to try to find a place. Got a great job and just needs a place in the city.

  13. Brad E. Jordan says

    1) You better rent to both of them or none of them because if you open that can of worms you could get into some legal trouble. You said you’re a bit wary of splitting the lease because of a falling out, but what if they were hispanic–would you say that because you were wary that they couldn’t afford the rent? That would be discrimination. If I wanted to rent an apartment with one of my friends who has a learning disability and having a hard time keeping a job because of this and you wanted to rent to only me–I would sue you. They will probably find a reason to drag you to small claims court so…. 2) If I was a landlord and maybe future tenants put fake income on the application, I wouldn’t rent to them. For one thing this is fraud and another if they can’t pay you–it’s your own fault! How do you know there really are finance’s? 3) I know nothing about, but I have this sneaky suspician that knowing someone’s credit score and discriminating because of it is going to become illegal. Right now, though, I would look into it.

    • says

      Bingo, which is why landlords would be wary of renting to you. Landlords need to find tenants who don’t have the mindset of suing, and does have the mindset of having a harmonious relationship. The information provided during the application process is therefore crucial in making the best determination possible.

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