The Rental Application Process: How to Succeed at Every Step

A typical rental application process involves many steps. You’ll typically be asked to provide some basic information about yourself, as well as financial documents such as proof of income and tax returns. The landlord will also run a credit and background check to learn more about your financial and personal history.

By preparing your application, you can make the process go quicker and more smoothly, while also giving you an edge in getting your rental application approved.

The Rental Application

Not every rental application is exactly the same, but most landlords or property managers are looking for similar basic information. Here is what you might expect to fill out on a rental application.

An Applicant Overview

This is a quick snapshot of what the landlord first sees when looking at your application. Here’s where you’ll enter your name, email address, and phone number. You can also expect to provide the following:

  • Your date of birth
  • Your stated monthly and yearly income
  • Whether or not you have pets, and if so, how many
  • Whether you will be providing references, and if so, how many
  • Whether you smoke

There is often an optional space at the bottom of this section to tell a little about yourself. It’s better to fill this out than to leave it blank.

The best thing to put here is the reason you’re moving and why you want to rent this particular unit. Are you relocating? Moving out for the first time? Do you like the school district? Love the neighborhood? Just a short paragraph as to who you are and why you want this apartment or rental property.

Note: The only really negative answer would be that you need this place because you were evicted from your last place. If that’s the case, it’s usually best to explain the reason for the eviction here because once the landlord sees your background check, they will find out if you’ve ever been evicted. 

For example, maybe you were evicted because your roommate sublet their room without permission and the landlord just evicted everyone on the lease, but now you don’t have that particular roommate. Or maybe you didn’t pay the rent one month because you were laid off but now you have a new job and have learned to communicate with your landlord if there could be a problem paying rent. 

Whatever the case, try to show that whatever got you evicted is unlikely to happen again.

Employment and Income

This section asks for your current employer, so you’ll need to provide the name of the company you work for. If you’re self-employed, indicate that. You will probably be asked your role or position, your start date, how much you make per month and/or year, and the name, email address, and phone number of your manager or contact person at work.

Landlords generally want to see that you make at least three times the rent. If you don’t make that much on your own, try to get a roommate so that together you’ll have enough income to qualify. You can also take on some gig work to make extra money. Be prepared to show that you’ve been making extra gig work money for at least three to six months for the landlord to consider that as extra income.

If there’s a place for additional comments, you can describe in a sentence or two what exactly it is that you do.

Residence History

This section is for you to list your current and past residences. You’ll need to provide the street address, city, state, and zip code for each place you lived. You’ll also need to indicate the date you moved into each place, the date you moved out, how much you paid in rent, and your landlord or manager’s name, email address, and phone number.

If there’s an additional comments section here, you might want to give permission to your potential new landlord to contact your past landlords for more information. Or if you were evicted at one place, you can explain the reason here if you haven’t already.


List two or three references of people who can vouch for how responsible you are. This can be a past landlord, a manager or coworker, a teacher, or a neighbor. Your best friend, while they will probably say nice things about you, isn’t really the best reference.

Provide the contact information of all your references (name, email address, and phone number), how long you’ve known this person, and their relationship to you.

Additional Information

Be prepared to provide an emergency contact (name, email address, and phone) and to describe the type and number of pets you have. Note that if pets are allowed, there are often restrictions on how many pets you can have, as well as what dog breeds are permitted.

There might also be a yes or no checklist that asks you the following:

  • Have you filed for bankruptcy in the last 7 years?
  • Have you ever been convicted of the illegal manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance?
  • Do you smoke?
  • Have you ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor (other than a traffic violation)?
  • Have you ever refused to pay rent?
  • Have you ever been evicted or had an unlawful detainer judgment against you?

If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, you should explain the reason in your application.

Credit and Background Checks

As part of the rental application process, you will probably be asked for permission to have your credit and background checks pulled. You’ll likely pay a fee for this, typically around $40 or $50.

What the landlord is likely to see from your credit report are the following:

  • Your credit score, with an explanation as to whether the score is exceptional, very good, good, fair, or poor. Your FICO score ranges from 300 to 850. Exceptional is 800 to 850. Very good is 740 to 799. Good is 670 to 739. Fair is 580 to 669. Poor is 300 to 579.
  • How much of your credit is being used. The less the better. A good rule of thumb is to use no more than 30% of your available credit.
  • Your total monthly payments, with a breakdown as to the type.
  • Your total debt, again with a breakdown as to type. If you have a lot of debt and are maxed out on your credit, you might want to pay off some bills before applying, especially if your income is on the lower side.
  • Your payment history, which shows if you have late accounts and how many, the time since you were late, how many collections accounts you have, and whether you have any public records regarding legal matters pertaining to a debt of yours. Having recent or current negative accounts does not look good. The longer it’s been since the negative behavior the better. If you are denied because of your payment history, start paying your bills on time, and try applying again after having a history of six months’ to a year of on-time payments.
  • Your account history, which shows all the accounts you have opened and their statuses. It’s best to not open a lot of new credit accounts just before applying for a rental unit. It makes it appear that you need to borrow money and could worry a potential landlord.

What the landlord is likely to see from your background check is whether you have any criminal records. If you do, the landlord can probably see what they are. Landlords usually are leary about renting to people with a recent major criminal conviction or to people who have been evicted.

Proof of Income: Paystubs, Tax Returns, Bank Statements

If your credit and background checks are acceptable, your potential landlord might ask you to provide additional information. Some common types of information landlords ask to see are the following:

  • Recent paystubs, usually your last three. Landlords are verifying that you earn what you indicated you earned on your application. Again, many landlords like to see that you earn at least three times more than the rent.
  • Last year’s tax return
  • A bank statement showing that you have savings, usually about 3 months’ worth of rent

Getting a Cosigner

If you are not approved for the rental you want, you might be approved if you add a cosigner. Make sure the cosigner has good credit, as they will probably be asked to fill out the same application as you. Your cosigner will be legally responsible for paying the rent if you don’t, so make sure your cosigner understands this. And try not to make your cosigner responsible for your rent.

What They Cannot Ask

All the above might seem like a lot, but landlords have a right to ask all that information. Landlords and property managers do, however, have limits as to what they can ask you because of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on seven protected classes. Here is a list of the protected classes, what landlords cannot ask you, and why:

  1. Your race: Landlords cannot ask your race, which is defined as your ancestral and cultural characteristics. Your race has nothing to do with renting an apartment or house.
  2. Your color: Color refers to your skin color. Again, your skin color has nothing to do with whether you’re qualified to rent an apartment or house.
  3. Your religion: A landlord cannot ask you what religion you are or even if you would like directions to the nearest church because your religion or lack thereof is irrelevant to qualifying for a rental property.
  4. Your national origin: This refers to the country in which you were born. If a landlord asks you that, they could be accused of asking for racist reasons, and where you were born has no bearing on renting a house or apartment.
  5. Your sex: If you ask an applicant’s sex, you could be accused of sex discrimination, and this also applies to gender identity, such as transgender status.
  6. If you have a disability: Landlords cannot discriminate based on a disability. Landlords, however, do not necessarily need to go to extra lengths to put in handicapped accessible provisions, such as ramps. They might, however, need to allow you to put them in with the condition that you will remove them upon move out.
  7. Your familial status: Landlords or property managers cannot ask you how many children you have because familial status is a protected class. They can, however, ask how many people will be living in the unit because some units have occupancy rules that limit the number of people allowed to live there.

Signing the Lease

You typically need to sign a lease that commits you to staying in the rental unit for a certain length of time, paying rent on time each month, and abiding by all the lease terms. You will also probably need to pay your move-in costs at lease-signing time, so make sure you know what they are and have the funds ready. 

Move-in costs vary depending on the unit, but they are typically first month’s rent plus security deposit and any extra fees (such as a pet fee), or maybe first and last month’s rent plus security deposit and any extra fees.

If you break the lease and leave early, you are still responsible for paying the rent — unless you have a lease-break fee you could pay or until the landlord re-rents. If you don’t pay the rent and are evicted, you’ll probably have a more difficult time renting in the future.

The Bottom Line

Renting a house or apartment is serious business. Landlords and property managers need to be reassured that you will be a responsible tenant. Now that you know what most landlords are looking for, you should have an easier time with the rental application process.