What should I ask when checking references? Rental News | rentalnews.co.nz

What should I ask when checking references?

You’ve sorted through the pre-tenancy applications and you’ve chosen your preferred tenant; now is the time to do a reference check.

A reference check is your chance to ask questions about a tenant before you make your final decision. They will tell you if your tenant is reliable, and give you an all-round idea of them – if you ask the correct questions!

Some things to keep in mind with the questions you ask are:

  • There are some things you shouldn’t ask. That’s why we’ve created these lists! There are privacy rules around what info you can ask for, so if you want to slip in an additional question, please check the Privacy Commissioner guidelines to see if it’s allowed. Otherwise, don’t be too surprised if your tenant’s reference politely declines.
  • Your questions should change depending on who you are asking. Employers probably won’t tell you what type of tenant they are, and landlords probably won’t know about their work ethic and whether they arrive on time. So remember to use different questions for different types of references.

There are three types of references that tenants can provide, and remember; the questions for each of these will differ. These are:

  • Character references – this can be from a friend, family friend, sports coach, or someone else who personally knows the tenant.
  • Employment references – this can be a manager, co-worker, or someone else who has worked with the tenant.
  • Landlord references – this is anyone who has been a landlord of the tenant.

Below, we provide a list of questions that you can ask each type of reference.

What to do before you start reference checks

Once you’ve been given contact details for a reference check, it might be worth flicking them an email or a text message explaining who you are and if they’d be happy to speak to you about your prospective tenant.

Many people do not answer phone calls if they see a random or unknown number, so sending them a message about your intentions beforehand will ensure you are successful in reaching them.

Once you get in contact with them, arrange a time that suits you both to discuss the reference check.

Tip: If you’re unsure whether a reference is legitimate or not, and you want to make sure the voice on the other end of the line is in fact Hayley’s Shift Manager from Mc Donalds, start off by asking how the reference knows the potential tenant. Then you can ask other questions like how long they’ve known them, or worked with them, and see if this matches up with the info in the pre-tenancy application.

Remember to still stick to the script and don’t ask any questions you legally can’t! Listen to everything the reference has to say and if you spot any inconsistencies, write them down so you remember.

What to ask in a reference check with a tenants friend

Young people, and people new to New Zealand may not have a previous landlord or employer on hand for you to easily get in touch with for a reference check. In this instance, many people look to the help of a trusted friend as their referee. Tenants may choose a friend that’s in a position of responsibility in their community, or someone else who knows them personally. While you may think a character reference from a friend is not helpful, they can confirm a tenant’s identity and tell you more about them as a person. Try asking these questions:

  • How do you know [potential tenant]?
  • How long have you known them?
  • What do they do in their spare time?
  • Have you been to their home before? What was it like?
  • Do they smoke? (If this is a term of your lease)

What to ask a referee that is a tenants employer or workmate

If your tenant is older, already employed, or has a solid list of roles on their CV they will likely include a work reference in their application. This could be a previous workplace, or one they are currently working at, and it could be a co-worker or boss. At work, you have responsibilities and are expected to be reliable. This is similar to the agreement between landlords and tenants, so take the time to learn how the referee sees your tenant in these areas.

  • How do you know [potential tenant]?
  • Are you able to confirm that this person is/was employed with you? (If not confirmed above)
  • What were/are some of their responsibilities in this role?
  • How do you enjoy working with [potential tenant]?
  • Have you ever needed to reprimand them at work?
  • Would you employ them again? Why or why not?

What to ask in a reference check with a tenants previous landlord

Contacting a reference that is a previous landlord of your prospective tenant is important. This means you can find out about them in a tenancy situation and you’ll get to ask questions about how they treated the property, and if rent was paid on time. As this reference will give you the most insight into the person as a tenant, you need to ensure you ask all the right questions. Here are some you shouldn’t leave out:

  • What was the duration of the tenancy?
  • Did the tenant consistently pay rent on time?
  • Did the tenant maintain the property well?
  • Were there any major damages or maintenance issues during their lease?
  • Did the tenant have any pets?
  • Did you receive any complaints from other tenants or neighbours?
  • Why did the tenant leave?
  • Would you rent to [potential tenant] again? Why or why not?

Keep in mind that people who are first time renters will not have a previous landlord to give as a referee. This is why it is important to know what questions to ask the tenants employer, colleagues and friends.


The process of scanning and evaluating prospective tenants isn’t easy. All too often, people that look good on paper end up causing issues down the line. Getting to speak to someone who already knows your prospective tenant well, and will be able to provide a good overall picture of them is vital. A reference check is a part of the letting process that you should never overlook.

Keep in mind that your tenant should have informed their referees that their prospective landlord will be contacting them. While it’s unlikely that they’re going to pass off a nightmare as a dream come true, they might not always be entirely honest either. Maintain a critical eye, but don’t be scared off by the small things.

Finished checking references? Before you sign the lease, remember to:

  • Complete your tenant checks – so you have a record of the tenant’s credit history for yourself and insurance.
  • Choose how you will collect and track rent – make sure your tenant’s are on the same page, and you’re meeting all your responsibilities for this.
  • Set-up a time for the move-in inspection 
  • Prepare and sign the tenancy agreement

For more information on why checking references is important, see:
Why should I check references?
Reference check discussion

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