The main question on a landlord's mind when he/she meets a prospective renter is: Will this person pay the rent on time? Personal impressions are all good and well, but as a landlord, you're going to want something a little more substantial before you entrust your property to a stranger. This is where rental applications enter the picture.
A rental application should paint a picture of the tenant's finances and reliability in paying rent. Formulate a list of questions, in document form, and have a lawyer check it over to sure that you are adhering to fair housing laws, and to protect you from any discrimination claims in relation to your tenant-screening process. Include a code of conduct for the kind of behavior that is or isn't acceptable while living in your unit. State the amount of rent you are requesting and be sure to have the prospective tenant sign the application.
In the application you'll want to ask for personal information, such as name and contact information, as well as how many kids and pets will be living in the property. You should ask for the applicant's permission to run a credit check. You'll need his/her Social Security number and a photocopy of his/her driver's license for this.
You will need proof that the applicant will be able to pay the rent. Ask the prospective renter to provide bank statements and recent pay stubs. If the monthly rent amounts to more than one-third of his/her monthly income, he/she may have trouble making the payments on time and this should sound an alarm for you. Check on the prospective renters' employment history -- how long have they stayed in each of their previous jobs? Evidence of jumping from job to job should give you pause.
Perhaps most important is a rental history including contact information for previous landlords. Call them and check whether this tenant was evicted or remiss with his/her rental payments. A complete history will help you know if this is who you want to entrust your property to.