No matter how desperate you are to put a tenant in a vacant unit, you MUST always do a background check. The various services available locally in St. Louis and online are quite easy to work with and you can always pass the buck off to the tenant. If for some reason you refuse to get involved with a paid service there are still things you can, and should, do to check up on the tenant.
One of the best free ways to check up on people is to search through Missouri court records. The Missouri Courts System has a database where you can search this information free of charge. Of course, this system does not reference federal crimes and crimes committed in other states so it is certainly not fool proof, but it never hurts to look.
Another free method of checking up on your applicants is to check up on their employment situation. Request a recent pay stub and followup with their current employer to verify the information they supplied on their lease. On thing to take note of is that you should always call their boss yourself, not the other way around. Since you likely have never spoken to this person before the tenant could simply have a friend call and play the part of their boss. Make sure you verify the business phone number too.
Another free reference to utilize is their previous landlords. No reference compares so closely to your situation than that. A few words of caution. Just like with employment information, it would be quite easy for a tenant to put one of their friends down as a previous landlord. If they have been prepped they might give a glowing recommendation to a bad tenant. The motives of the tenants current landlord should always be in question too. If the tenant is particularly bad and the landlord really wants to get rid of them, they might give a positive recommendation for the applicant just to convince you to get them out of their hair. Considering these possibilities, this reference check should really only be used to disqualify renters, not support them.
In the end, the best way to make sure you are getting the best tenant possible is to not only verify their referances, employment and criminal background, but also do a full credit check. Most services charge around $40 to do everything and it is well worth it even if you plan on eating the costs yourself. But if you refuse to go that route, at least consider using some or all the optinos above. Renting an apartment is great, but if you aren’t careful it could be more expensive than leaving it vacant in the long run.