Frequently Asked Questions
is meant by the "Quality Tenant Screening Center"?
The "Quality Tenant Screening Center" is Landlord.comís proprietary
bundle of information, services, and products designed to
assist landlords in selecting the best prospects to fill their
vacancies. We have a select few online tenant screening
companies that can provide credit reports and other screening
here. In a more generic sense, it is a process
whereby quality tenants can be selected from among a
number of prospects.
The art of tenant screening consists of the systematic
accumulation of information about a prospect, verification of
the information, analysis of the information, and the
comparison of the resulting profile to a predetermined
standard to determine if the prospect meets this minimum
standard. Those applicants who meet or exceed the
standard move to step two, those that do not are rejected.
In step two a selection is made, based on other predetermined
criteria, among the qualified applicants. In step three,
a rental agreement is negotiated and the deal is closed.
is tenant screening so important?
flip side of renting out real estate is not renting out real
estate, i.e., vacancies. When you have a vacancy, no one
is paying for that empty space but you, through your mortgage,
insurance, and all the expenses that go with making sure the
place does not collapse through neglect. But filling a
vacancy is easy. Filling a vacancy with a tenant who
will pay the rent on time, not annoy neighbors, and keep the
property in decent shape is not so easy.
order to weed out prospects that are likely to become
headaches in the future, you need a plan. This plan is
your system for screening the prospects. Without a plan
you are just taking a shot in the dark. In addition,
given the current state of the law, it is illegal to treat
applicants differently on the basis of race, sex, religion,
and other characteristics. A plan that you follow
consistently will help you avoid getting into difficulty for
doing this, or seeming to do it.
donít want to rent to certain kinds of people, how do I
avoid renting to them legally?
of us want to rent to certain kinds of people, such as those
who have a history of not paying their bills or of damaging
their rental units. If you want help avoiding these
kinds of persons, read on and be sure to explore the rest of
our site thoroughly. We will point you in the right
you have something else in mind, then stop reading; you are
wasting your time so you might just as well leave now.
We support compliance with the Fair Housing laws and all other
laws. We may complain about them or even ridicule them
from time to time, and we may counsel our visitors to work for
needed changes, but we urge compliance, even if not cheerful,
with all laws, and do not counsel efforts to evade them.
You will find nothing here to help you engage in invidious
I refuse to rent to someone just because I donít like him or
he makes me feel uncomfortable?
Initially, you decide who you should rent to, and who you
should not rent to, and at what rent. You may use any
criteria you desire to make these decisions, provided they are
not the wrong criteria. The wrong criteria are those
that are proscribed by law, and they vary from state to state.
Prohibited in all states is the refusal to rent because of
ethnic background, race, religion, sex, sexual proclivity,
age, marital status, or income source. You should check
the laws of your individual state to see what other criteria
may be prohibited. You can do this in the landlord law
In the abstract, provided the source of your discomfort is not
one of the prohibited criteria, we see no legal reason why you
could not refuse to rent to someone because of a general
anxiety about the person. But while this is
metaphysically true, it is practically false. If you
make a screening decision based on a criterion as vague as the
one you describe, then you open yourself up to a charge of
invidious discrimination, whether you intended it to be so or
not. The person disqualified, if he is a member of one
of the protected classes, should he learn that you rented to
one financially or otherwise less qualified, will naturally be
inclined to ascribe the refusal to rent to him to his
protected class status. In the absence of a concrete
reason, you will be very hard pressed to justify your
decisions on other grounds. You could well be held
liable for discrimination on prohibited grounds even though
the belief you so discriminated is mistaken, only because you
look so guilty.
If this is a serious concern to you, particularly if you are
thinking of renting out a portion of your residence to
another, you might want to consult with a lawyer who can tell
you what you can and cannot do. Many jurisdictions have
exemptions for small landlords, or those who share their
residences with others. While this does not justify
racial or other immoral discrimination, and we do not condone
it, it does give you a little more freedom to indulge gut
instincts such as you describe.
do I look for laws about screening prospects?
laws that most heavily affect tenant screening are the Fair
Housing laws, general anti-discrimination laws, and the credit
reporting laws. In addition, in some jurisdictions,
there are laws that control what type of rental arrangement
you may demand of a prospect, which may limit, say, your
ability to compensate for marginal qualifications with an
increased deposit or advance rental payment. Because of
our system of government, laws and regulations concerning
these can be enacted by the Federal government; the 50 state
governments and the District of Columbia, plus Puerto Rico and
other territories; the 3000+ county governments; and who knows
how many regional, city, town, village, and borough
and state laws can be found using the search engines and other
materials in our Landlord Law section. For the lower
levels of government, you will need to resort to local law
libraries, other Internet resources, direct contact with the
relevant governing bodies, and attorneys.
not rely on books designed for a national audience.
These are much to general to be of help in your particular
jurisdiction. Do not rely on your local apartment
association or real estate persons unless you know they have
consulted with an attorney on the subject. Even then, be
Because of all of the permutations of such requirements, due
to the number of jurisdictions involved, we are, regretfully,
unable to put all the requirements on this site.
screening standards and how do I set them?
Screening standards are nothing more than decisions you have
made in advance about the minimum qualifications a tenant who
wants to live in your property must have. They generally
cover financial capacity, rental history, credit history,
family size, and, sometimes, criminal background. These
standards should be realistic. Making them too lax
invites problems in the future, but making them too stringent
could take you right out of the market.
Financial capacity refers to the prospectís ability to meet
the rent. You want a relatively secure source of income
in an amount that is enough to cover it with relative ease
during good times, and, with any sort of look, with a little
difficulty during an emergency. Usually this is
expressed as a multiple of the rental amount. That is, a
tenantís minimum income , after mandatory withholding, might
be set at a multiple of two to four times the monthly rental
rate, depending on the market. The availability of a
co-signer and other devices might modify this requirement.
Financial capacity also would include things like stability on
the job, which are hard to quantify, but which should still be
The rental history is simply a verifiable record of performing
rental agreements in a satisfactory manner. You
typically can define this standard by what it lacks. It
should lack inexcusable rent defaults, other contract
breaches, damage to property, annoyance of neighbors or the
landlord and his employees, and so on. This heading
would also include a check on any eviction proceedings filed
against the prospect. Such a report does require some
caution, however, as the filing of an eviction proceeding may
be as much an indication of an incompetent landlord as a bad
tenant, or even a poorly thought out rent control law that
encourages such filings.
Credit history is designed to show if the prospect has a
history of meeting his financial obligations in a timely way,
or habitually fails to do so. Credit history needs to be
viewed with some caution, because the rental obligation is
usually viewed as of paramount importance. For this
reason, a person with a few credit blemishes may still be an
outstanding tenant, especially if there were extenuating
circumstances that led to the credit problems. A
prospect with a long and dismal credit history may well be a
problem, however, even if he has always paid his rent on time.
Such a credit report could be a tip-off to lack of judgment,
which is likely to spill over to rent payment eventually.
Family size is an important standard in that it will keep the
amount of wear and tear on the premises within acceptable
limits. You should always set a limit on the number of
persons you will permit in a unit of given size. HUD has
promulgated such standards, and we recommend that you follow
them. You will find an article on the HUD guidelines
elsewhere on the site.
Criminal background checks are becoming more fashionable,
although their practicality and usefulness is somewhat open to
question. In the first place, there is no central
repository of criminal records that is available to the
general public or private companies, as there are for credit
records. That means that criminal record checks must be
made on a county-by-county basis, and, because there is no
national reporting system, even if you should guess at the
right county to check, there is no guarantee that the
information will be up to date. Additionally, some
jurisdictions may prohibit discrimination based on criminal
history or conviction of certain types of crimes.
do I choose among qualified prospects without being accused of
breaking a law?
In the first place, keep in mind what your standards are.
Your standards are the minimum requirement for entry into your
property. Meeting them does not guarantee a prospect
that you will rent to him.
Assuming you are in the happy position of having several
qualified applicants from which to choose, there are three
ways to make the final decision that make sense:
use some arbitrary or random method, or
have the applicants bid against one another, or
select the most qualified applicant.
Many advocate the first method as a means of avoiding
invidious discrimination claims. Indeed, some in the
civil rights industry claim it is legally mandated, although
no one has ever been able to point to anything specific on the
subject. Basically, one avoids being accused of making
an illegal decision by abdicating the decision making process
to some event outside of the landlordís control.
Examples might be first to apply or a coin flip. While
this is certainly a method of resolving the problem, it is no
guarantee that you will be safe from claims of discrimination.
It only shifts the debate to the method you used to decide
among the qualified applicants. Use it if you like, but
it is not a substitute for keeping good records and
understanding the discrimination laws. It has the
distinct disadvantage that you might by the luck of the draw
have to accept a marginally qualified Caucasian applicant and
reject a highly qualified one of African descent who then
charges discrimination, leaving you with the worst of both
A second way to make this decision is to use good old
capitalist methods. This would be to inform the
applicants that there are several who have qualified and that
you will rent to the one who makes the best offer of rent,
security deposit, and length of lease, not less than that
advertised. This has been done, usually in very tight
housing markets, but we know no one who has done it. It
has pitfalls that should be obvious, and we mention it only
for the sake of completeness.
The third way to make this decision is to compare the
qualified applicants, then rank the applications in the order
of their qualifications, and select the most highly qualified.
We know of no legal reason not to do this, and it makes a lot
of sense. It is analogous to the hiring process.
You must be sure to document with a memorandum exactly how you
arrive at the final decision.
In all cases, you should keep all applications, even the ones
you rejected, as a record of what you have done.
I screen relatives and friends?
definitely. It is a cliché that the nastiest disputes
are between relatives and former friends. You will need
the information you verify through credit checks, etc.,
whether you are friends with the prospect or not.
Whether you lower your standards to help out a friend or
relative is up to you, but at minimum you should have the
information on hand, just in case.
long should I take to screen my prospects?
This is a balancing act. You do not want to be rushed
into making a decision or out of verifying information, but at
the same time you are trying to close sale, so you do not want
the prospectís enthusiasm for the unit to wane, and it will,
First, try to turn your applications around within about two
days. Most people will be willing to wait at least this
long. Tell those who, on the face of their applications,
are not qualified as soon as possible, so they can look
Second, if you are going to do something like leave
applications open for a week or so, in order to accumulate a
selection of applicants, tell the applicants that, and give
them an estimate of when they can expect to hear back.
Most people donít mind waiting a little while as long as
they know what is going on. A person who would not stand
for waiting a week or ten days in the dark might be quite
willing to do so if he knows that there is a reason for it and
what is going on.
Under no circumstances should you cut corners in order to save
time. If some information on an application turns out to
be unverifiable within a reasonable time, decide if that
information is really important to you. If it is, reject
the applicant and tell him the reason. He may be able to
resolve the problem for his next application.
I need to worry about illegal immigrants?
present Ė April, 2002 Ė there is no requirement for a
landlord to make any sort of inquiry into a prospectís
residence status as there is for a prospective employer.
Indeed, many more radical local jurisdictions may take the
view that such inquiry is a veiled form of ethnic
discrimination. Some countries, such as Singapore, do
require such inquiry, and such a requirement may be on the way
since 9/11. However, current law does proscribe
knowingly harboring illegal immigrants.
is such a thing as TMI (Too Much Information). As of
now, our best opinion would be not to ask at all, and stick to
checking ID. If the ID is not in order, that is a
compelling reason to refuse even to accept an application.
Let the applicant go in peace. If you come to suspect
later that the tenant is illegal, then you will have to decide
whether to inform the INS or keep your suspicions to yourself.
That is your call, and under the present state of the law we
cannot say that you are under any duty to make such a report.
If you are really concerned about this, then have a
consultation with an immigration lawyer because immigration is
a specialty unto itself. Otherwise, call the INS for
advice, although this is definitely a second best option.
Either way, be sure to document the advice you receive.
I do a criminal background check on my prospects?
Opinion on this is not unanimous. Some landlords do them
and some do not. Here are the pros and cons.
It is certainly nice to know if your prospect is a registered
sex offender or has a background of violent behavior that has
led to arrest and conviction. It is a service to other,
law abiding prospects and the prospect of having such a check
done may deter many with criminal records, and force others to
be forthcoming about their past.
Criminal background checks are not a cure-all, however.
In the first place, there is no centralized national database,
as there is for most credit transactions, that can be viewed
by those not engaged in law enforcement. This means that
a background check has to be done on a county-by-county basis,
in most cases. In order for the background check to be
useful, you must have a handle on what county the prospect has
lived in and check not only that but surrounding counties.
Felons do not usually restrict their activities to their home
counties. For this and other reasons, criminal
background checks also take a long time compared to credit
checks, which can often be done in minutes or hours.
There is also the question of TMI, Too Much Information.
In at least some states, such as California, it is unlawful to
discriminate against an individual for criminal convictions
that do not relate to the thing being applied for. For
example, it would be justified for a bank to refuse a teller
position to one who was convicted of embezzlement, but it
would be harder for a landlord to justify a refusal to rent
for this reason. By doing a criminal background check,
you might open your self up to a claim of discrimination if
you reject the applicant, even if it is for another reason.
The jury is still out on the utility of criminal background
checks, and while we spent more time on the cons than the
pros, you should not take this as an indication that we
recommend against them. You need to find your own
comfort zone, and if doing criminal background checks makes
you more comfortable and feel more diligent, then you should
is ďsteeringĒ and how do I avoid it? Why should I
Steering is the practice of driving a tenant to a particular
unit because you believe he is best suited for it, or
discouraging him from a unit he is interested in because you
do not think he is well suited for it. It is usually
understood that the motivation for the steering is some basis
that makes the prospect part of a protected class, such as
race, religion, and the like, but this is not always so.
There are two sound reasons for avoiding steering. The
first is that it is just, plain arrogant. Let the
prospect decide what is best for him. The second reason
is that it is illegal, if done for illegal reasons, that is,
because of the applicantís race, family arrangement, sexual
preference, disability, and so on. Examples would be
steering a blind applicant away from an apartment with a view,
or trying to get a wheel chair bound individual to take a
ground floor apartment.
Avoidance of steering, however, does not mean you cannot show
off what you have available, or use the information you have
about a prospect to show units you think will be most
attractive. By all means, tout the features and benefits
of your available units in a way best calculated to sell the
prospect. The key is to let the prospect decide, and
highlight the features and benefits, not the prospects
disabilities, or race, etc.
I need to run a credit check?
Yes, always. Even if you are renting to a friend or
relative you need to run a credit check. For one thing,
you should treat all of your prospects alike to avoid claims
of invidious discrimination. For another, even the
tightest friendships and relationships may break down.
Even if you have decided to rent to a relative regardless of
credit status, you do not know what your relationship will be,
say, a year from now, and you may need the information in the
report to help collect unpaid rent.
It goes without saying that if you need to run credit for
friends and relatives, you need to run it on total strangers.
Even if you do not take credit blemishes too seriously, the
information you develop in a credit report is a valuable cross
check on the information given in the balance of the
application, and can verify it for you, or show you your
prospect is lying.
What if the
credit check shows a delinquency?
A credit check needs to be read, as you would read a book or
magazine article, and the information considered as a whole.
There are not many people who do not have any credit
blemishes. Even if you have a prospect who has none, his
obligation to pay rent to you might end up being his first.
The credit history will show a pattern, as most such things
do. Does the pattern show over-all responsible use of
credit and a reasonable history of paying voluntary
obligations on time? If there were delinquencies, did
the applicant cause them, or did something unforeseeable put
him in a tight spot from which he has recovered? View
the applicantís credit history, and delinquencies, if any,
in this light.
How do I find
out how my prospect acted as a tenant in the past?
There are two good sources of information on this. The
first is former landlords, and the second is an agency that
checks for a history of evictions, something that does not
always appear on a credit report.
You should discount heavily what a current landlord has to say
about your prospect. The current landlord may be giving
a glowing reference because he wants the tenant out, or he may
be damning your prospect with faint praise because he does not
want him to move. The best source is a previous
landlord. These are people and companies that no longer
have any interest in seeing the prospect stay or leave, and so
are more likely to be objective. You should also be
aware that some companies always give a neutral reference, or
refuse to give one at all, as a matter of policy.
Checking on your prospect with an agency that reports eviction
proceedings is a good policy if there is a reliable one for
your area. As with criminal background checks, this sort
of report has not become as institutionalized as have credit
checks. Also as with credit checks, they must be
considered as a whole. It is not automatically the
tenantís fault if an eviction proceeding is filed against
him. Not only are there bad landlords out there, but
there are also bad laws. In some jurisdictions, such as
San Francisco, an eviction proceeding might be filed purely as
an insurance policy under their rent control law, even if the
tenant is cooperating to vacate the premises to make it
available for a relative of the landlord or for renovation,
for example. Also, lawsuits like this are checked at the
court clerkís office, and are identified by name, not by
Social Security number, as are most credit accounts. It
is not only possible, but also common, for an individual to
have evictions appear on his report only because his name is
similar to the person actually evicted. When you obtain
such a report and it shows a match, you should call the
landlord who initiated the proceeding and verify you are
talking about the same person.
How can I be
sure about an employment reference?
is a difficult problem. It is fairly easy to fake an
employment reference. Some employers will not give them
at all. Others will give only employment status as of
the time you call, and will omit any further information, such
as a pending resignation, etc. As a precaution, we
recommend you not dial a ďdirectĒ number to the
individualís supervisor. It is too easy to scam this
procedure through prearrangement with someone who actually
does work at the company. If told to contact a
supervisor, do so, but do it through the switchboard.
Contact the personnel office, if possible, also. Of
course, in small businesses the switchboard, personnel office,
and immediate supervisor might be one in the same. In
this case, you need to play it by ear. You can also ask
to see recent pay stubs.
What is the
best application form to use?
There is no best application form. The one you should
use is the one that gives you all the information you need to
feel comfortable renting to the prospect, and not a bit more.
If you routinely accept applications with blanks, then you are
asking for more than you need, and you should stop asking the
questions you can do without.
We have application forms available in our
They have been prepared by experienced property managers and
reviewed by experienced lawyers.
Why do I need
to keep all the paperwork I generate?
Most of the people who apply for your rental unit are going to
be disappointed, and some of those will be mad. You need
a record of everything you did to make the decision to rent so
that if anyone should claim you acted for an illegal reason
you can show you did not.
You also will need to refer to the information in the future.
Decision points will come even in the best of landlord-tenant
relationships. Having reliable information on your
tenants at your fingertips will make decision making easier
and less error prone.
How long should
I keep the paperwork?