When screening potential tenants, it’s important for landlords to know all relevant housing laws so that they don’t unknowingly violate federal, state, or local laws or rental discrimination. As a baseline, all landlords should be familiar with federal housing laws. However, because some states and cities have additional laws that offer protection over and above federal laws, it’s important for landlords to also know the local housing laws in any area where they have rental properties.
Beyond knowing all relevant laws, landlords should create a tenant screening process that complies with legislation, contains objective criteria, and that is applied to all prospective tenants. Doing this will ensure that landlords are in compliance with all laws and protected against any claims of discrimination while also ensuring that they have an effective process for screening tenants.
Federal Housing Laws Rental Discrimination
Pursuant to key federal legislation, including the Fair Housing Act, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, landlords are prohibited from discriminating against tenants or prospective tenants based on race or color; national origin; religion; political views; a disability or handicap, including mental and physical; sex; or family status, including protection for individuals with minor children and pregnant women.
In addition to this federal legislation, many states offer additional protections and prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, age, and marital status.
Specific Activities that are Illegal
Broadly speaking, landlords engage in unlawful discrimination when they select tenants not based on merit but instead based on the tenant being part of a protected group. Obviously, this means that it’s illegal to refuse to rent to a tenant based on race or national origin. In addition to some of the more clear violations, however, landlords violate federal housing laws when they:
- Apply different standards or terms for different tenants
- Create unreasonable restrictions on the number of people allowed in a unit
- Offer different services or facility access to different tenants
- Are unwilling to make reasonable accommodations for disabled tenants
- Tell a potential tenant that a unit is no longer available when it is still available
- Include a preference for or against a protected group in a rental advertisement
Creating a Fair and Legal Screening Process
While housing laws prohibit certain types of tenant screening, there are still a number of factors that landlords can and should consider when screening tenants. After all, a landlord needs to ensure that tenants will protect their property and be able to consistently pay rent.
In order to effectively and lawfully screen tenants, landlords should create a standardized screening process that looks at specific, objective criteria. Factors that landlords should consider include:
- Credit history
- Rental history (i.e., history of nonpayment or evictions)
- Prior bankruptcies
- References (from prior landlords and personal contacts)
- Incomplete or inaccurate application
- Criminal record
The screening process should begin with an application and objective criteria for reviewing applications. It’s important to make sure that the application asks for all relevant information, including details about employment and income, references, contact information for previous landlords, and pets. While you want the application to be thorough, it’s also important to make sure that the application complies with federal and local housing laws and complies with rental discrimination laws. To ensure that your application meets all requirements, it’s a good idea to utilize a rental application form as opposed to creating your own.
Credit and Background Checks
In addition to using a thorough application, landlords should run a credit check and background check on all tenants. To make this process as easy as possible, consider utilizing a tenant screening service, that includes a credit report, eviction history, and nationwide background check.
Part of the screening process should involve talking to applicants’ prior landlords and asking about outstanding debts, a habit of late payments, and property damage. Plus, if possible, it’s helpful to schedule a visit to their current address to see their living conditions. This will give you a glimpse into how they live and can help you anticipate how they will treat and care for your property. Finally, it’s also a good idea to contact personal references to learn more about potential tenants and to identify any red flags.
It’s important for landlords to effectively screen tenants to ensure that their property is protected and that they have qualified and reliable tenants. However, when looking for new tenants, it’s equally important that landlords know and follow all relevant housing laws.
ezLandlordForms makes the tenant screening process easy for landlords by offering resources on state laws as well as referrals to local attorneys to help provide guidance when necessary. In addition, ezLandlordForms provides access to rental applications and a tenant screening service. Take advantage of ezLandlordForm’s expertise to be confident that you’re effectively screening tenants while also complying with all applicable laws.