I am sure this question goes through the minds of many new landlords. And it is an area that, if not handled well, can cause many headaches and heartaches. I have a friend who recently had to evict a tenant for not paying their rent, and then to add insult to injury had to clean up the complete mess they left behind after vacating the property. No one wants to deal with that kind of situation and proper tenant screening is the best way to minimize the risk.
However, tenant screening is also subject to fair housing laws. Landlords, who are not formerly trained in fair housing law and may be unaware of local landlord-tenant legislation, put themselves at risk of litigation if the screening is not handled properly.
Fair housing legislation is in place to prevent unlawful discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap. Some state laws may include additional protections, such as marital status, age, sexual orientation, and more.
It is extremely important to handle the screening process in an educated and professional manner so that you avoid questions, comments, and conversation that may lead to accusations of discrimination (intended or not!). You must treat each applicant equally, meaning you ask everyone the same questions and expect them to meet the same objective criteria.
What kind of questions can landlords ask tenants during the screening process?
What should they avoid completely?
In the end, you must choose a tenant based on their ability to pay the rent and care for the property. If they meet the objective criteria you've established in advance, then the tenant is qualified and must be offered a chance to rent the property.
Personally, I've been very fortunate to only have to go through the tenant screening process once since becoming a landlord myself. It is one of the stickier aspects of the job and I certainly would not have done it alone. We relied on a tenant screening service to provide us with the data needed to make an objective decision. Some of these services "score" the tenant based on these criteria and make a recommendation to rent or not to rent to them. This takes your personal viewpoint completely out of the equation.
An even better solution would be to hire an experienced professional to help you with the marketing, screening, and leasing process. Some property management companies offer lease-only services, designed to help you market the property, screen tenants, and get a signed lease. I am very impressed with the property managers I meet through NARPM® (National Association of Residential Property Managers) events. They are educated professionals who hold themselves to high ethical standards and pursue education that helps them increase their industry knowledge and better serve their clients. Visit the website to view a list of NARPM® chapters and their members.
When you are looking for a tenant, it is tempting to hold out for a "perfect match" - the tenant you've been imagining in your head. But, you must remember the legal implications of being a landlord and accept the "perfect match" on paper - the tenant who meets the criteria to rent your property.
To keep my finger on the "pulse" of fair housing issues, I set up a Google Alert to deliver me links to relevant online articles and I also follow the Fair Housing Defense Blog.
Let's Talk. Landlords, how do you make sure you comply with fair housing law when you market your property and screen tenants?