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Illegal Tenant Screening Questions

Property managers need to be familiar with Federal Fair Housing laws and avoid discriminatory behavior at all costs.  One of the most common instances where property managers are accused of violating Fair Housing laws is during the tenant screening process.


Any housing provider who denies a rental applicant must do so for legally allowable terms, like failing to meet the income requirements, poor credit, or bad rental history.  These disqualifiers are typically found by the information available on a rental application and an applicant's credit report.


However, the tenant screening process for all managers begins before an application is even submitted. Screening starts at the first point of contact with your applicants, whether intentional or not, you will begin forming an opinion on your applicant about what type of renter he or she will be. That is why it is important that you make sure your casual conversations during a property showing or tenant interview, are appropriate and adhere to Fair Housing Guidelines.


The Federal Fair Housing Act protects renters by prohibiting landlords from making housing decisions based on race, religion, familial status, national origin, sex, or age. In order to meet these guidelines landlords should not ask their applicants or current renters any of the following questions.  

Avoid these Illegal Tenant Screening Questions


  1. Where are you from?  While this is a natural conversation starter, your applicant could interpret it as a question about their national origin, which is off an off limit subject for property managers.

  2. How old are you? You cannot ask a rental applicant how old they are but you can require that all applicants over 18 provide their birth date on an application in order to run a credit report and criminal background check.

  3. Do you have any kids? This is one of the most obvious and easy questions I tend to ask everyone I meet. But a housing provider cannot breach the subject as it directs questions towards an applicant’s familial status. Rather than ask a question about children, simply tell your applicant’s that you will need to know the total number of people that will be living on the property to make sure occupancy limits are respected.

Illegal Tenant Screening Statements


Even if you don’t ask a question outright right that violates fair housing, be careful what you say during your renter conversations. Anything that could be possibly interpreted as discriminatory could land a property manager in a legal trouble.


  1. “It will be good to have a man around to help with yard work”. Never ever make a blanket statement about the benefits of renting to one gender over the other.

  2. “There’s a great church down the road.” Any comments about religion need to be kept to yourself. Religion is protected under the Fair Housing Act, so you cannot make statements that point out local places of worship, activities, or opinions about religious beliefs. A rental applicant could take a comment like this to mean you only want to rent to people who go to the church down the street.


Every conversation you have with a potential tenant needs to focus on the applicant’s ability to pay rent on time, take care a property and follow lease terms - all the qualities of a dream tenant. Any other subject could potentially violate housing laws.  Property managers must be familiar with fair housing laws at the federal, state and local levels and how their rental policies may impact protected groups under those laws.


Ignorance of laws is no excuse, and landlords have been known to fall victim to disparate impact claims.    


To protect oneself from disparate impact claims, all housing providers must have supporting documentation that all applicants are treated exactly the same and a tenant was accepted or rejected based on legal screening criteria.  By collecting all of this information, not only can property managers make an informed decision about prospective renters, but they can show in court that they had valid reasons to select one tenant over another.

What types of legal questions do you ask during a tenant interview that meet Federal Fair Housing Guidelines?  Let us know in the comments!

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