What Are Tenant Screening Laws?

Landlords have a lot of rules and regulations they have to follow. From maintaining their properties to filing taxes properly, owning property comes with a lot of responsibilities.

Landlords have a lot of rules and regulations they have to follow. From maintaining their properties to filing taxes properly, owning property comes with a lot of responsibilities.

But some of the most important laws that landlords must follow involve tenant screening. So what exactly do tenant screening laws entail?

What do tenant screening laws cover?

When landlords invest in free tenant screening, they’re hoping to ensure whichever tenants they choose are a good fit for their property. However, there are laws that must be followed when conducting tenant screening.

One of the biggest elements of tenant screening laws is discrimination: under law, landlords are not allowed to discriminate against the sex, race, color, nationality, disabilities, or family status of potential tenants. These classes are protected to ensure no applicant is denied housing because of an unfair reason not related to finances or employment.

If landlords are proven to have discriminated against tenant applicants because of any of these reasons, they can face some hefty fines.

What can landlords do?

Tenant screening laws are designed to protect both tenants and landlords. Landlords are allowed to check any applicants’ credit and references from employers or previous landlords. If an applicant is rejected, landlords should send a declination letter to specify the reason for rejection, like credit history or income.

Landlords are encouraged to keep documentation of both approved and declined tenants for at least 10 years. This can come in handy if there is ever a legal concern regarding the rejection of an application. And landlords are certainly allowed to consult with an attorney before, during, or after a legal issue arises.

One area where screening can get kind of tricky is for those applicants with a criminal record. A person’s arrest record is often available to the public, so landlords can run a background check and look at the criminal record of a potential tenant. Under tenant screening laws, like the Fair Housing Act, criminal history is not considered a protected class, meaning applicants with a criminal background may not be protected from discrimination.

However, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development does have guidelines to ensure landlords don’t have a blanket policy regarding criminal records. They will consider whether or not the landlord’s criminal history policy is, in fact, discriminatory, whether or not the landlord has the same criminal history policy in place for every applicant, and what exactly the landlord considers when looking at criminal history. Landlords should consider applicants with a criminal record on a case-by-case basis.

What can’t landlords do?

As landlords receive applications, there are a lot of things that they cannot do under tenant screening laws. For example, landlords are not allowed to give one applicant a set of terms and give another applicant a different set of terms. Some landlords may have stricter standards for specific applicants, but this isn’t allowed under law and this may be considered discrimination depending on the applicant.

Landlords should also not immediately reject an applicant that has a criminal record. As previously mentioned, there are guidelines regarding using criminal records to make housing-related decisions — having a blanket policy which excludes applications with a criminal history is not allowed.

And lastly, landlords should not ask personal questions on applications. Questions regarding things like age, sexual orientation, or family status may seem harmless, but they can lead to discrimination arguements down the line. Instead, landlords should ask need-to-know questions, like those related to income or employment.

All in all, landlords are required under tenant screening laws to treat each and every applicant fairly. Discrimination is punishable by law and landlords can face legal charges and a bad reputation if they’re charged with breaking these tenant screening laws.

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