How to Screen Tenants Legally and Avoid Housing Discrimination

Federal Fair Housing rules prohibit landlords from discriminating against rental applicants in a number of key areas. These include:

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Race. Racial discrimination, whether subtle or overt, is prohibited by law.

National Origin. Favoring those who come from a specific country is illegal, as is denying anyone from a specific nation. In some states, when screening tenants, it’s also illegal to ask applicants about their citizenship or immigration status.

Religion. Denying an applicant on the basis of their religion or giving priority to those of a certain religion is illegal.

Age or Family Status. Landlords cannot turn a renter away based upon their age or family status, including if a woman is single, pregnant and/or has children. The presence of children is not a valid or legal reason for rejecting an applicant. Designating an unreasonably low occupancy limit for any rental unit is illegal as well.

Disability. Rejecting an applicant based upon physical or mental disabilities is illegal as well. When they screen tenants, landlords may not ask if an applicant has a disability or request to see their medical records. Those in addiction recovery (actively receiving treatment and/or attending meetings) may not be rejected based upon their past misuse of substances (unless they were convicted of drug manufacture or dealing.)

That said, there are numerous valid and legal reasons that a landlord can (and should) pass on a rental applicant and continue to screen tenants for more desirable candidates. These include:

Insufficient income. Ideally, if the monthly rent is over one-third of an applicant’s verified monthly income, they probably cannot afford the unit.

Past eviction record and/or negative feedback from past landlords. A poor track record with other landlords is a clear red flag.

Poor credit and/or too many debts. A credit report or tenant screening service can help a landlord to screen tenants and gain insight into the credit history of applicants. Those with high debt and a history of late or missed payments could be problem renters.

Criminal convictions. A criminal record is another potentially valid reason for rejecting an applicant (although it can depend upon the crime and when it occurred in some states.)

Landlords can save themselves a lot of issues down the road by following these guidelines when they screen tenants. A quality tenant screening service can assist in finding many of the legal reasons that a tenant should be rejected.

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