How to Legally Screen Tenants

Landlords want to find the best tenants for their rental properties, and that begins with a thorough application and screening process. You can ask numerous questions of applicants, but some questions are forbidden, under federal housing law. Read on for tips on how to legally screen rental applicants.

Getting the Basics

A rental application should ask for basic information that includes:

  • Full name, including previous/maiden name
  • Date of birth
  • Social Security number
  • Current address, previous two addresses, and contact information for current and former landlords
  • Driver’s license number and vehicle information
  • Employment information and employer contact information
  • Income.

Including additional questions can help you weed out potential problem tenants. You may legally ask for bank account numbers, whether an applicant has ever been convicted of a felony, and whether the applicant has ever been evicted. You can also ask for a personal reference. Include language before the signature line that indicates that, by signing, the applicant gives you permission to verify all information.

Questions to Avoid

Under the federal Fair Housing Act, landlords may not discriminate against tenants based on race, gender, religion, nationality, familial status, or disability. Maryland law also forbids housing discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, unless the landlord is leasing a room inside his or her primary residence.

Landlords cannot disallow renters with children, unless the building qualifies as 62-and-over housing, or at least one person in 80 percent of occupied units is 55 and older. You can, however, ask for the birth date of other intended occupants of the rental unit. Any additional occupant age 18 or older should fill out a separate rental application.

The Screening Process

Many companies, including all three major credit bureaus, offer screening services that provide a comprehensive report on an applicant’s credit history and overall financial health. These reports show details like open credit lines, loans, and payment history, and verify that the applicant provided his or her correct address and Social Security number. (Most screening processes don’t require a Social Security number, but if a tenant should ever default on the lease, a collections agency will need the tenant’s Social Security number to pursue payment.)

The use of criminal background checks in leasing creates some possible legal concerns for landlords. On April 4, 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released an official document providing guidance on the topic. Some points that can help landlords avoid inadvertently discriminating against tenants include:

  • A prior arrest alone is not a valid reason for denying a lease, because an arrest may not have resulted in a conviction.
  • Landlords cannot adopt a policy that prohibits any and all prior convictions.
  • Landlords must adopt a policy that excludes only specific types of convictions – such as those that could jeopardize the safety of other tenants – and must review prior convictions on a case-by-case basis.
  • When reviewing prior convictions, landlords must consider when the offense occurred, as research shows that with the passage of time, a person becomes less and less likely to commit another criminal offense

So, under these guidelines, a landlord could risk charges of discrimination for denying a tenant based on a single conviction for driving while intoxicated 20 years ago.

Lusk Law, LLC, specializes in advising landlords about the legalities of screening and leasing, and if a conflict or formal complaint should arise, we are ready to represent our clients in court. Our experienced attorneys have provided legal counsel and representation to landlords in Frederick County, Howard County, Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Carroll County, Washington County, Anne Arundel County, and other counties in Maryland. Please call us at 443-535-9715 or fill out our contact form if you have any questions about this topic.

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