As a prospective tenant, you should expect a landlord to screen you before signing the lease. Issues that the landlord probably wants to address include whether you are likely to take proper care of the property, whether you pay rent on time, whether you unreasonably complained to previous landlords, and whether you caused problems with your previous fellow tenants or neighbors. If you have a pet, for example, the landlord will want to verify that you know how to control it so that it does not disturb others.
Information Covered on a Rental Application
Some of the common issues addressed on rental applications include a prospective tenant’s criminal history, credit history, and any previous evictions by prior landlords. Landlords may ask about the nature of your employment and income sources, and people who are self-employed may be more carefully vetted. While landlords cannot discriminate on the basis of immigration status, they can ask for proof of a foreign national’s legal status in the U.S. They can also ask for identifying information like a Social Security number or driver’s license.
In some cases, a prospective tenant may choose to meet a landlord with a completed rental application already in hand, together with their credit report and references from prior landlords and others. This is not required but can be a way to start the relationship on a strong footing.
Background and Reference Checks
Rather than taking the information on the application at face value, landlords will usually follow up by checking it with a prospective tenant’s landlords. They also may ask an employer or a credit reporting agency to verify information related to income and credit. Landlords must receive a completed consent form from a tenant to do this, but granting this permission is standard.
Tenants do have rights during this process. Landlords may not use the background check process to help them discriminate against certain groups whom they do not want on their property, such as groups defined by race, religion, or national origin. They also are not allowed to ask irrelevant questions that invade a prospective tenant’s privacy. The consent form should be worded in a way that protects the rights of tenants by limiting the scope of the information available to the landlord.
If you had a hostile relationship with your current landlord or a prior landlord, you may want to present your side of the story before they present theirs. You might be able to provide a prospective landlord with police reports discussing safety concerns if this was a factor, or there might be public records showing code violations by the current or prior landlord, for example.
Third parties whom the landlord contacts are not required to communicate with the landlord, even if the tenant has completed the consent form and even if the tenant asks them to provide information.
Checking Credit Reports
Landlords often will want to look into a prospective tenant’s credit history. They can find out if you have been late in paying your rent, evicted, convicted, or otherwise involved in litigation at any time in the last seven years. Also, they can find out whether you have filed for bankruptcy in the last 10 years. Prospective tenants may need to pay a small fee to cover the cost of the check. They may even want to conduct a check on their own in advance so that they can fix any problems or prepare an explanation for them.
The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act gives you the right to find out the identity of a credit reporting agency that reported negative information about you if this resulted in a landlord rejecting you or charging higher rent. You have a right to get a free copy of your file from the agency, but you must request it within 60 days of the landlord rejecting you. You can dispute the accuracy of the information in the report, although the landlord will inform you that the agency did not make the decision not to rent to you and is not responsible for explaining why you were rejected.