How to Gather Information When Screening Rental Applicants Without Appearing to Discriminate
Landlords are not allowed to discriminate against applicants based on gender, age, race, religion, and other criteria. You are also not allowed to ask questions about those subjects. A seemingly harmless “How old are you?” could be taken the wrong way and land you in trouble.
Many landlords fear that the appearance of discrimination may prevent them from getting enough information in the screening process to ensure a good tenant. While you must be careful about the questions you ask, you can find ways to ensure you have everything you need to make a solid decision.
Be Detailed in the Application
First, start with the application. Create a written application if you don’t already have one, and ask plenty of detailed questions about the applicant's employment and previous living history. Ask for references and other information that you will need in the screening process.
When you use a standard written application that you present to every applicant, you are not being discriminatory. You should also let an attorney look at it if you are concerned about any of the questions.
You should also include any other forms and a document that details the process for any applicants. For example, you would include a form requesting permission for a credit check that all applicants must sign.
Pre-screen Over the Phone
Let any prospective tenants know your requirements during the first phone call. If they don’t meet the criteria, it saves you time and research determining if they qualify. You can also ask open-ended questions, such as “How did you hear about this unit?” and “What are you looking for?” to allow the person to begin talking.
Have your requirements in front of you when speaking to potential applicants. This allows them to eliminate themselves if they don’t qualify. For instance, if you have a maximum number of people allowed because of the number of bedrooms, state that upfront.
Review Essential Information
When going over the application, begin verifying or reviewing the basic information. If someone does not meet your minimum income requirement, this is a legitimate reason to disqualify him or her.
Go over the credit and background checks to see if the person continues to qualify. Make sure that if you deny someone based on a criminal record or credit history, that you follow that same standard for all applicants. For example, you can determine not to rent to someone with a felony in the past five years, but you cannot make an exception without appearing to discriminate.
To ensure that you get the most accurate information, ask for specific references. Otherwise, you will end up talking to Aunt Mary or someone’s best friend, and you’ll learn very little information of value. Instead, request employment references or previous landlords' contact information. These are objective people who know what information they can provide and are more apt to be honest.
It is also important to know what questions you can and cannot ask of the references. For example, you can ask if a person is employed or when he or she was hired. You can’t ask if he or she shows up on time or how often he or she is absent from work. What you can do is ask if there is any other information the person can provide.
If you create a formal application packet that you provide to all applicants, you can get the information you need without worrying about being accused of discrimination if you reject an application.
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