Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites can give landlords valuable insight into prospective tenant's lives. However, some of the information you find online can't legally be used to choose a new renter. So, before you start Googling applicants, it's important to know what knowledge you can — and can't — seek.

Useful Information Found on Social Media

Landlords who search social media should look for information in three main categories: pets, property damage, and lifestyle. When viewing social media accounts, landlords can look for pets that might not be disclosed on the rental application. They can also look for clues about the prospective renter's partying habits. Evidence of noise complaints or underage drinking may indicate these applicants could cause problems. Finally, landlords may be able to see how well tenants maintain their rental houses and any property damage they may have caused.

Fair Housing Act and State Discrimination Laws

Some landlords do not use social media to screen tenants to avoid accusations of discrimination. When investigating a tenant's partying habits, a landlord could find information about the person's race or religion. If the landlord denies that tenant's application, the tenant could file a discrimination complaint. Landlords who violate the law can be fined or subjected to other penalties. To avoid any complaints, it's important to only use pertinent, legally permissible information when evaluating applicants.

The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate based on disability, familial status, gender, religion, color, race, or national origin during the rental application process. This federal law also requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations based on disabilities. For example, even if you have a no pets policy, you cannot deny a blind person's rental application because he uses a guide dog.

Your state may also have separate housing discrimination laws. For example, California law asserts landlords must not discriminate based on sexual orientation, marital status, medical condition, ancestry, age, source of income, gender identity, genetic information, gender expression, or arbitrary discrimination.

Researching Social Media Laws

As privacy concerns increase, many states have passed laws protecting people's social media and email accounts from invasive scrutiny from employers and educational institutions. In 2014, Wisconsin stated that landlords, in addition to employers and educational institutions, could not compel possible tenants to share private Internet information with them.

Public social media profiles and other information is not currently restricted. However, landlords should stay informed about any new social media privacy laws or amendments in their states or federal legislature.

Tips for Using Social Media to Screen Tenants

If you do decide to use social media as part of your applicant screening process, be sure to follow these tips:

Treat all of the applicants equally. If you use social media to investigate one possible tenant, you must investigate all possible tenants online.

Remember that not all social media information is accurate. Mistaken identities and misleading information is common online.

Follow the law. Do not discriminate against people who are part of a Fair Housing Act or state-protected class. Do not violate state and federal social media laws when gathering information.

Document the information you find online and keep detailed records of your overall tenant screening process. This documentation could protect you if a complaint is filed with a local housing authority.

Social media may be a good way to see how people care for their properties and spend their time. However, you shouldn't overlook classic ways of evaluating a rental application. Talking to old landlords and calling references should give you a clear understanding of a prospective tenant's suitability. You can also use Landlord Station's tenant screening process to locate information about a tenant's credit, criminal history and other important details before you make a final decision.

POSTED November 19 2014 2:00 PM

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