The COVID-19 pandemic has left many out of work or in search of new jobs. That creates unfamiliar challenges for landlords screening tenants in uncertain times. There are also fair housing and other legal complications that come into play. Here, we discuss tenant screening best practices and how to get the information you, as a landlord, need to assess a tenant’s rent-worthiness.
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What is a tenant screening?
Tenant screening tries to answer two basic questions. First, can the tenant afford rent? Second, is the tenant likely to abide by the terms of your lease?
A basic tenant screening package includes a credit check and a criminal background check. If you use a landlord-specific tool, you can also receive an eviction history. You may want proof of income as well. Be aware that some state and local laws have protections for information relating to criminal records and credit requirements. In these locations, you may want to avoid asking questions about these topics.
It is a good practice to stick to objective criteria such as the above. Relying on social media, a gut feeling, or an unstructured process could leave you open to a fair housing complaint. A clear and objective process gives you an additional defense against potential complaints.
What questions can I ask a potential tenant?
Questions can focus on helping the tenant decide if they want the unit and if they meet application criteria. For example, you might ask them how much space they need or what amenities they want.
You might also ask if their current income meets your minimum requirement. If you have a credit score floor, you can ask about that as well. Many tenants want to bring pets, so you can bring up your pet deposit or pet rent policies if you allow pets.
What are some questions to avoid asking a potential tenant?
When you talk to potential tenants, you may want to avoid questions that could be considered discriminatory or ones that violate other housing laws. This takes more than just being pleasant. There are specific topics that are off-limits.
For instance, you may want to avoid asking a prospective tenant if they have children. Even if this does not affect your decision, a tenant could claim they were denied housing based on their family status. Stick to broad questions about what the applicant wants. If they mention being near a good school for their children, you can then tell them about the local schools.
Finally, there may be state and local laws that limit the scope of your tenant screening. Rocket Lawyer landlord documents are customizable and come with the ability to check your documents with an attorney in the Rocket Lawyer network.
How do I ask about proof of income and source of income to ensure the tenant can pay rent?
Some tenants may overstate or inflate their income. While you can evict for non-payment, the process is time-consuming and costly. With eviction moratoriums still in place in many areas, the risk of a tenant who cannot pay is even higher.
The traditional ways to prove income are pay stubs, bank statements, or tax returns. The problem with pay stubs and bank statements is that they can be falsified by anyone with a computer. Tax returns can be up to a year behind and may not reflect a recent job change.
Many landlords are turning to income screening services that perform thorough checks. They search human resource records of larger employers for instant verification. They may also verify directly with employers and banks.
When you are ready to approve a tenant, you may want to have them sign the lease online. Digital signatures are legally valid and a safe way to sign documents remotely. Online payment services can similarly verify a tenant’s source of funds and that the account actually belongs to the tenant.
Rent Confidently with Rocket Lawyer
It is a particularly challenging time to be a landlord. Verifying tenant information and making sure you are operating within the law has never been more important. Rocket Lawyer is here to help you create customizable documents that are a routine part of your business and that can be digitally signed with ease. You can also reach out to an On Call attorney in the Rocket Lawyer attorney network if you need advice on your screening process or updating your tenant screening best practices.
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.