The rental market is going strong in most areas of the country, as more folks are renting instead of buying. While many landlords are enjoying high vacancy rates, they still need to be cautious; the economy has really hurt the credit scores and bill-paying ability of millions of Americans.
Every landlord has a different standard for accepting new tenants, but the importance of conducting thorough credit checks and tenant background checks is clear. This is the one area that experienced landlords will tell you not to skimp on, because if you do, you will more than likely regret it!
Tenant credit checks and background screening doesn’t take long, and can be inexpensive. Most landlords pass the fee on to the prospective tenant, and most tenants are accustomed to paying the fee. If you have an applicant who has a problem with paying the fee or signing the authorization to conduct a background screening, then you probably don’t want them as a tenant, do you?
The screening process begins with the lease application, where you may ask questions about the applicant’s address history, work history and credit history, and obtain contact information for previous landlords and personal references. You may ask if the applicant has ever broken a lease, if they paid rent on time, why they are moving now, and about their income.
You may not ask a potential tenant about race, religion, family status, disability, or any other information that might indicate a breach of the Fair Housing Act.
Be sure to obtain the applicant’s signature on a separate notice that informs him or her that you will be running a credit check and background screening, based on their name, date of birth and Social Security Number.
Most experienced landlords will also phone references and previous landlords. Be careful how you phrase your conversation, because too many tenant applicants will provide the phone numbers of friends who have agreed to pose as a landlord or employer. Simply identify yourself and ask the person on the other line, “How do you know Joe?” The correct answer may be “I’m his landlord,” or “He used to work for me.” If Joe gave you Tom’s name as a previous landlord, and Tom answers, “Joe and I are on a bowling team together,” you may have spotted an inconsistency in Joe’s story. Be on the lookout for more of them!
Finally, you should run a thorough tenant screening credit check to find out how the applicant pays bills, if they’ve filed for bankruptcy, and what their credit score is. A criminal background screening will reveal whether or not you have a convicted felon or sex offender applying to live in your rental property.
Don’t forget to trust your gut when screening tenants. You don’t have to give a reason for rejecting a tenant in most areas (check your state and local laws)—but do be careful and apply the same criteria to every applicant, or you could be accused of discrimination. You can’t reject an applicant solely for the color of their skin, but you can reject one because their credit score did not meet your minimum requirements—along with the bad feeling they gave you when you met them!