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Landlord 101 — How To (Legally) Screen Potential Tenants

woman thinking about tenant screening
Pulling the credit report of a future tenant may seem excessive, but it’s important to be informed.

Your prospective tenant has probably filled out a general application, but you may want to get the full lowdown on this stranger before you hand over the keys to your adorably restored row home in Portsmouth, NH. While tenant screening options vary from pulling a credit report to calling up the tenant’s old landlord, it’s important to learn more about the tenant legally and responsibly. Here are a few tips.

Have a thorough application form

Do your landlord due diligence and make sure you’re asking for the most important information. Make sure your application asks questions to reveal indications of a mature and responsible tenant: Potential items to ask for include their income, employment status, driver’s license number, past criminal activity, and a Social Security number for a credit or background check. Without these, it will be difficult to play detective on your prospective renter.

Contact their references

In many cases, a tenant will need to provide a reference or two to be considered for the rental, just like in a job interview. The landlord can legally contact these references to get the inside scoop on the prospective tenant, so consider asking for the contact information of someone like a past landlord or boss. You’ll want an objective opinion on how respectful the renter will be in your property as well as with the surrounding neighbors, and the best source for this information is past landlords or employers.

Comb their credit report

Legally, you are allowed to pull the credit report of anyone that applies to be your tenant. However, there’s a catch. If you reject a tenant due to a low credit score or bad history, you must send an adverse action letter explaining why. To ease this process, when advertising your rental, include in the ad that you check the credit history of all applicants. This could attract the ideal tenant for your rental property — and turn away those with less-than-ideal credit histories. Have more than one rental property? Services are available to pull reports for multiple tenants at once for a one-time fee.

Ask for income information

When screening applications, make sure the applicants can actually make the rent payment each month. You can legally request and obtain a W-2 form from their employer or an offer letter indicating their salary and employment history. It’s crucial to be upfront with a prospective tenant regarding finances to avoid problems with rent in the future.

Don’t discriminate

If you’re on the fence about a tenant — maybe they just seem too young to be taking on a $3,000 rent payment on their own — be aware that you are not legally allowed to discriminate against a tenant. State laws protect tenants from discrimination when applying for and leasing properties. Some illegal forms of discrimination include race, gender, marital status, and age.

What do you find the most challenging about the lease application and tenant screening process? Share in the comments below!

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