Main Content

Home » Guidelines on screening prospective tenants without incurring liability

Guidelines on screening prospective tenants without incurring liability

As a landlord or property manager, it can be difficult to screen prospective tenants interested in renting a property. The problem comes mostly from obtaining reliable information on a tenant, and the endless inquiries it entails.  

Landlords and property managers who withhold or hesitate to provide accurate references on tenants are quite common. In most cases, they are wary of litigation in the event that the tenant finds the information they provide inaccurate. A safe approach that is more commonly used is to refer secondary sources to the landlord, such as personal references. This is often of little help as well, as they usually redirect the landlord back to the original reference.

To help you avoid going on an endless loop of obtaining referrals, here are a few tips and guidelines:

Rental application

One of the first steps is to ask a prospective tenant for permission to obtain their information. Provide the tenant with a rental application form, which will authorize you to check their credit history and get in touch with previous employers and landlords. You can find a sample of the form here.  

Included in the rental application is the option to contact personal references as well, which you have the choice to either pursue or not. Most landlords and property managers however, do not depend on personal references, as they consider them unreliable sources of information – a prospective tenant may have already tipped a friend/relative on what to say, should they be contacted as a reference.

Former landlords

Previous landlords can often keep a tight lid regarding their former tenants. The existing Fair Housing Act is often seen as a deterrent for landlords when it comes to providing information, as they may potentially face liability.

The best way to get useful information from a former landlord is to ask the correct questions which focus on the facts, such as:

  • Did your property incur any damage from the tenant?
  • Did the tenant follow the terms of lease?
  • Were payments from the tenant made on time?
  • Did you have to deal with late fees, and if so, were they eventually paid?
  • Did you ever have to deal with serving a 3-day notice to the tenant?
  • Did the tenant write any bounced checks?

You may also consider inquiring about the tenant’s overall behavior and personal conduct, as well as the monthly rent payments, and duration/dates of residency.

Investigative reports

You may also choose to purchase an investigative report, which can be provided by an investigative consumer reporting agency. This will include personal interviews with associates and neighbors of the tenant. You will need to ask for the tenant’s consent before you can request this type of report.

Talk to former landlords in person

Former landlords may be dishonest when providing information about a previous tenant. There’s a chance that getting rid of the tenant is favorable for them, thus giving them reason to withhold negative details about the tenant.

Try to schedule face to face interviews with landlords if possible. This will give you a better read on their reactions when you ask them questions, which isn’t possible when you’re talking to them on the phone. A personal interview will make it easier to see if a landlord is concealing significant details about the tenant, whether it’s to get rid of the tenant, or to avoid litigation.