How Far Should You Go to Screen Potential Tenants?

Screening potential tenants allows landlords to spot red flags ahead of time, but how much of a deep dive should you take into your applicants’ lives? The basic tenant screening process generally involves a background check, credit check, and income verification. However, that doesn’t necessarily tell you about someone’s social tendencies. You can’t always spot a drug user or disruptive person through a background check.

To sift out potentially disruptive tenants, landlords have started using additional means to gather information about prospects, like social media. This doesn’t sit well with tenants, not to mention that using social media to screen tenants risks violating the Fair Housing Act.

You can’t deny the importance of a thorough tenant screening, but how far should you go? Here are some tips.

  1. Be cautious about checking social media

When it comes to searching social media, you have to be careful to avoid a lawsuit. You can’t use information you find to discriminate against applicants, like their age, race, color, religion, gender, marital status, etc. In fact, in the past, many landlords have gotten into hot water for just looking through social media accounts. In court, the presumption was that the information was used to discriminate. Whether or not that was actually true is beside the point – it doesn’t look good to a judge.

For landlords who really want to do this, a new company called Tenant Assured is making it easier for landlords to access social media accounts legally by explicitly asking for an applicant’s permission before gathering information from social media. Granting permission changes the situation. However, it’s also seen as a major privacy violation and will deter a large number of applicants.

If you choose to analyze social media, you’re probably looking for signs that someone parties, drinks, does drugs, or gets violent. It’s understandable to be concerned about these things, but seeing people post pictures of themselves drinking a beer or at a party don’t necessarily indicate they will be a disruptive tenant.

Also, people are usually more self-expressed on social media regarding personal beliefs, religion, and political stances. Evaluating social media could cause you to unconsciously discriminate against applicants whose political beliefs clash with your own. Asking applicants to give you permission to access their social media accounts is probably going to be a deal-breaker, and it’s a bit risky.

  1. Be completely professional

Just like you would limit your searching and analyzing to what’s legal, you should also limit your emotional responses and interactions and remain professional at all times. Diving deeply into an applicant’s life and online presence might bring up some emotions, especially if you find questionable things.

If you’re going to reject an application because of what you’ve found, stay professional and don’t give any more information than necessary to make your communication. Expressing emotions or saying too much can result in a discrimination lawsuit.

If you choose to interview a potential tenant after finding questionable things on their background report or social media accounts, approach the situation professionally and legally. You might want them to explain things that you can’t legally inquire about, so take that into account before you pursue a follow-up call.

  1. Know your state and federal laws

Before you research an applicant, know all applicable laws. If you don’t, then hire an attorney to help you with the process. You can’t afford to make a mistake in this area. For example, there are laws governing which background check services you may use for considering tenants. There are also specific rules regarding background check applications. Sometimes, the information gathered by companies has a high rate of inaccuracies, which makes it unsuitable for making tenancy decisions.

Another reason it’s important to know your state’s laws is because the questions you can ask the applicant and their references are limited. For instance, you can ask standard questions like whether or not they paid rent on time, if they violated the lease, or had any complaints filed against them. However, you can’t ask applicants if they’ve been arrested, what their gender or religion is, or if they have any children.

Be intentional with your screening

Screening potential tenants is a process and the more thorough the better. Just make sure your efforts align with state and federal laws, and don’t violate anyone’s rights under the Fair Housing Act. The last thing you want is a lawsuit.

Screen applicants based on high standards, like requiring a credit score of 650+, three times the rent in income, and rejecting applicants with an eviction on their record. Skip the social media screening because it’s just not worth the risk.

Photo by Chalo Garcia on Unsplash