How to Make Sure You’re Performing a Fair Tenant Screening

by Alia Hoyt | Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Bias is real, be it unconscious or otherwise. That said, the powers-that-be who regulate fair housing laws don't care what type of bias it is, they just don't want to see or hear about it happening during the tenant evaluation process.

This is why it's so important to develop tenant screening skills and processes that allow you to assess the potential renter fairly, without letting any bias interfere (and without breaking any laws). Here are a few of the most important guidelines to follow.

1. Fully understand and follow federal and local laws

You certainly already know about the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which protects tenants from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, disability and other personal characteristics. At this point, landlords are generally very aware of the importance of following these guidelines. Know them inside and out to avoid any violations, which can result in fines or even lawsuits!

One additional factor to consider has to do with screening tenants who have a criminal record. It's considered unintentional discrimination if the criminal history policy set by a landlord violates the FHA, so be aware of all of the guidelines set forth by the government to avoid a potential complaint or lawsuit. This can vary by location, so make sure you're in the know about criminal background guidelines, as well as other locally specific evaluation rules.

avoid racial bias in tenant screenings

2. Be up-front from the beginning of the tenant screen

Before the potential tenant drops a dime on the application fees, make sure they know about any and all screenings that must occur to move forward. This includes background checks, credit history screenings, previous/current landlord references and proof of income requirements. This will help to weed out renters who won't qualify anyway, saving you time and them the application fees.

3. Be consistent in communication with all potential tenants

Make a point to complete all screenings and make contact within a certain time frame for every tenant. If they don't pass the credit history screening or have less than stellar references, for example, respectfully let them know your criteria and where they fell so that they have a clear picture of why they weren't approved.

If the potential tenant is approved for further consideration, it's important to stay consistent. Develop a clear outline of how to deal with potential tenants and what information to impart. Keep precise notes on their answers to hot-button questions and note any concerns clearly. Make sure they all sign the same documents indicating receipt of the information and full understanding of approval guidelines.

avoid topics like religion during the tenant screening to keep it fair

4. Keep the conversation professional during the tenant screening

Once you move on to the interview process, it's critical to avoid certain topics. For example, never ask them about personal issues like sexual orientation or religion. This can land you in hot water pretty quickly. Questions about whether or not they plan to have a family soon are taboo, so don't even go there. Even if they offer such information up simply smile and nod politely, then continue talking about the property.

5. Make sure the renter knows what's expected

Right from the start, focus on the terms of the contract like deposits, what happens in case damage to the apartment occurs, amenity use guidelines, quiet hours, how much notice they need to give to break a lease and so on. Be sure to cover whether or not pets are allowed and if so, whether or not there are any breed restrictions.

Then make sure to get the renter's signature or initials to make sure they heard and understood all of the rules. If they seem cagey or dismissive about any of these important topics, note it in the application.

6. Go in order

Let's say you have two tenants who are equally qualified. Avoid the potential for discrimination claims by granting the unit to the first one who completes the application process in full. Waiting to see if the second one pans out because you slightly prefer them off paper for whatever reason is ill-advised. Consistency is key in fair housing and will shield the landlord from unwanted fines or claims.

7. Document everything

This is one situation where more is more. Keep all of your notes and signed documents on each applicant together and clearly labeled. The reason you declined them might seem obvious immediately after, but a few months or even a year's delay before a complaint is filed could muddy the waters. Always justify your decisions with evidence and context to protect yourself down the road.

Conduct smart tenant screenings

Interviewing people is nothing new. We do it all the time to make sure that the person in question is fully capable of meeting contractual requirements, and this is just as important for housing agreements as it is for jobs. But as the world evolves, it's important to stay 100 percent in the know about what's acceptable and what's not, both to protect yourself as a landlord and the civil rights of potential renters.

Categories: Landlords

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