Why You Should Use Written Criteria for the Tenant Screening Process

The tenant screening process is arguably the most important part of a landlord’s job.  Screening tenants properly can prevent a number of problems down the road, including having to evict a tenant, repairing damaged property, fielding complaints from other tenants or neighbors, or having your property declared a public nuisance due to a bad tenant’s behavior.

However, tenant screening must comply with federal and state law.  Landlords who screen based on prohibited criteria may find themselves vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit – a proposition that drains time and money, even if it has no basis in fact.

How can landlords protect themselves from bad tenants and discrimination lawsuits at the same time?  One answer is to use objective tenant screening criteria that are legally appropriate and written.

A written screening document protects landlords in two ways.  First, it makes the screening process easier for landlords.  A tenant doesn’t meet the criteria listed on the written checklist?  We’re sorry, but we can’t rent to you.  Second, it reduces the likelihood that a discrimination claim will “stick” because it takes a landlord or property manager’s personal, subjective opinions out of the equation.

What Does a Good Written Tenant Screening Document Look Like?

While every landlord will use slightly different screening criteria, all good written screening documents share the following characteristics:

  • They comply with the law.  All criteria on the list should follow federal, state, and local laws regarding fair housing and other requirements.  If you’re not certain whether your chosen criteria comply with the law, have an experienced attorney review the document.
  • They are objective.  Objective criteria are quantifiable and verifiable.  They do not depend on the personal views of the screener to determine.  For instance, objective criteria include whether an applicant has been evicted before, whether their prior landlord would rent to them again, and whether their gross monthly wages are at least three times the monthly rent amount.
  • They are written in clear and plain language.  Confusing jargon or legalese helps no one.  Instead, state criteria in plain language so that both the applicant and the person doing the screening can understand exactly what information is required and what benchmarks must be met in order for an application to be approved.
  • They are in place before you begin accepting applications, if possible.  If this is not possible – for instance, if you have been renting for many years and you are only now adopting written criteria for screening – speak to an attorney who knows landlord-tenant law in your area. He or she can guide you through the best way to start using your written screening criteria.

Without tenant screening criteria, a fight over the rejection of a rental application may boil down to “he said – she said” or baseless claims that you harbor discriminatory opinions.  Avoid this unnecessary fight by creating clear, written screening requirements and sticking to them – every time.

Note: This article is provided for informational purposes only.  No information provided in this article should be considered legal advice.  If you have legal questions, please consult an attorney who is licensed to practice law in your area.

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