With all the restrictions on using criminal records and credit reports in tenant selection and hiring, it seems as if we just can’t check anything, anymore. But, we can. We screen applicants to ensure good tenants and good employees. We can accomplish that goal with some easy workarounds.

First is that every application must meet three criteria, no exceptions. The applicant must:

  1. Fill out the application completely and truthfully.
  2. Include completely verifiable information
  3. Provide appropriate identification And we must be able to verify application information with the applicant’s supplied ID.

Does the application have blank spaces? We can reject out of hand. It is important to let the applicant know in advance that the application must be completely filled out. If there is a legitimate reason for the blank space, such as for example, this is the first rental home an applicant is moving into after leaving mom and dad, the applicant must indicate that the previous residence was parents. That would mean a spot for the third residence is not applicable (NA).

Sometimes applicants won’t “remember” the name of a previous landlord or employer. Go figure. Here is someone looking for a new home or job and arriving unprepared to fill out the required information. Even so, first we must look at the “completed” application to see that it is completely filled out. If it isn’t, the application is not acceptable. We can ask why there are blank spots or “don’t remembers” on it. Hand it back to the applicant with the statement, “We screen our applicants beginning with the first completely filled out application we receive and rent to the first acceptable applicant. Take this with you and provide the missing information.When you have completely filled it out, bring it back and we will screen you in the order we have received your application. If we have already accepted an applicant, we are sorry, but that’s our policy.” By the way, always write the date and time you received an application at the top and show the applicant. That way he or she can’t come back and say you took someone else out of order.

If we can’t verify any information on an application, we are completely within our rights to reject the applicant out of hand. That includes time on the job and dates at previous residences.Those are questions previous landlords and employers can answer without fear of a lawsuit.  We might want to ask the applicant why we can’t verify something on the application, but we don’t have to.

I had tenants many years ago whose previous landlord I had problems reaching on phone. I kept trying, and after probably five tries I reached him. He gave me a good reference and I ended up renting to them for something like 10 years and then selling them the property. They were grateful I kept trying because apparently other landlords had not.

Then there are missing dates. This is where we might spot an applicant who had been in jail or simply didn’t want to let us know about a specific landlord. That could mean several months or years unaccounted for. That application is not completely filled out and thus can be rejected on its face. We can, of course, ask the applicant why there are three years of residence unaccounted for, but we are under no obligation to do that.

If you own rental property and your state or local government requires that you accept Section 8,an important consideration in screening is verifiable source of income. Most Section 8 tenants are good, but some may try the same obfuscations that other bad tenants do. Maybe they’re on welfare, have child support payments, alimony, or some other government payment, but we must be able to verify that or those sources of income. Believe it or not (I know this stretches credulity) drug dealers may claim sources of income and say they have government or other payments. If so, they should have a letter from the agency that pays them showing how much they receive and how long they have received it. If they can’t produce such evidence, we are all but obligated to reject immediately to protect our property and our other tenants.

When we call landlord and employer references, one of the first things to ask is if the applicant gave proper notice before moving or quitting. If he or she didn’t, the answer as to what to do about this applicant is obvious. Likewise with evictions, if a tenant has been evicted, why would we want this person living in our property? For employers, this is a judgment call. Would an eviction disqualify someone as an employee? That’s a decision the employer must make.

The number of occupants can be a deciding factor, too, in deciding whether to accept a rental applicant. On the rental application, it most likely asks who will be living in the property. The Fair Housing Act and HUD have set the maximum number of applicants to two people per bedroom, though that can change depending on the size of bedrooms. A review of HUD’s policy can be instructive. You can read it at http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/library/occupancystds.pdf.

Notice that this has primarily to do with families with children. We can restrict the number of adults without any worries about the Fair Housing Act as long as we apply that restriction across the board.

Finally there is proving whom he or she is. We must see picture ID from each person applying to rent from us or work for us. That means that every adult must show up and show legitimate,picture ID. And here’s a neat trick.

Look at the address on the driver’s license. Does it appear on the application? If not, the applicant at least owes an explanation, and it had better be good because the red flag is all the way to the top of the flagpole. No explanation or a bad explanation, and no renting or no job.

We still have several tools where we can ensure good tenants and employees without ever rejecting for a criminal record for renting or employment or a credit report for employment. The key to screening an applicant is that we must require that the application is completely filled out,that we can verify everything on it, and that the applicant can prove whom he or she is.

By Robert L. Cain

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