Those of you that have attended one of my landlord-tenant law seminars or read my prior posts on screening tenants know that in my opinion the screening process is the single most important aspect of being a landlord. If done properly, the screening process can save a landlord from many headaches such as: having to evict a bad tenant, repairing your damaged rental property, dealing with other tenants complaining about your loud and disruptive tenant, and/or having your rental property declared to be a public nuisance due to the bad behavior of your tenant and his/her guests. By properly screening your tenants you will significantly reduce your exposure to the above situations.
One key aspect of the screening process is having and using written screening criteria. Screening criteria sets forth the minimum requirements that an individual must meet in order to be able to rent from you. Looking at it another way, screening criteria also sets forth what will cause an applicant to be denied rental from you.
Here is an example of written screening criteria. Please be aware that this screening criteria is pretty stringent. I am not saying that you should or should not use this criteria - you must determine what criteria works for you and that is based on many factors which I will not be addressing in this post. I am linking to this sample screening criteria so that you have some examples of permissable (and legal) criteria so that you can better understand this post.
You should think of your screening criteria as a checklist that you go through when reviewing each application. By utilizing screening criteria a landlord is reminded that s/he should be making a decision to rent to an individual based on objective reasons rather then subjective ones.
An objective reason to deny an applicant is something that is quatifiable and verifiable. Examples would include whether or not the applicant has ever been evicted before, whether their prior landlord would rent to them again, whether their gross monthly wages are at least 3 times the amount of your monthly rent. Subjective reasons cannot be verified and as such can lead to allegations of or actual instances of discrimination.
A subjective reasonson the other hand, cannot be quantified or verified. Examples of subjective reason for denying an applicant would be because you got a “bad feeling” when talking to them or you didn’t feel like you “connected” with them. You should not be making a decision to rent to someone based on a subjective feeling; by doing so you may inadvertantly and unconsciously be discriminating against them.
You should have your screening criteria in place prior to taking your first application. Screening criteria should not be created as you go. Ideally you should spend some time thinking about what would cause you to deny an applicant and conversely what would cause you to rent to an applicant. Think of objective reasons such as: do they have a prior rental history, have they been employed at their current job for a period of time, do they make enough money that they can afford to pay the rent and still have extra money to live on, have they ever been evicted before, do they have prior money judgements against them, would their prior landlord rent to them again, have they been arrested and/or convicted of a crime. Think about what caused you to accept or reject your current tenants. This information will serve as the initial draft of your screening criteria.
Next, take a seasoned landlord that is familiar with discrimination/fair housing laws to lunch and ask him/her to review your draft criteria or hire an attorney that has experience with the fair housing laws to give you some feedback. You need to insure that your criteria is legal and does not violate any aws before you begin to use it.
Once you have your screening criteria in place, the next step is to insure that you apply it evenly and consistently. You should not make exceptions to your criteria. If your screening criteria says that an applicant will be denied rental if they have ever been evicted in the past — and your applicant has a prior eviction judgment on their record – then you should deny them. Once you start making exceptions to your screening criteria you lose the protection of the screening criteria because you are once again resorting to subjective decision making such as “I know that s/he was evicted last year but they seemed like such a nice and honest person that there must have been a misunderstanding.” Does this sound familiar? Do not make exceptions.
Screening criteria does not have to be distributed to the applicants. Many larger landlords do give their criteria to potential renters as a form of self-screening with the intent that potential applicants will read the criteria and not submit an application if they do not meet the criteria – thus saving the landlord time and money of reviewing an application that will be denied in the end anyhow. Many other landlords choose not to give out their criteria but rather use it internally to assist in the screening process. Either option is legal and both options have pros and cons.
The most common complaint I receive from clients that have started using screening criteria is that they feel “bound” or “restrained” by the criteria. If that is how you feel when you start using it then you know that it is serving its purpose and you are doing things correctly. Screening criteria is supposed to restrain you – it is designed to reign you in from making random, spur of the moment, subjective decisions.
You are able to change your screening criteria over time. For instance if one of your criteria requires an applicant to have a FICO score of at least 700 and you find that none of the applicants are meeting this requirement and your unit is vacant as a result, then you may need to lower the FICO score requirement. Nothing is wrong with changing your criteria but you cannot and should not be changing your criteria back and forth day to day, week to week or even month to month.
If you do change your screening criteria you should make a notation as to when you stopped using the old criteria and began using the new criteria. If you look at the sample screening criteria linked above you will see that there is a place on the second page of the document for you to indicate the date that you started using the criteria and the date when you stopped using that criteria. After you have stopped using a certain version of your screening criteria you should retain a copy for a minimum of 3 years but preferably for up to 7 years. The statute of limitations for most federal and state discrimination complaints is 3 years but there are some that are 7 years. So if a past applicant should decide to file a discrimination complaint against you 6 years and 11 months later you still want to have written proof of the criteria that you were using at the time of the alleged discriminatory conduct.
If you review an application and you determine that the applicant does not meet your croteria you should make a notation as to which criteria they did not meet and attach any supporting documentation. Then file it away with your other important records.
Screening criteria is also very helpful if you have more than one person screening potential applicants. For example, if you have multiple employees or have hired a management company to run your rental properties you can provide them with a copy of your screening criteria and tell them that you want them to utilize it. By having them follow your written screening criteria – which can serve as a checklist – you have a better chance that they will follow it.
Being a defendant/respondent in a federal or state discrimination investigation is about as much fun as a root canal. The investigative process is long, tiring, disruptive, and very intrusive. The investigators will interview your current tenants, your past tenants, current employees, past employees and anyone else that may be able to assist them in determining whether or not you engaged in a discriminatory act.
I have represented many landlords that have had both federal and state fair housing complaints lodged against them for discrimination arising out of the screening process. In all of those cases, the first question that the investigator asked me was whether or not my client was using written screening criteria. Unfortunately in every one of those cases I have always had to answer “no” to that question. If my clients had been utilizing written screening criteria I would have been able to forward the screening criteria to the investigator along with the documentation supporting which criteria the applicant did not meet and I would have had verifiable proof that the applicant was denied rental based on a non-discriminatory reason.
Because my past clients were not using written screening criteria it ended up being a case of “he said/she said.” What I mean by that is my client is saying that s/he didn’t discriminate against the applicant and the applicant is saying that the tenant did discriminate against them. There is no written proof one way or the other. It is a crap shoot. When you are in a “he said/she said” scenario you are in for a long, painful, and often expensive investigation.
Do yourself a favor — if you are a landlord and are not currently using written screening criteria, use the information in this post to begin the process of putting together some criteria, have it reviewed, and begin using it during your screening process.