After you’ve found that perfect apartment to move into, the rental application you may have to submit is easy to forget about. You fill in your contact information, check a few boxes and hope for a positive phone call in the coming days. While most renters assume their landlords know something about their histories, most don’t know quite how much a landlord can learn about you from your rental application.
What can landlords search for?
All a landlord needs from you is your full name, social security number, and an address. With that information, here are some of the things he or she can learn about you:
- Financial Information: FICO credit scores, credit check, bankruptcy history, liens, and debt collections
- Criminal Background Check: Criminal background, sex offenses
- Rental History: Eviction reports (court ordered evictions only)
- Patriot Act/OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) Information (to determine whether or not you are on a terrorism-related government watch list)
Yes, it’s a lot of stuff. A list like that can make anyone without a spotless record understandably nervous. If you’re asked to provide employment or landlord references, you can bet your landlord will be asking questions about your rental payment history and whether you have a steady job. You may question whether your landlord has the right to all of that information. Most lease applications will include a “Release of Information Statement” that you must sign to complete the application. By signing it, you give permission for the landlord to perform any of the searches listed above and contact your references, former landlords, and employers. Your criminal history, on the other hand, is considered a matter of public record. Only potential employers have to obtain your permission before performing the search.
Do landlords really perform all of these searches?
Of course, landlords don’t have to perform any of these searches if they don’t want to. We called management companies and landlords across the country, posing as potential renters, and asked what they screened for. We received a wide range of responses, with some complexes performing full searches and others not bothering to search at all. The largest complexes were the ones most likely to run full searches on potential renters. The management office of a large Dallas complex rattled off a long list: full criminal background check, eviction history, credit check, liens, collections, and judgment searches. The one search they don’t perform is for a FICO credit score. Instead, they ask for employment references and evidence of income. Like many properties, they refuse to rent to anyone whose monthly gross income is less than three times the monthly rent. Other large complexes we called in Omaha, Seattle, and New York followed the same procedures. Each of these places had a fully staffed management office with enough manpower to perform searches on many potential records. However, many landlords at smaller properties were much less thorough.
The smaller building perspective
The landlord of a small 10-unit apartment in White Plains, New York told us she runs a credit check and asks for employment references. When we asked about criminal checks, there was a long pause. “I really don’t have any of those problems with my tenants,” she said. The landlord at an even smaller building in Brooklyn says he doesn’t run any searches at all. “Most of my tenants have ended up coming through friends or co-workers.” He told us that the cost of these searches, which can run from $3.00 to $50.00, can add up when there are several potential renters. “I can’t pass on the cost of the searches to prospective tenants. Honestly, I haven’t had any problems yet. I suppose one bad renter might make me change my mind.”
For landlords with fewer than 20 units and low turnover, the likelihood of having a tenant who writes bad checks, commits a crime in the apartment, or goes bankrupt is low. But for large apartment complexes with dozens or hundreds of renters the probability of running into problems is much higher. Management companies are simply unwilling to take the risk of letting just anyone into the building. The Internet has only made things easier for landlords to run searches with minimal effort. Credit and criminal checks can be run online in minutes. Companies like RentBureau.com collect rent payment information from multi-family properties and create renter profiles to help landlords quickly eliminate applicants with evictions and spotty payment histories.
How much does my background actually matter?
Unfortunately for many renters, it matters a lot. However, some things matter more than others. A misdemeanor driving charge on your record may not be a big deal. A felony drug conviction? Big problem. A complex we spoke with in Seattle listed the red flags they look for: sex offenses, felonies, and drug charges. They often overlook less serious charges in order to rent to tenants with otherwise clean payment histories and steady jobs. They gave us advice for applicants with less serious charges, “Just be honest. We’re going to run the check anyway, so if you think something will turn up, tell us about it first.” Other red flags including bankruptcies and evictions are less problematic if several years have passed and you’ve maintained a good payment history since then.
On the other hand, tenants with spotless records often welcome background checks. Brian, a corporate attorney in Boston, says thorough background checks make him feel safer. “Who wants to live next door to a felon? I’d far prefer my management company to run every check in the book.” As we learned, many management companies and landlords are very open about the checks that they run. It doesn’t hurt to ask, as long as you make it clear that you’re worried about your safety, not your checkered past. Be sure to ask whether the management company runs sex offender checks in additional to criminal background checks; in some states, background checks won’t show whether a person is also a registered sex offender. For renters with children, this can be the most important search of all. If you’re worried about the safety of the building you already live in or think your management company doesn’t screen carefully enough, you can take matters into your own hands. You can search your city, and prospective apartment homes on ApartmentRatings.com to see how many registered sex offenders live nearby.
Do I really have to agree to all of these searches?
Whether or not you give a landlord or rental company permission to access your information is your choice. But as you’d expect, apartments with management offices and rental applications won’t rent to you unless you sign on the dotted line. So what can you do if you think your history will be a problem? We learned that smaller apartments often have less formalized application processes, possibly allowing you avoid a search altogether. If you rent with friends you may be able to duck under the radar and avoid adding your name to the lease. You can informally sublet. Of course, you can always do what the representative at our Seattle complex suggested and come clean. With a little context, your eviction from five years ago may be less of a problem than you think.
Has a background check ever created a problem for you? What did you do about it and how do you handle it today? Share your experiences in our comments section.