Are you trying to balance your screening questions so they are legal and functional? Or are you just getting started and searching for good questions to ask while screening tenants?

If so, you already understand how complex and nerve-wracking this experience can be for landlords. There are many mistakes anyone can make while trying to protect their property and avoid legal problems. It might help you to understand the tenants perspective, and what a tenant might say to sell themselves better.

By the end of this article, you will gain valuable insights into what is legal or illegal to ask prospective tenants. As a result, you can empower yourself to make informed decisions. Read on to discover the pivotal questions that will streamline your process.

Understanding Legal and Illegal Questions

Understanding the distinction between questions you want to ask is crucial. In particular, you do not want to run afoul of legislation meant to maintain a respectful and inclusive society.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is the most relevant legislation for this matter. The FHA, enacted in 1968, prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. It ensures that everyone has equal access, irrespective of the following protected characteristics:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Familial status

Legal questions focus on factors such as income, employment, credit history, and rental references. They enable landlords to assess eligibility and suitability without infringing on their rights. They also provide legitimate criteria to make decisions that avoid discriminatory practices.

Asking illegal questions can have severe consequences. The consequences of asking them may include lawsuits, fines, and damage to your reputation. Moreover, they perpetuate systemic inequality, marginalization, and prejudice.

Legal Questions to Ask While Screening Tenants

So, what can you ask tenants without breaking the law?  When it comes to interviewing, and renting to tenants, there are certain tenant rights to follow. This section breaks down what is legal for the details any landlord wants to know.

Personal Information

You can confirm essential details within reason. The following questions are legitimate inquiries:

  • Can you confirm your full name?
  • What is your current address?
  • Can you provide an emergency contact?

A landlord may ask a future tenant to verify their name to ensure accuracy during the application process. It prevents confusion or mistakes when verifying their identity for background checks.

Asking prospective tenants for their current address verifies residency and assesses their stability. It is also essential to confirm the rental history and contact previous landlords. You may also have a practical need to send important documents, such as lease agreements or notices, to the correct location.

Asking for an emergency contact is a precautionary measure to ensure safety and well-being. You may need this detail during unforeseen circumstances that require immediate attention.

Employment and Financial Information

You should know about someone’s job and financial security. There are some lines you cannot cross, but you have the legal right to ask these types of questions:

  • Where are you currently employed, and what is your position?
  • How long have you been at your current job?
  • What is your monthly income?
  • Will you be able to provide proof of income?

You can ask about current employment to assess the ability to meet rental obligations. As a result, you may verify their income and evaluate their capacity to pay consistently. Additionally, understanding the employment status helps gauge the likelihood of job steadiness.

Similarly, the duration of employment provides insights into the ability to maintain a regular income. A longer time at a job indicates a more stable individual.

You may hesitate to ask about monthly income, but it tells you if someone can afford the rent. Generally, it can comfort all parties to know covering the rent with other expenses is possible.

Requesting proof of income allows the landlord to verify the accuracy and reliability of income. Pay stubs, employment contracts, or bank statements can make an informed decision simpler and mitigate risk.

Rental History

Asking about rental history is a legitimate and paramount inquiry. The information you receive from asking these questions can ensure a positive rental experience:

  • Can you provide references from your previous landlords?
  • Why are you leaving your current residence?
  • Have you ever been through an eviction or asked to move out?
  • Have you ever broken a rental agreement or lease?
  • How many places have you lived in over the past five years, and why did you leave?

Asking for references is a standard practice that informs you about rental history and behavior. They provide a third-party perspective on reliability, responsibility, and suitability as a renter.

A landlord may ask why someone wants to leave their residence to understand their motivations. Furthermore, it allows you to assess if their reasoning aligns with your offerings.

You can ask about prior evictions to gauge any potential risks. Knowing about any expulsions helps you evaluate their adherence to lease agreements.

Likewise, breaking a lease is a test of dedication to meeting contractual obligations. You have the right to know about potential risks to ensure a smooth and compliant tenancy.

Housing stability and the reasons for frequent moves are also significant considerations. You can gain an understanding of the patterns, preferences, and potential challenges that may affect their suitability. Developing this understanding from the outset may establish a stable rental relationship.

Lifestyle and Habits

You may wonder if asking lifestyle questions violates the right to privacy. Nonetheless, there are crucial queries related to habits that are relevant and legal. A few examples to consider are the following inquiries:

  • Do you have any pets? Can you provide any necessary documentation (service animal certification, etc.)?
  • Are you a smoker?
  • Do you expect to have frequent overnight guests?
  • Do you plan to run a business from the property?

Knowing about pets allows you to assess any potential risks or liabilities. It also helps ensure compliance with pet-related rules or restrictions in the rental agreement. However, the most crucial legal aspect involves ADA service dogs. A tenant who requires their assistance should not receive discriminatory treatment.

Next, it is appropriate for a landlord to ask about smoking habits. It allows you to enforce smoking policies under local regulations or building rules. Moreover, you can address the concerns of other tenants with allergies or sensitivities.

Setting expectations regarding overnight guests allows you to manage occupancy limits. As a result, it helps prevent overcrowding or excessive use of common areas. You can also address any concerns related to security, parking, or noise disturbances that may arise.

Finally, you should know if someone plans to run a business from the property. You must remain compliant with zoning laws for residential versus commercial use. You may face liability problems or insurance complications otherwise.

Illegal Questions to Ask While Screening Tenants

Some inquiries can violate the rights of applicants and perpetuate bias or prejudice. It is wise to educate yourself on specific renter’s rights. Here are three general categories of questions that landlords should refrain from asking:

  • Do not ask about an applicant’s race, nationality, religion, gender, or disability. Inquiries that indicate a preference for a specific demographic can be prejudicial. Depending on the jurisdiction, there can also be limitations on asking about gender identity or sexual orientation.
  • Inquiring about an applicant’s marital status or the presence of children is illegal. They infringe upon the applicant’s right to housing regardless of their family status.
  • Asking questions related to an applicant’s disability or health status is not proper. For example, you cannot request information about medical history or the need for accommodations. 

As a best practice, focus on only relevant and legally permissible questions. These may include inquiries about employment, income, rental history, and references.

How to Handle Tricky Situations

Landlords encounter problematic situations regularly. Accordingly, you can avoid liabilities by approaching them with tact and professionalism. Here are some suggestions for navigating these scenarios:

  1. There may be instances when an applicant shares potentially discriminatory information. They could mention their religious beliefs or disclose a disability without prompting. You should redirect the conversation and avoid further probing into these personal matters. Politely inform the applicant that your focus is solely on their qualifications.
  2. Tenants may inquire about the demographics of the neighborhood. However, these questions could represent an attempt to gather details related to protected characteristics. Instead, focus on providing objective information, such as nearby amenities or schools.
  3. Communicate that your decisions depend on legitimate factors such as income or rental history. Make it known that you treat all applicants fairly and per the law. Your commitment to a transparent and unbiased approach will foster an inclusive and respectful environment.
  4. If you are uncertain how to handle a situation, find legal guidance from a local real estate attorney. They should have extensive experience in landlord-tenant law to provide you with specific advice.

Consult a Local Real Estate Attorney

Effective screening of potential tenants is vital to protect your property and maintain a harmonious environment. In addition, you can avoid costly legal complications and uphold the law.

However, the intricacies of screening can sometimes be challenging. Therefore, it is worth your time to consult a local lawyer. They have invaluable advice to offer that applies to local, state, and federal regulations.

Don’t hesitate to contact a real estate attorney today to safeguard your rental business. Ask us for a referral through our website or call (866) 345-6784 to talk to a representative.

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