Let’s have an honest conversation about screening.  By now, we’re all aware of Fair Housing laws and how they apply to screening potential tenants.  We all have written screening requirements and we stick to them. [If you don’t have your qualification criteria in writing – DO IT NOW.  AOA has a free sample for members on www.aoausa.com – form 100Q.] 

Sometimes, though, we just have that feeling in our gut that something’s not quite right with an application.  How do you listen to that feeling and still follow Fair Housing Law?  I’ll talk a little about what I do with my potential applicants and hope that will help clarify things.

(1) Personal Demeanor and Interactions With Me or My Employees

Let me be absolutely clear about this first point.  I am NOT saying to judge someone based on how they look.  Nothing is more discriminatory and will get into Fair Housing hot water faster.  That being said, though, I do look at the application process a little like a job interview.  I expect the applicant to put their best foot forward.  

I don’t care how their clothes are or if they’re dressed like punk rockers.  I do care that their clothes are clean and that they don’t have an unpleasant odor.  Applicants who don’t care for themselves may be less likely to treat your property in a caring manner.

(2) The Vehicle They Drive

Again, I don’t care what the make, model or age of the vehicle is.  In fact, if the applicants have listed a meager salary on their application, I’m more impressed when they are driving an old model vehicle that looks like they are living within their means.   When someone lists little income and is driving a Cadillac, I’m wondering where the money is coming from and this is a red flag for me.  Again, I look to see that the vehicle is clean and cared for.

(3) Interactions Between Applicants

Do the applicants interact with each other with respect?  Do they listen when the other is talking and appear to work well together?  Again, let me be clear.  Applicants who are arguing may not end up in a domestic violence situation – that’s NOT what I’m implying.  What I’m saying is that I look for tenants who appear to get along well and will therefore stay in my rental for some time.  They won’t turn it over the first time the get in a heated argument.

(4) Keep Your Ears Open Around the Kids

I am NOT saying to question the kids.  Obviously, you want to make a decision about an application based on the statements of a six-year-old.  However, I did have a situation when a small child said to me, “I wish our landlord wasn’t kicking us out.  I liked where we used to live.”  When I questioned the adult applicant, they admitted that they had been less than honest about why they were leaving their last rental.  So, whenever you overhear something from a child, make sure you give the adults present the opportunity to elaborate.

(5) Check Government-Issued Photo ID or Other Photo ID Against Their Application

Not only am I checking to be sure they are who they say they are, I’m checking what address is listed and what the issue date of the ID is.  I can’t tell you how many times there is an address listed on the ID that is not accounted for in the application.  Give the applicants the opportunity to clarify discrepancies against Land Information Database available for free use at the County Courthouse Tax Records Department.

(6) Criminal Background

This should be addressed in your written screening requirements.  For instance, I don’t allow any criminal background that involves drug manufacture/sale/distribution or any Felony 1 offenses (usually burglary and felonious assault).  Otherwise, though, I’m usually willing to work with an applicant as long as they’re honest up front about their background.  I ask the applicants about potential criminal background and assure them they are better off telling me up front.  I’ve been doing this long enough that you can’t shock me, and it is not an automatic refusal as long as they are up front with me about their background.  [Be careful here to adhere to state laws!]

(7) “How Did You Like Your Last Landlord?”

You would be amazed how much this question can tell you about an applicant.  It will give you insight about what the applicants think of landlords in general and how willing they are to work with you.  Though, don’t be afraid of tenants who have been the victims of bad landlords, as we all know they are out there.  Just last week, I rented to tenants who had a bad prior landlord and it was clear that the tenants were in the right.  Don’t be afraid of these tenants – they may be some of the best you’ve ever had.

(8) “How Does This Property Compare to Others You’ve Looked At?”

This is another question that will give you a wealth of knowledge.  One, it actually lets you know how your property compares.  Two, it will also let you know what they think of your rental.  Someone who answers this question by bashing your rental and listing everything that’s wrong with it might not stay long and might not treat it like the valuable property investment you know that it is.   In fact, as further insurance, I ask tenants to do a walkthrough and list their complaints before I hand them the keys.  This allows you to come to a meeting of the minds about the condition of the property before the tenants move in and you’ve lost your leverage.

(9) Bank Account Information

Always make sure you ask for this.  It is a huge red flag if they don’t have it.  Although tenants are within their rights to choose not to have a bank account, someone is looking for their money to garnish it – the same money you’re expecting them to pay you in rent.  It’s the first piece of information a collection agency will ask for right after their date of birth and social security number.  Make sure you have it.

Conclusion

So, it is possible to ask many of these behavioral questions and observe interactions while still staying firmly within Fair Housing law.  Unfortunately, there may be times when your gut and these questions are still ringing a loud bell, but because they meet all of your screening criteria; you still must rent to them.

In this case, at least forewarned is forearmed.  Use these concerns to be sure you are inspecting the property on a regularly scheduled basis and as a reminder to develop good relationships with your tenants’ neighbors.  If you still have doubts, even though you’ve rented to them, follow up in a legal and responsible manner.  

Finally, remember that at the heart of Fair Housing law is the concept that gut feelings can be wrong.  Be sure to follow your written screening guidelines, listen to your gut and act on it appropriately, and chances are, you won’t go wrong.

 

Reprinted with permission of the Wisconsin Apartment Association.