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18 Legal (and Businesslike) Reasons to Reject a Tenant Applicant by Robert Cainreject a tenant

Many landlords believe that they cannot reject a tenant application for any reason, that they have to accept the first one to come along with the money or risk the grief of a lawsuit.

Not so.There are numerous legitimate, businesslike reasons to reject a prospective tenant’s application.

1. Unsatisfactory references from landlords, employers and/or personal references. These could include reports of repeated disturbance of their neighbors’ peaceful enjoyment of their homes; reports of gambling, prostitution, drug dealing or drug manufacturing; damage to the property beyond normal wear and tear; reports of violence or threats to landlords or neighbors; allowing people not listed on the lease or rental agreement to live in the property; failure to give proper notice when vacating the property; or a landlord who would not rent to them again.

2. Evictions.

3. Frequent moves. You have to decide what constitutes frequent moves and apply the same criteria to every applicant.

4. Bad credit report. If a report shows they are not current with any bill, have been turned over to a collection agency, have been sued for a debt, or have a judgment for a debt, that is grounds to reject. These do not have to be debts connected in any way with housing.

5. Too short a time on the job. As with frequent moves, you have to decide what too short a time is and apply the same criteria to every applicant.

6. Too new to the area. There is nothing to say you have to rent to people who have just moved to town. Be careful, though, many times these would be excellent tenants and the time and long distance call expense of checking them out could pay big dividends.

7. Smokers. Some newspapers mistakenly believe that smokers are a protected “handicapped” class. They will never be. The tobacco companies would not allow it. Do do so would be to admit that tobacco and nicotine are addicting. Industry lobbyists would be sure to fight that idea tooth and nail. So you can safely discriminate against people who smoke. Newspapers will not accept ads that say “no smokers,” but they will accept ads that say “no smoking.”

8. No verifiable source of income.

AAOA recommends all landlords to run a thorough tenant screening background checks on new applicants.  Run a tenant screening report now.

9. Too many vehicles. Lots of cars can be a real source of irritation to neighbors and make the entire neighborhood or apartment complex look bad. Chances are, if they have more than one vehicle for every adult they spend a lot of time broken and being fixed. That means they could be in pieces in the front yard or parking lot.

10. Too many people for the property. Be extremely careful with this. Before the familial status protection clause of the Fair Housing Act, you could discriminate on this basis without fear of any problems. Not any more. Now the same criteria must be applied without regard to the age of the inhabitant. Be sure it is applied equally to all applicants. Check your state’s Landlord-Tenant Law.

11. Drug users. They must be current drug users. If they are in a drug treatment program and no longer use drugs, the Federal Government considers them handicapped and protected by the Fair Housing Act.

12. Pets.  Read our article Tenants Reveal How They Hide Their Pets!

13. Any evidence of illegal activity. You must be able to come up with some kind of satisfactory evidence. I don’t know what that would be, every case would be different. Certainly a letter from the police department warning a previous landlord of their illegal activity and threatening to close the property is considered sufficient evidence.

14. History of late rental payments.

15. Insufficient income. You must set up objective criteria applied equally to each applicant. Insufficient income could reasonably be if the scheduled rent exceeded 35% of their gross monthly income.For example, if the rent is $600, their gross monthly income must be at least $1714.29. The formula is: Acceptable income= scheduled rent divided by income ratio. You can require proof of all income. Be careful, though, if you are willing to accept only one member of a married couple to supply the total dollar income, you must be willing to accept the same of unmarried, co-tenants that share the housing. Under Fair Housing law you cannot require that unmarried people meet different income requirements than married people.

16. Too many debts. Even if their gross income is sufficient, they may have so many other debts that they would be hard pressed to make all the payments. A rule of thumb might be that all contracted debts, including rent, cannot exceed 50% of their gross income. Contracted debts would be such things as credit card payments, car payments, loans, etc. Those would not be cable TV, water and garbage, telephone, or other utilities.

17. Conviction of a crime which was a threat to property in the past five years. Included in this could be drunk driving convictions, burglary convictions, robbery convictions, and other such misbehaviors.

18. Conviction for the manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance in the past five years.The best way to proceed is to post a list of the acceptable rental criteria and hand it to each applicant.

You can use the list above, but under no circumstances is it intended to be legal advice. Check with an attorney who is familiar with the Landlord-Tenant Law before posting or handing out anything like a list of acceptable criteria for applicants. Laws change constantly, and what you don’t know can and will hurt you.

Copyright Cain Publications, Inc., used by permission. Robert Cain is a nationally-recognized speaker and writer on property management and real estate issues. For a free sample copy of the Rental Property Reporter call 800-654-5456 or visit their web site at

Thanks to Joe Lane for submitting this feature to AAOA. Joe is a property manager and co-owner of The Lane Real Estate Team serving Kennewick, Richland, Pasco and surrounding Washington state areas.

American Apartment Owners Association offers discounts on products and services related to your commercial housing investment including REAL ESTATE FORMS, tenant debt collection, tenant background checks, insurance and financing. Find out more at

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  • L. Thornton

    I thought this was an excellent article, “18 Reasons to Reject a Tenant Application.” Thank you.

  • Brian Perkins

    Nice – but how about #19 . . . Level 3 Sex Offender? Such information is readily available via state web sites. One can even go to the applicant’s local police station and fill out a form requesting ALL levels of sex offenders that reside within that particular town.

  • Steve LaPoint

    Great info — have had student rental condos for several years now managed by a property manager; however, I plan on purchasing additional units with more stable/long term renters and will effect the management of these myself. This info will certainly be of benefit in screening prospective tenants.


    Steve LaPoint

  • Debbie Udelhoven

    I have a apartment over top a Salon and you can hear every loud sound and running about the apartment upstairs. Because of a business downstair can I legally turn down someone with kids because it will interrupt my business?

  • Cheriese M Green

    I am trying to move into a trailer park. I told him about my evictions. My husband has a criminal record. Hasn’t been in trouble for 5 years. Actually gave his parole number back 5 years ago.

  • tchen

    What about a prospective tenant who has inflammatory and misogynistic presence online?

  • zebedatious

    I would think #1 might cover that.

  • La Bella Bre’

    No you cannot reject someone based on family status (children under age 17) based on federal law. The only acceptable use to reject them if they have children is if your apartment qualifies and is advertised as senior housing only. Be careful with that. If you go to the DOJ website, you’ll see many companies and landlords sued because they rejected people with children.

  • La Bella Bre’

    I think a lot of you so-called landlords need to read the Federal statutes on Housing Discrimination. Otherwise, you wouldn’t ask these sorts of questions and open yourself up to a lawsuit when people see your comments online.

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