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Legal Aspects of the Tenant Screening Process: Who Can You Refuse to Lease To

accept refuse sign manOne of the greatest challenges of any landlord is finding tenants who will adhere to the conditions of the lease and pay their rent on time. To avoid housing discrimination complaints, it is crucial to abide by federal and state fair housing laws during the tenant screening process. The following guidelines will help you find the right tenants and avoid unnecessary problems.

Objective Tenant Screening Process

Legally, your selection of tenants must be based on a fair and objective tenant screening process. This means you are required to use the same pre-established set of criteria to screen every prospective tenant. Factors you may use to make tenancy decisions include:

  • Tenant Income
  • Tenant Credit Check (including bankruptcies)
  • Personal and Professional References
  • Rental History
  • Criminal Background
  • Tenants’ Pets

As long as you screen every rental applicant equally, you can avoid unnecessary housing discrimination complaints.

Federal Fair Housing Act

The Federal Fair Housing Act and the Fair Housing Amendment Acts (42 U.S. Code 3601-3619, 3631) make it illegal to base your tenant screening process on discriminatory criteria involving “protected” categories such as:

National Origin
You may not make tenancy decisions based on an applicant’s country of origin. This includes offering special discounts or deals to applicants from specific countries, as well.

Landlords cannot announce that certain races need not apply or covertly turn away rental applicants of a particular race.

It is unlawful to base your tenant screening decisions on an applicant’s religion. This includes making statements like “wholesome Christian community” in your rental ads because applicants could reasonably conclude that you prefer Christian tenants.

Landlords cannot discriminate against rental applicants on the basis of mental or physical disabilities. You are required to make reasonable accommodations for disabled tenants, so be sure to examine federal and state laws that may apply to your situation.

The law also offers limited protection to recovering alcoholics and former drug addicts. You cannot reject an applicant solely on the basis of alcohol or drug addiction, but you are allowed to examine other aspects of the applicant’s history. For example, if the recovering addict has poor credit or a negative rental reference from a previous landlord, you may base your tenancy decision on these factors.

Familial Status and Age
You may not base your rental decisions on an applicant’s family status or age. In addition, it’s illegal to only offer certain units to applicants with children.

Sex and Sexual Harassment
Applicants cannot be turned away due to their gender or because they refuse a landlord’s sexual advances.

Your state and local housing discrimination laws may offer further protection for prospective tenants that goes above and beyond federal law. In some states, it is also illegal to make tenancy decisions based on age, marital status and sexual orientation.

Exceptions to the Law for Tenant Screening

Certain types of rental properties are exempt from federal fair housing laws. These include:

  • Owner-occupied rental properties with up to four units
  • Certain types of members-only rental housing operated by private clubs and religious organizations
  • Single-family homes rented without the use of a broker or advertising, just as long as you do not own more than three of these homes
  • Senior citizen rental communities

Even if the Federal Fair Housing Act doesn’t apply to your specific type of rental property, fair housing laws in your state may offer protections for tenants that are exempt from federal law. Be sure to review both state and federal laws before you begin searching for new rental applicants.