Tenant credit checks: What landlords and property managers need to know

Jason Van Steenwyk
Jason Van Steenwyk | 8 min. read

Published on June 22, 2017

Experienced landlords and property managers will tell you: Always run a credit check for tenants before extending a lease agreement! While credit reports have their limitations, the tenant’s prior history is likely the best predictor of how well they’ll meet future rent obligations.

That said, according to TransUnion—1 of 3 major consumer credit bureaus—only half of landlords surveyed routinely run a tenant credit check before renting a unit. It’s difficult to see why more of them don’t check rental applicants’ credit prior, since the cost of running a credit report is trivial next to the cost of a tenant who isn’t paying their rent. Landlords can often get applicants to pay for the credit report through an application fee—so there’s really no excuse.

What is a Tenant Credit Check? What Are the Limitations?

The most important thing that a landlord will see on an applicant’s credit report is any history of eviction, as well as records of outstanding debts owed to prior landlords and other major creditors.

A credit report does not tell you much about the moral character of the person applying for your apartment. People fall behind on bills for all kinds of reasons beyond their control, so balance what you see in the credit report with your intuition.

Keep in mind that a credit report is not a substitute for a criminal background check. They are entirely separate. No credit report or third-party tenant screening service can tell you about a person’s criminal history. For example, if a tenant was forced to break a lease because of domestic violence, that is a narrative that you won’t find on her credit report.

What's a tenant credit check--and what are the limitations? Find out on the #BuildiumBlog! Share on X

Tenant Credit Check Disclosures

Specifics vary by state, but the general rule is that you cannot pull credit scores or other information on a prospective renter without his or her permission; and you must disclose which records you plan to look up as a part of the rental application process. You must also disclose to the applicant that negative information on their credit report could result in a denial of their application.

Furthermore, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a federal law, requires landlords to provide contact information for the data provider that you used to conduct the screening. You must also provide an adverse action letter to any applicants denied in whole or in part on the information in their credit reports, informing them that they are entitled to a free copy of their report, and that the tenant has a right to dispute the information on their credit report.

Tips for Effective Tenant Screening

It might cost you a little extra, but it makes sense to purchase a report that comes with a FICO score. Here’s why:

The FICO score is colorblind; it’s gender-blind; it doesn’t see age or country of origin. It’s just a number generated from a mathematical algorithm that quantifies the way that the rental applicant has handled debts in the past.

If you include a minimum acceptable credit score in your tenant screening criteria, and you don’t make discriminatory statements during the advertising or application process, it is extremely difficult for a plaintiff’s attorneys or housing discrimination enforcement officials to build a case against you.

That said, there are a few yellow flags that landlords should be on the lookout for during the tenant screening process. Rental applicants who can’t pay these basic expenses are likely to have trouble making rent, too.

Flags to look out for on a tenant credit check:

  • Outstanding collection accounts from prior landlords with late or missed payments
  • Recent late payments on utilities
  • Recent late payments on phone bills
  • Recent late payments on car loans
  • Recent late payments on car insurance

Of these items, the first item is the most critical: Having outstanding collection accounts from previous landlords often means that the applicant skipped out on a lease early or failed to pay their last month’s rent. If they signed a promissory note for the balance, missed payments mean that they aren’t honoring the agreement. Occasionally, tenants will miss other payments in order to make their rent; but outstanding balances to a prior landlord indicate that they either failed to do this, or that even this wasn’t enough.

As a landlord, you can’t expect tenants to treat you any better than they treated their previous landlords.

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Using Third-Party Tenant Screening Services

If you’re a landlord poring over tenant screening reports yourself, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you complying with Section 613 regarding the release of adverse public information?
  • Are you complying with Section 609?
  • Are you up to speed on recent litigation concerning the misuse of credit reports and background check information in housing?

A number of vendors specialize in performing tenant background checks for landlords, including Buildium. Using a third-party service can be beneficial in 2 major ways:

  • Established screening companies have the resources to stay up-to-date and compliant with state and local laws regarding credit screening.
  • These companies can help with notifying applicants that they’ve been declined because of credit issues—taking a time-consuming, dreaded task off of landlords’ hands.

That said, not all tenant screening services are created equal. Since all of them eventually draw data from the same few sources (FICO, the 3 major consumer credit bureaus, court records, etc.), the “instant check” services don’t add a ton of value, and may expose landlords that use them to some risk of liability.

Look for tenant screening services that take a bit of time to check their records, verify that they are returning the correct data, and ensure that they are not providing you with information that is not legally reportable. Reputable tenant screening services will employ screening professionals certified by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. Examples of such certifications include the FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act), Basic Certification and Advanced Certification.

Now on the #BuildiumBlog: What a tenant credit check can tell you--and what it can't. Share on X

Renting to Young People

In some cases, you may have a young applicant with a limited or nonexistent credit history. This is particularly common in housing near colleges. If there’s just not enough credit information available for you to make an informed decision, or if a young person has poor credit, you may ask if anyone can co-sign the lease on their behalf. In many cases, parents with more established credit and enough resources to help their child out in a pinch will be willing to co-sign a lease. Be sure to check the co-signer’s credit as well—and verify that they’re real and that you have good contact information on them.

Note that if you require a co-signer, that counts as an adverse action under the FCRA. That means you or your screening company must provide your applicant with an adverse action letter.

Tenant Credit Check Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t try to play credit detective. You’re not a credit underwriting expert. That’s what your tenant screening service’s NAPBS-certified professionals are for. Beyond keeping an eye out for the red and yellow tenant screening flags mentioned above, stick to the credit score when making a decision. Yes, it’s worthwhile to give people a chance who’ve turned their lives around from some past mistakes or financial difficulties. However, recent trends are already baked into the credit score. If the applicant has made some recent, significant improvements over any significant length of time, they won’t have a rock-bottom score. Meanwhile, attempts to second-guess the FICO score by looking too deeply at the report provides an opportunity for personal biases and subconscious prejudices to impact your decision.

Property managers: Learn which tenant credit check mistakes to avoid at all costs on the #BuildiumBlog. Share on X

In addition, don’t seek to turn a profit from the application fee. The application fee should reflect the real-world cost of pulling a credit check for tenants, tenant background check, and eviction and court proceedings. Many states, such as Washington, expressly prohibit landlords from profiting from application fees.

Further reading: Using Consumer Reports: What Landlords Need to Know

Read more on Leasing
Jason Van Steenwyk

Jason is a freelance writer and editor, as well as an avid fiddler. His articles have been published in a number of real estate publications including Wealth and Retirement Planner and Bankrate.com. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL with his cat, Sasha, and an unknown number of musical instruments.

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