Keeping individual, multi-family or student rental properties safe, clean and rentable is just as important as having the rent paid on time. Landlords who have not screened their tenants may be curious about background checks, especially if rent isn't being paid or if suspicious activity arises. Property owners who are looking for highly qualified individuals may also have questions about screening future tenants. There are lots of different ways to look into the past of tenants, including a "cheap internet search" but they could cause more trouble than they're worth. As a landlord or property owner, it's best to obtain background checks legally.
So is it legal for a landlord run a background check without permission?
Can Landlords Check Social Media?
The internet seems to have all the information a landlord could want on their tenant, especially if their tenant is active on social media. The challenge is that, even with the seemingly endless data, the landlord may in fact be infringing on their tenant's privacy. Social media can be hacked, or worse, set up with fake profiles or stolen identities. Even if the social media profiles are connected with the correct individual, seeing certain information could cause the landlord to discriminate based on what they think they know. Instead of seeking information that isn't verifiable and possibly setting themselves up for a fair housing discrimination claim, a verified tenant background check should be obtained by property owners or landlords.
What Information is Found on a Tenant Background Check?
Tenant background checks should answers questions and include any helpful information for finding a qualified renter. A basic background check for tenants should include:
- Identity verification - Are they who they say they are?
- National Criminal Database Search - Have they recently committed a crime that would exclude them from being a trusted tenant? Be wary of fair housing laws for renting to felons.
- National Sex Offender Search - Would you be renting to someone who is registered as a sex offender?
- Credit History - Do the individual's finances qualify for the rental payments?
- Rental & Eviction History - Does the tenant owe another landlord? Have they skipped out on paying rent? Do they regularly pay on time?
The tenant must give permission before the landlord is allowed to obtain this information according to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The FCRA dictates the consumer information is private and cannot be accessed except for "permissible purposes" such as seeking employment or housing.
How Does a Landlord Get Permission to run a Background Check?
Since the FCRA establishes rules to keep consumer information private and accurate, landlords must also be aware of the rules to obtain this information in a background check. The tenant must be completely aware that the landlord or property owner is going to run a background check. The FCRA states that a "clear and conspicuous" form, which is separate from the rental application, should state which screens will be run and ask the individual's signature for permission. The applicant must also be aware that the information obtained in the background check could sway the rental decision.
Even if the tenant is already living in a rental property and the landlord wants to run a background check, the tenant should still give permission. If the landlord obtains information without the express consent of the applicant or tenant, the landlord could be taken to court under an FCRA claim.