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When Tenant Screening Gets Carried Away

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By Tiffany Brewington - Editor
Record Information Services
August 2007

It's amazing what apartment managers will try to get away with in regards to discriminating against possible tenants. From working in the rental advertising business I have seen many cases of landlords trying to narrow down their ads to attract only the most cookie-cutter perfect tenant. From "must have a full-time job" to "no girls allowed" - I have heard it all. Although I have high respect for landlords (for being successful enough to be able to provide someone else with a home), many smaller housing owners I have run across seem to get carried away in their search for the perfect tenant.

Landlords do have a good reason to be selective. The people living in their buildings are expected to keep up the apartment, pay rent on time, and be a safe neighbor to their other tenants. But what do these things have to do with tenants not being allowed to have house guests and the requirement to have your own car? I had often wondered how landlords could discriminate in this way until I did rental advertising myself.

One of the reasons you'll see a lot of rental ads with questionable wording is that the Fair Housing Act (which dictates the guidelines in which rental unit owners may or may not discriminate against possible tenants) does not apply to owner-occupied buildings with four units or less, in many circumstances. So if you are searching the want ads and see an ad that says: "Room for rent - Single, brunette female preferred…" then believe-it-or-not, this is completely legal (although a newspaper would be crazy to allow this ad to print and you'd be even crazier to rent from this guy).

In cases where The Fair Housing Act does cover discrimination circumstances, the following are all prohibited: the failure to rent to a tenant based upon race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap. These things cannot be discriminated against in any advertising of the property either. For this reason, landlords with larger complexes need to very careful in how they performing screening and the legalities behind it.

Although landlords have every right to screen and select the best tenants, it is best to use a 360º degree approach, which may include credit checks, public record checks, and references. This is the best approach to avoid any hidden biases or stereotypes which could later result in any discrimination lawsuits.

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