As a landlord, you have the right to find tenants who will pay their rent on time and abide by the rules of the lease. However, when screening applicants, be aware that certain types of questions could open you up to liability under fair housing laws. If applicants believe a question is offensive or reveals a prejudice based on a protected class, you risk turning good tenants away and inviting discrimination lawsuits. Play it safe by understanding which questions to avoid.
Questions about race and neighbor preferences
When meeting with potential tenants, don’t ask questions about their race or ethnicity. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) bans discrimination based on race, color, and national origin—so questions that dig into those subjects are likely to run afoul of the law. Also, avoid questions about an applicant’s preference in neighbors. Not only could this imply that you take race into account when renting your apartments, but it means that you’re engaging in “steering.” This term refers to the illegal practice of directing tenants to certain units or buildings based on certain personal characteristics, such as race.
- Are you okay if some of your neighbors are minorities?
- Would you feel more comfortable living next door to someone with a similar background?
- What kind of guests will you have visiting you?
- Are you half-Asian?
- Where is your family from, originally?
Questions concerning religion
The FHA broadly protects tenants against religious discrimination. This means applicants have the same rights to find housing regardless of which religion they practice—if any at all. All questions about an applicant’s religious beliefs and observances should be avoided to ensure fair housing compliance.
- Do you need to live near a church?
- Are you okay that there are no mosques in the neighborhood?
- Are you very religious?
- Why do you wear a yarmulke all the time?
Questions relating to gender and sexuality
You can get into legal trouble by treating applicants differently based on their gender. Avoid all questions about an applicant’s ability to pay their rent or fulfill any other lease obligations based on gender. Also, be aware that any form of sexual harassment can lead to civil liability for housing discrimination, in addition to possibly being a crime.1 Never ask questions that could make an applicant feel pressured to engage in romantic or sexual behavior in order to secure a rental, no matter what your motive.
- Can you afford the rent without a husband to help out?
- Do you get asked out a lot?
- Would you like to grab a drink some time?
- How much do you want this apartment?
Questions about disabilities and accessibility
Although it’s illegal to discriminate against tenants based on disability, landlords sometimes ask questions out of a desire to help or provide superior customer service. Even if your intentions are good, you can’t ask an applicant for more information about their disabilities. Always let applicants with a disability who need an accommodation or modification raise the issue first.
One Illinois landlord asked applicants to provide detailed information about any disability they had—as well as if applicants could live independently. The landlord ended up settling with the Department of Justice, agreeing to pay $200,000 to the housing discrimination victims plus a $20,000 civil penalty.2
Also, keep in mind that people with addictions qualify as having a disability under the FHA. Refusing to rent to applicants who have previously used or abused any substances can lead to fair housing complaints.
- What disabilities do you have?
- Do you need to live on the ground floor?
- Do you need us to do anything to make things easier for you while you live here?
- Are you able to live independently?
- Are any of your roommates addicts?
- Are you an A.A. member?
Questions anticipating problems with children
The FHA bars discrimination based on familial status, which protects families with at least one child under 18 years old. Don’t ask questions that imply a dislike for renting to families with children—even if the applicants don’t currently have kids—or require tenants with children to follow special rules when a child’s health and safety is not at issue. With the notable exception of senior housing, questions that make applicants feel less welcome because of their children are illegal.
- Are you planning to have children after you move in?
- Are your kids well behaved?
- Can I recommend other nearby properties that have good playgrounds?
Questions that are illegal under your state’s fair housing laws
Be aware that state and local governments often have their own fair housing laws that may protect applicants based on additional characteristics. In Colorado, for instance, it’s illegal to ask questions that imply a bias based on sexual orientation or marital status; in Aspen specifically, you can’t ask questions about an applicant’s political affiliation or age. Many states protect renters based on sexual orientation, source of income, marital status, and age.
- Are you two boyfriends?
- You weren’t planning to use housing vouchers, were you?
- Would you be comfortable being, by far, the oldest tenant in the building?
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.