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What Landlords Need to Know About Background Checks

Many landlords run background checks on applicants—but making a decision based on criminal history can open you up to legal issues if you aren’t careful.

As a landlord, it’s important to have an idea of who you’re going to be renting to. Background checks can help with that. However, there are a lot of potential legal—and ethical—pitfalls when it comes to judging an applicant based on their criminal history. You’ll need to understand the federal and local laws that apply before you start screening tenants.

What do tenant background checks include?

Depending on what report you get, the amount of information on a criminal history and background check varies. It could include all or just some of these:

  • Type and severity of offense
  • Date and location of offense
  • Case number
  • Court hearing results and how the tenant pled
  • Violent offenses
  • Sexual offender registry listings
  • National, state, or local offenses, or all three
  • Criminal charges and criminal convictions
  • Terrorism watchlist records

If your potential tenant spent time in prison, you may also learn where that prison was; how long the sentence was; and probation, parole, and release records. Note that records that did not result in a conviction will only go back seven years on the report.

Why are background checks for potential tenants important?

Depending on the severity of a crime committed and whether that person is a repeat offender, some landlords feel that welcoming a tenant with a criminal history could put them, the building, or other renters in danger. That is, of course, often not the case—but many landlords find the information important to make an informed decision on the type of renter an applicant will be.

How do I check a tenant's background and criminal history?

Criminal history checks are provided by third-party companies, unless you go to the courthouse to search records yourself. The American Apartment Owners Association offers one, as does TransUnion and Experian. Most comprehensive tenant screening options—reports that include both rental history and credit checks—will automatically include criminal history.

Tenant background checks are not free. Many landlords or management companies will include that cost in the application fee for any potential tenant.

What are some common things to look out for on a criminal record?

When you receive your potential tenant’s criminal record, keep an eye out for incidents that could translate into current problems with your rental. You’ll want to look at each record for recent convictions (keep in mind that arrests, which aren’t generally an acceptable reason to reject someone, don’t mean someone was found guilty of a crime) and what they were for, violent offenses, listings on the sex offender registry, and anything that would imply a crime could happen in your building, like drug dealing.

Remember, though, that criminal background reports can be deceiving. Follow up with the potential tenant to discuss the circumstances behind their conviction before making a final decision. And don’t forget that to avoid fair housing trouble, you need to determine in advance what type of conviction will disqualify a tenant and run background checks on every applicant with those guidelines. Deniable offenses can include: murder, kidnapping, theft, assault, robbery, and more.

Are there any laws that apply to tenant background checks?

Blanket bans on people with a criminal history are considered discriminatory under the federal Fair Housing Act. So if you do decide to evaluate applicants based on their background check, you’ll need to be specific in your screening criteria about what type of crimes would result in rejection.

You’ll also need to check your local laws. Some cities, like Oakland in California, have completely banned criminal background checks for potential tenants.1 Chicago has a fair-chance housing ordinance that stops landlords from denying applicants just because they have a criminal record.2 Other cities, like Aurora, Illinois, require criminal background checks on potential tenants.3 So before you start processing applications for potential tenants, be sure to check into your local regulations to see what you can and can’t do.

[1] “Oakland bans criminal background checks for rental housing,” Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2020

[2] “The fight for fair-chance housing ordinances,” Curbed, June 12, 2019

[3] Aurora Police Department

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.