Tenant Screening: Why Landlords Conduct Background Checks Before Accepting Your Offer -- Should You be Worried?

Posted by Staff Reporter (media@realtytoday.com) on Nov 25, 2015 05:00 AM EST
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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 15: A large 'rent' banner is posted on the side of an apartment building on June 15, 2012 in San Francisco, California. According to a report by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, the tepid real estate market could see a turnaround with the price of rental properties surging and vacancies dropping from 10.6 percent in 2009 to 9.5 percent last year, the lowest level since 2002.
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Tenant screening is a process conducted by landlords and property managers to evaluate if prospective tenants can fulfill the terms of the lease, and if they can take care of the property in question. The process typically involves collecting personal identifying information, including employment, credit records, previous realty standing, and criminal history.  

While this may be considered as standard operating procedure, should renters be worried about putting their private information at risk?

Atty. Janet Portman, author of "Every Tenant's Legal Guide" gives advice on background-check policies, as reported by Trulia. According to Portman, there is a new process involving background reporting. National credit bureaus such as Experian, TransUnion and Equifax now offer paid tenant-screening products to help landlords conduct a thorough research.

TransUnion uses SmartMove, an online tool that compiles a database for both consumers and landlords. According to its website, landlords "need great reports to pick great tenants." SmartMove offers credit reports, criminal background checks, and eviction records.  

On the other side of the coin, SmartMove assures renters that its database is "secure and online," and that their SSN and other personal information will always be kept private.  

In fact, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) does give tenants the right to obtain their personal file from a specialty reporting company such as SmartMove and the like. This is to ensure that their records are correct and do not have discrepancies.

However, Portman admits that data-collecting companies do not always have 100 percent accurate reports.  

"These companies purport to have access to criminal conviction databases, but often are inaccurate and incomplete," the author says. "They depend on local courthouses reporting the data regularly and accurately - they can't ensure it; all they can do is regularly upload data."

Rachel Fields, a Virginia native, has experienced this firsthand, as KiroTV News reported. Fields' teenaged son has autism and has done minor damages to their home in Virginia upon severe bouts. She offered to pay for the damages, but her landlord went to court to get an unlawful detainer. She has since fulfilled the payments, but her records have been marred.

When Fields moved to another town, she consistently failed her tenant background checks on the assumption that she has been previously evicted.

"Until we came here, I didn't know that was on my history," Fields said.

According to Portman, the best way to conduct tenant screening is still the old-fashioned way.  

"A very effective practice is calling the last landlord, who has no ulterior motive to give you a false positive. But of course, the only landlords who can do that are those who have the time and don't depend on volume," she says.

In addition, Portman urges renters to guard whatever information they give out to landlords. Under federal law, landlords are required to take precautions to ensure that credit reports are stored in a secured place. It is a tenant's right to take action if they deemed that this has not been met.

"If they become sloppy, and leave credit reports on the top drawer of the desk, and the identity is stolen, in general you'd have a negligence lawsuit for failing to take steps to protect your identity," Portman says.

The author suggests renters to ask their landlords to shred the documents and delete digital files in their presence. Furthermore, it is best for renters to regularly check their credit records and immediately report any inaccuracy.

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