3 Tenant Screening Questions That Are Off Limits

Steer Clear of These Topics

Picture of Tenant Screening Questions to Avoid
Tenant Screening Questions to Avoid. Cultura/Liam Norris/ Riser/ Getty Images

As a landlord, you have the right to screen prospective tenants. While you want to be as thorough as possible, you need to know that certain questions are off limits. Asking a tenant about their race or religion are big no nos, as are questions about their arrest record. Here are three main topics you should avoid when interviewing tenants.

1. Questions That Violate Fair Housing Laws

The first type of question you should avoid asking during tenant screening is any question that could seem discriminatory towards a certain class of people.

Never ask anything that could be interpreted as discrimination under the Federal Fair Housing Law or under your State’s Fair Housing Law.

The Federal Fair Housing Act protects seven classes: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability and familial status. In addition, many States have additional protected classes such as marital status and sexual orientation.

Examples of questions/statements that could violate the Federal Fair Housing Act:

Race:

  • What race are you?
  • Are you Chinese or Japanese?
  • You look Italian. You should consider renting in the next town over, there are a lot of pizza places around there.
  • You would love the area, a lot of minorities live here.

Color:

  • You have very dark skin, are you white or Hispanic?
  • You’re very pale, I don’t know if you’d fit in here.
  • You have dark skin, I don’t know if you’d feel comfortable in the neighborhood.

Religion:

  • I’m not Christian, so I don’t want you to put up any Christmas decorations in my building.
  • There aren’t a lot of temples around here, I don’t know if you’d fit in.
  • Are you Buddhist? Don’t go turning one of the rooms into one of those meditation places.

Sex (Includes Gender and Sexual Harassment):

  • Having someone who looks like you as a tenant would definitely make me check on the building more often.
  • I don’t feel safe renting to a woman on the first floor.

National Origin:

  • In what country were you born?
  • Where were your parents born?
  • What is your first language?
  • Are you disabled?
  • I don’t allow animals, so I will not allow your service dog.
  • Are you an alcoholic?

Familial Status:

  • I don’t rent to people with kids.
  • Are you pregnant? I don’t want a screaming baby disturbing the other tenants.

To be safe, you should also avoid questions about marital status, sexual orientation, source of income, age or any other possible protected class in your State.

  • Are you married?
  • Are you divorced?
  • Are you gay?
  • (To a man:) I think having your boyfriend visit will make the other tenants uncomfortable.
  • You’re going to have to pay a higher security deposit because your income is from unemployment and I’m afraid I might have to evict you in the future.

2. Have You Ever Been Arrested?

You cannot ask a prospective tenant if they have ever been arrested. There is a big difference between being arrested and being convicted of a crime.

You can ask the prospective tenant if they have ever been convicted of a crime. This is something that can be readily discovered by running a background check. Keep in mind that in many states, such as California, you cannot discriminate against a person because they have been convicted of a crime.

The crime would have to influence their ability to be a good tenant, such as an illegal drug conviction or a history of violent offenses which could put other tenants at risk.

3. Any Question That Is Not Part of Your Normal Qualifying Standards

You must have the same qualifying standards for all prospective tenants. You should set a list of questions that you will ask all prospective tenants to “qualify” them as potential tenants. If you do not follow the exact same procedures for all tenants, you could be accused of discrimination. 

For example, while it is legal to perform credit checks on tenants as long as they consent to it, if you only perform credit checks on African American tenants, this would be considered discriminatory. Another example would be if you asked people who were not necessarily well-dressed, questions about their eviction history or criminal convictions, but ignored such questions for people who were well-dressed, this would also be discriminatory.

 

Next: 10 Questions for Prospective Tenants