What Not to Ask on Rental Applications

The right rental application questions can make the job of choosing a potential tenant a whole lot easier. Bad questions can allow bad tenants through, of course; but they can also turn off good tenants and even get you in legal trouble. Here’s what not to ask a potential renter on an application.

Questions that turn off good tenants

There are some great potential renters out there; people who will take good care of your property, always pay on time, and cultivate a good relationship with neighbors. You don’t want to send these people running! As a good rule of thumb, always think about how you would feel if someone asked you a question. Here are just a few you should avoid:

  1. What is your Social Security Number?

Identify theft is a huge issue in modern society, and sensible, cautious people—the very people you want to rent to—may be immediately turned off by a demand for their most sensitive personal information. Assess whether you really need it, and if possible use an online rental application and background screening provider rather than try to keep that kind of information secure yourself.

  1. Have you ever been a smoker?

Some landlords think this question is a clever way of catching out someone who is a smoker pretending to quit, or even trying to quit but is unlikely to succeed. It’s actually not all that helpful. Relapse rates for smokers are fairly high, but that’s only for recent quitters. Once someone has been a non-smoker for two years, their chances of going back are pretty slim, and by asking it you could be throwing away a great tenant.

  1. What is the make and model of your car and your license plate number?

This is information that you don’t need when you make the decision about renting. You might need the information later, after you’ve agreed to rent, but it’s not necessary at this step. It might throw up a red flag to a potential tenant who doesn’t see a reason you want this kind of detailed information at this stage.

Questions that can get you in legal trouble

There are some questions you’re simply not allowed to ask. There are other questions you’re permitted to ask, but only if you ask them of all potential tenants regardless of race, nation of origin, sex, or religion. In other words, you can’t pick and choose who you’ll ask certain things. Here are questions to be careful about for legal reasons:

  1. Please provide three references including employer, a past landlord, and one personal contact.

This is a perfectly fine requirement to make on an application, but remember that you must ask the same question in exactly the same way of all potential renters. If you suddenly get concerned when you see your third or four applicant and want to add another hoop, you can’t ask only them to jump through it. You’ll have to make sure everyone does.

  1. Have you ever been arrested?

In many states you are allowed to ask if someone has a criminal conviction, but you are never allowed to ask about arrests. A conviction is proof someone broke the law, but people can get arrested by accident, for something that ended up not being a crime, or because they were confused with someone else.

  1. How old are you?

Avoid this question and any like it. You cannot refuse to rent to someone because of their age, sexual orientation, sex, color, religion, marital status, or because they are or might become pregnant, among other things. Even asking these types of questions can get you in serious legal trouble.

To make sure you’re asking the right questions, be familiar with the Fair Housing Act, and then establish your qualifying standards and apply them equally to all prospective renters.