Q: What info can a landlord legally divulge about tenants? I was under the impression that we can only confirm the dates of tenancy and nothing more. – TVS Landlord
Talking to a previous landlord is one of the best ways to screen tenants. But, some landlords are reluctant to speak about a former tenant, primarily for fear that such a disclosure would be illegal.
It is a common practice for a landlord to provide references on former tenants. The new landlord provides a shield to the former landlord by obtaining consent from the prospective tenant.
This consent is generally contained in the rental application. Here’s an example:
I authorize Landlord to verify the information I’ve provided in this application by checking credit sources, credit bureaus, current and previous landlords, employers and personal references. I further authorize my credit sources, credit bureaus, current and previous landlords, employers and personal references to disclose to Landlord such information about me.
Some landlords take an additional step and ask the tenant to sign a separate reference form for each person listed on the application. Regardless of the chosen form, the authorization can be shared with the reference in order to alleviate any concerns that the tenant has not given consent.
If a tenant won’t offer their consent, or won’t disclose landlord names, the best practice is to simply reject the applicant for failing to provide the reference information, rather than attempting to dig up this individual’s past on your own.
When offering references, there are two gray areas that should be noted. First, it is important to be truthful. That’s not as simple as it may seem, because a reference is naturally subjective. Former landlords should make a good faith effort to avoid grumbling or sharing personal feelings about a tenant if those feelings diverge from the tenant’s rental history. For example, avoid statements like, “I never warmed up to him” when describing a tenant who paid rent on time, got along with the neighbors, and returned the unit in prime condition.
The new landlord should not act on overly subjective comments, so avoid this problem by steering the conversation with the former landlord reference. Ask some specific questions to keep the focus on the tenant’s rental history. Have those questions written down and available when you speak. Be sure to ask the same questions each time you run a landlord reference so all applicants are treated the same.
Former landlords also may have a duty to protect a former tenant’s privacy. In particular, medical issues, and in some cases, criminal background that bears no relationship to the rental history, may be protected by privacy laws. Again, former landlords should stick to the information that is relevant to rental history — behaviors that may be repeated and may cost the new landlord — but avoid private facts that would be highly prejudicial to the individual’s ability to obtain new rental housing.
For example, if you discover that during the tenancy, your tenant attended a meeting with Alcoholics Anonymous, but the tenant has a stellar rental history, then that medical information should be kept private. If the new landlord rejects an applicant based on that information, that landlord may be faced with a discrimination claim.
This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post in not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.