Your landlord knows a lot about you, but what do you know about your landlord?
Building owners and managers routinely use personal information from tenant applications to conduct in-depth background and credit checks themselves, or turn the job over to a private tenant-screening company.
Renters may lack the time, experience and money to scrutinize landlords. Many tenants do not even know who owns the building they live in, because they interact only with property managers, and investors create limited-liability companies, or LLCs, to actually own properties; only the LLCs’ names appear on leases and other documents.
Technology is starting to turn the tables. Crowdsourcing sites like RateMyLandlord.com and ReviewMyLandlord.com give prospective tenants a renter’s-eye-view of property owners and property managers. And state and local governments are posting building code violations and other information online.
Tenants would be wise to do a little snooping before signing a lease, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development says. “Landlord screening databases … give the tenant some visibility into what is normally a blind spot in the unit leasing process,” the agency said in an email. “The landlord-tenant relationship is a two-way street, and ideally screening is viewed as beneficial to both parties.”
Not unreasonably, property owners screen potential tenants to see if they have the resources (usually a steady job at a certain salary) to reliably pay the rent every month and to see if they have recently filed for bankruptcy.
But the questions don’t end there. Property owners or their proxies may call your last landlord to ask if you were ever late with the rent, loud or obnoxious or damaged the property, and whether they would rent to you again. They also may search court records to see if you have a criminal record or ever filed a civil lawsuit.
You might not know until too late that your landlord has been sued by tenants, cited for building code violations or used one of the tenant-screening services named in hundreds of lawsuits for having falsely identified innocent applicants as criminals, deadbeats or registered sex offenders.