How far can a landlord go....
July 5, 2005 8:45 AM   Subscribe

I have always been a bit of a privacy nut, but now I have become a landlord, and have to look at the issue from the other side. Need some help/advice from any Canadian landlords out there......

I have to screen prospective tennants, and am not sure what sort of questions that I should (or can) ask of them. Is there a way (besides Google) to do an informal background and credit check on someone. I figure that their social insurance number is not my business, but without this, is there any way to find out if someone has a history (criminal or otherwise). What has worked for you in the past? Any advice / pitfalls would be greatly appreciated.
posted by TheFeatheredMullet to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't know what province your are in, but if it's Ontario, you could try the Landlord's Self Help Centre. It's funded by Legal Aid Ontario and is available to small landlords.
posted by girlpublisher at 8:56 AM on July 5, 2005

In Quebec the Regie de Logement has an excellent site that convers both sides of the coin.
posted by furtive at 9:38 AM on July 5, 2005

Honestly, it's not unreasonable for a landlord to do more than just a basic check of a tenant, and any "informal" check you might do isn't likely to be very thorough. In most areas of Canada, it is extremely difficult for a landlord to evict a tenant, even if the tenant simply stops paying rent - it's much easier to screen out the bad tenants before you sign a lease. If you're in Alberta, a good source of information is at this web site. It is definitely a good idea to do a very thorough screening of a potential tenant, within the limits of the law, before entering into a lease agreement (contract) with them.
posted by gwenzel at 10:27 AM on July 5, 2005

IMO, worry about your own ass first. If a prospective tenant takes issues with the questions you ask, s/he can go find another place to live. AFAIK, you are not forced to rent to any one person in particular (well, p'raps only so long as you aren't discriminating based on the usual race/language/religion/etc no-nos).
posted by five fresh fish at 10:58 AM on July 5, 2005

When I got an apartment with a "Professional" company (they ran at least serveral dozen apartment buildings in Southern Ontario), they required the following information on their application sheet:

Present Name/Address/Landlord/Phone Number
Previous Address/Landlord
Drivers License #
Bank Account Info

Permission to do credit checks, bank account checks, reference checks, co-signee checks, etc. was required as well. I don't recall if they bothered (I looked at all the apartments wearing a dress shirt/pants and tie).

There was some other stuff on there which I can't recall at the moment. Basically, I think if you avoid asking anything outside of race/gender/sexuality questions you won't get in trouble. You may find some tenants refuse to give certain information. I didn't give the landlord my bank account info -- I told them to do a credit check, and if that wasn't good enough they could stuff it.

You are permitted to require SIN #s in Canada, unlike the USA, HOWEVER you may *not* sort your files by SIN #, or provide mechanisms to look up information by SIN #.
posted by shepd at 11:09 AM on July 5, 2005

I would avoid marital status questions as well.
posted by Morrigan at 11:37 AM on July 5, 2005

In fact you are not allowed to require a SIN number and while it is unlikely, a potential tenant could file a complaint against you if you do.

Ask for current address and previous address and call previous landlords for a reference. They're going to be able to tell you the kinds of things that are actually relevant anyway. (You don't need to know how much money they have in the bank, you need to know if they get their rent paid on time every month. You don't need to know how old they are or what they do for a living, you just need to know if they have furniture-moving parties every night at 11).
posted by duck at 11:39 AM on July 5, 2005

We asked about their income.
Some of the applicants reported their monthly income as less than or equal to the monthly rent, we filed those applications in the garbage.

You also really have to look out for grow ops.
posted by Iax at 3:36 PM on July 5, 2005


If the organization refuses to give you the product or service unless you give your SIN, complain to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada;

Do you know what that does for you? Be assured, the answer is that the process will take several months-years. And when complete you will be refused on the basis that you were unable to complete the application in a timely fashion and the apartment has been rented to others. The results of the trial will be "don't do that" and probably a really wimpy fine. REALLY wimpy.

I know this because I sell [unnamed company's] satellite products. They require that I take a credit card number, home address, etc, period. Cash and go is not acceptable. When I asked about the privacy commissioner the answer was basically the equivalent of the IRC "LOL". PIPEDA = joke. But, yes, I suppose since 2004 it has been technically illegal (prior to that my advice was spot on).

However, most places if pressed will take the following in lieu of the SIN (and you'll need them all):

- Passport number
- Driver's license number
- Copy of your birth certificate

Which would you rather have stolen...?
posted by shepd at 4:06 PM on July 5, 2005

Shepd: Yes, in addition to "highly unlikely" I should have added and mostly useless. However, I don't give out my SIN to anyone except my employer (not even my bank) and other than annoyance on the part of the employee I've never had any problem (and never been asked for any of those other things, either).

Now of course this person could require a SIN in spite of the law. But they could also ask people who many kids they have and where their parents were born, and who they like to sleep with in spite of the law. The question, however, implied that they wanted to know what could they do legally. And legally you can't require a SIN.

Not clear what a SIN would buy you anyway, when when you really need to know is whether or not they'll pay your rent and what condition the apartment will be in when they leave.

Oh, and as a landlord I would totally screen out anyone with income at or below the monthly rent...but income has often been at or below my monthly rent and I've never failed to pay my rent on time. (Like I said, I wouldn't risk it either, but just noting that "no income" doesn't necessarily mean they won't pay).
posted by duck at 6:43 PM on July 5, 2005

I know this because I sell [unnamed company's] satellite products. They require that I take a credit card number, home address, etc,

This is purely because they don't want to sell to satellite pirates - having a name and a credit card number makes that a bit less likely (one would hope) because they can track who their customers are. When I signed up for satellite, I certainly wasn't required to provide my SIN (and wouldn't have given it to them if they had asked). I do take your point about the privacy commissioner complaints process being useless, though.
posted by gwenzel at 7:33 PM on July 5, 2005

I am a secretary in a property management department. Our applications to rent are incredibly snoopy, even going so far as to ask for a person's bank account numbers. (Few people actually put that information in, however.)

We require:
Full name
Date of birth
Current address in full
(The above is the minimum required for a credit check with Equifax.)
You want to know the applicant's present landlord's name and phone number (and CALL THEM and ask about the tenant)
previous landlord's name and phone number (call them, too)
applicant's job, salary and how long they've been there, and I will often ask the supervisor if the job seems stable and long-term.

Confirm everything on the application to rent. People lie. People lie a LOT.

When I phone a landlord I ask:

Were they a good tenant?
On time with rent?
Any NSF rent cheques?
Any problems or complaints?
Any pets? Problems with the pets?
Did they take good care of the rental unit?
Have they given you proper notice that they're vacating?
Are they breaking a lease?
Do you think they'll get their security deposit back?

And: let the landlord talk to you, you can pick up a lot of information by what they say about the person and how they say it.

Confirm the applicant's job. Confirm everything on the application to rent. People really do lie a lot.

We've had people walk out of the office when they find out that yes, we're actually going to call your landlord and ask about you. And same with a credit check. A credit check doesn't tell the whole story on a person, but it is informative. You can see collections from other rental agencies, confirm current address, etc. It's interesting what addresses people "leave off" their applications.

Our application has a clause that by signing and dating it, you're giving us permission to conduct a tenant reference on you and to ask for a credit check.

If people don't want to give the SIN, I will generally only ask them for it if Equifax can't pull up a credit check without it.

We do not ask about race, gender, or marital status (except requiring that we know all who may live in the rental unit and if there is a spouse/partner, we need an application from them too).

If people are self-employed, we will ask for proof of income--a statement from an accountant, a copy of their tax return, etc.

We are incredibly snoopy in our office, but we act as agents for the property owners, who trust us to screen potential tenants. Even so, a nightmare tenant can be incredibly costly in more than just monetary damages.

Advise the tenants that you will do inspections on occasion, too. (And follow through, using the proper channels and notice, etc.)

You might want to join a landlord's association. In BC you can join ROMA, and get lots of information and assistance, and are able to call and ask if an applicant has been reported by other landlords upon eviction.

Check out a property management firm's online application (quite common now) and you'll get an idea of what information landlords ask for.
posted by Savannah at 8:00 PM on July 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

Dang, Savannah, you ask about pets? My plan for getting a new place when I move was just to lie and say "Sure, no pets. Who wants pets anyway? I hate animals! Let me just put some extra initials next to that 'no pets' clause". And then move in with a dog.

It hadn't occurred to me that a landlord might ask a previous landlord about that I know this if I ever have to move with a dog I'll lie to the current landlord too. ("Oh yeah...poor fluffy...he was young but his heart was bad. I really don't think I could handle another pet.")
posted by duck at 8:21 PM on July 5, 2005

Savannah has it.

One additional item is that in many jurisdictions now, you can go online and search criminal records. Here in Wisconsin we can look up closed and active court cases since the late 1990s using a website, although you don't necessarily find aliases or maiden names that way.

There are also fee-based landlord services that will do much of the background checking for you. Some of these are creating comprehensive, credit-agency-like profiles of renters including any prior evictions or court activity. Larger corporate landlords use these services; people who are running from their pasts look for mom-and-pop operations precisely because they don't do extensive checks.

As a landlord you must familiarize yourself with local law. In Wisconsin, we have a Tenant Resource Center which runs seminars in various cities for tenants, landlords, police, and other interested parties, with a full three-ring binder including their frequently-asked-questions and reproductions of all relevant parts of the state code. I have found this resource invaluable. You may have to assemble one yourself, but likely there is a rental-property association that has some materials you can receive for free or upon joining. This will let you know, for instance, what questions are illegal in your jurisdiction.

In my opinion, every effort you make prior to renting will pay for itself many times over, in terms of fewer unexpected issues and longer tenancies. I believe this makes the difference between a break-even or profitable rental operation and a red-ink tax shelter.
posted by dhartung at 10:23 PM on July 5, 2005

Just a comment from the flip side: I've never failed to pay rent on time and I've always got my full damage deposit back. If asked to fill out an application like shepd's experience the door would have a hard time hitting me on the way out. The only time I ever had problems finding a place (and during university I often moved every four months for co-op placements) was when I needed to rent after having lived in my own house. That was until I had a friend pretend he rented my house to me so I could put previous landlord on my applications. An over the top application may self select for the kind of tenant who'll phone you at 3AM because a screen has popped out.

I've done a lot of major appliance work for landlords and they all seem have different phobias of who they won't rent to. Single men; Single women, people with pets; people with dogs (cats OK); people with cats (dogs OK); people with children; single people with children; people with fish; people with waterbeds; people with same sex room mates; people with opposite sex room mates; people with cars; people without cars are all groups that I've had landlords tell me they won't rent to. Point is do your research but watch you don't over analysis. I've seen apartments trashed by tenants pulling down mid six figures.
posted by Mitheral at 11:34 AM on July 6, 2005

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