Landlord 101 - Rejecting tenants before they apply?
January 7, 2019 5:24 PM   Subscribe

New landlord here, renting out a place on my shared property (such as a basement apartment, guesthouse, ADU). I plan on screening very carefully. If someone comes by to view the place and they're clearly not a good fit, should I give them an application anyway then reject them later, or not offer them an application? If the latter, is there an easy way to phrase that?
posted by acidic to Work & Money (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ask your lawyer. You have a lawyer right? IANAL but I’m pretty sure denying people housing opportunities, a priori, and based solely upon your personal instinctual preferences is an action that is potentially legally fraught*. It depends a lot on your jurisdiction, and could land you in a world of legal trouble imo. So I would only trust a paid local expert, not internet strangers, YMMV.

*Could they claim they were discriminated against based upon age, or sex, or orientation, or religion, or ethnic group, etc etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:32 PM on January 7 [20 favorites]


What does “clearly not a good fit” mean exactly? What are you seeing that tells you that before they have even filled out the application? What is it you’re thinking of in particular?
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:34 PM on January 7 [9 favorites]


My guess is that you may have some leeway if you are renting an owner-occupied property, but I encourage you to be really, really sure, because back when I represented tenants for a legal aid organization, potential housing discrimination cases were sent to a team of attorneys who handled tenant claims that might yield significant money damages. I encourage you to consult with an attorney in your jurisdiction whose focus includes helping landlords maintain compliance with the laws that apply to your specific situation.
posted by Little Dawn at 5:37 PM on January 7 [5 favorites]


I also wonder what you mean by “good fit?” Most landlords determine this by factors such as rental history, income, criminal record, recent work history, credit score, and pets (sometimes). Check the laws as others have mentioned but I’m pretty sure rejecting people for anything else could get you in some hot water.

That being said, why not just Air BnB it if you want to be selective? Hosts seem to have more control over what reservations they can accept and reject and I don’t even think excuse matters. I could be very wrong, however.
posted by Young Kullervo at 5:52 PM on January 7 [5 favorites]


You probably didn't intend to ask for advice about minimizing the legal risk due to your discriminatory housing practices, but can you see how a sufficiently uncharitable observer might construe your question that way?

So, um, to answer your question, you should definitely offer the application and then tell them that you decided to go with another offer.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 5:53 PM on January 7 [8 favorites]


I was going to say that I’ve had instances where there is “another application pending” and then that miraculously is approved but I also don’t want to contribute to discriminatory practices. Would be a hard lie to pull off anyway if you need to keep the property listed online to find your tenant.
posted by Young Kullervo at 5:57 PM on January 7


The answer to this question will depend on many variables:
  • What is the country and state/locality where the property is located?

  • How many rental properties do you own?

  • Do you live in the same building where the rental unit is located?


  • For example, owner-occupied two-family homes in Massachusetts are exempt from some housing rental laws that apply to all other rentals.

    You probably won't get a safe answer from Metafilter. There may be local resources on landlord/tenant law that can help you out, or you may want to talk to a lawyer.
    posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:00 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


    I'm not alluding to any discriminatory preferences and I've done research on the requirements in my case. I was very careful to not have a discriminatory ad (unlike virtually all of the owner-occupied property listings in my area, FWIW). I'm just feeling anxious about what to do, practically, if someone shows up and is super rude, or drunk, or whatever. There's no law that says I have to rent to that person. Are you all saying that I should offer them an application anyway?
    posted by acidic at 6:03 PM on January 7 [2 favorites]


    For example, there's masslandlords.net and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.
    posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:03 PM on January 7


    If someone is super rude or drunk and insists on an application, it seems like the easiest way out for you is to give them an application and then just immediately trash it if in fact they do submit it.
    posted by crazy with stars at 6:08 PM on January 7 [22 favorites]


    Yeah, what do you have to lose by at least giving them an application? If they've clearly disqualified themselves for some kind of legally airtight reason, just don't accept them. If anything, letting everyone have an app seems less confrontational than selectively denying them to certain people (so, easier on you) and also seems like it would leave you with less legal exposure. It's like businesses that will give any rando who walks in and asks a job application to fill out, even if they're not actually hiring.
    posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:44 PM on January 7


    I'm just feeling anxious about what to do, practically, if someone shows up and is super rude, or drunk, or whatever.

    That is a more detailed description of the concern, but it still sounds like a question with potential legal issues included in the answer. What you can do and say may be limited by housing law, including because:
    “Denying someone an apartment because of how they look or where they come from not only deprives them of a home, it is against the law,” said Anna María Farías, HUD assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity.
    It may seem 'uncharitable' to suggest paying close attention to the civil rights issues raised by your question, but it's also a way to protect both you and the community. If you already understand the legal landscape generally, then it likely is a quick and affordable consultation that can help you answer this question. And then you have an established attorney you can call as needed in the future - it just generally seems like a good precaution when starting out as a new landlord.
    posted by Little Dawn at 6:54 PM on January 7 [2 favorites]


    Addiction including alcoholism may be a disability and therefore a criteria on which landlords cannot discriminate when making rental decisions. I wouldn't reject someone outright unless you see them commit an illegal act or are made aware of something related to their credit reliability.

    I'd read up on how to avoid discriminatory practices during the rental process. Even if you're not subject to the law under federal criteria, there can be relevant state laws and other risks that are worth steering far clear of. Best practices include things like putting your screening criteria in writing ahead of time and then following an objective process.

    It sounds like you're renting out space within an owner occupied home, in which case, yeah, the situation is different. Still, you don't lose anything by being careful.

    Also, pragmatically, wouldn't it be safer to tell someone that they weren't chosen to email than in person?
    posted by salvia at 7:11 PM on January 7


    I agree with the advice to get a quick legal consult from an attorney in your state (or even city if you're in a big one with its own housing or anti-discrimination regulations) about your responsibilities as a landlord, but I am frankly baffled by the people who think that you would have significantly greater legal exposure if you refused to take an application than if you took it and immediately trashed it. You may have greater exposure to an unruly person being mad at you while in/near your property, as salvia points out, a very reasonable concern, but rejecting them five minutes after they leave would not insulate you from liability if you were discriminating.

    Also, as a lawyer, yes, of course, I think you should be scrupulous in obeying the law, especially as in this case it implements important moral concerns, and that is the ethical reason to get legal advice on top of the practical ones. But, speaking realistically, your odds as a very small landlord of being sued by anyone for housing discrimination are very low, and the odds of success even lower, barring your sending them a follow-up email calling them a slur or something.
    posted by praemunire at 8:08 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


    I'm just feeling anxious about what to do, practically, if someone shows up and is super rude, or drunk, or whatever. There's no law that says I have to rent to that person. Are you all saying that I should offer them an application anyway?

    Yes. Offer them an application. If they are really drunk it's unlikely you'll get it back.
    posted by Toddles at 9:13 PM on January 7


    This is purely anecdotal: I live in a university town. A friend of mine has several properties, and rents only to students. He has only one requirement: show me you have a 3.0 grade point average. It may not be legal, but it has worked 100% of the time - no major damage, no skipped rent, no neighborly complaints. (A separate cleaning deposit at least gets him money for cleaners if there's a mess left.)

    He doesn't try to guess "best fit" but chooses something he thinks is a good predictor of behavior, and applies it to everyone, despite his feelings about them. Perhaps you could think of a similar test? And, of course, as everyone says, Lawyer Up!
    posted by kestralwing at 10:19 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


    Talk to a lawyer! The rules are different everywhere. When I was renting my house, I talked to a property manager who told me I had to pick the first application that met the criteria, because laws. And if it costs you time and money to process an application and you legally have to process it could cost you money. Or the potential tenant could lose money because of a small hit on their credit. Don’t just do what strangers on the internet say. We don’t even know where you live so we can’t speak to the local laws.
    posted by pazazygeek at 10:49 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


    rents only to students. He has only one requirement: show me you have a 3.0 grade point average. It may not be legal

    I'd refer that case to a local legal aid to explore the possibility of a class action lawsuit for housing discrimination, because it seems like an example of how a benign-sounding requirement like a GPA may have a disparate impact and discriminatory effects that can be proven under applicable laws. There may also be several potential theories of liability related to the 'students only' requirement.

    But please note that I'm not trying to make an accusation of intentional discrimination when I mention these concerns, it's that there are protections against various forms of discrimination, even when it is not intended to exclude people based on protected characteristics.
    posted by Little Dawn at 11:14 PM on January 7 [8 favorites]


    What you need to do is give EVERYONE an application. Maybe keep private notes if you thought they were drunk. Which you will later burn when you don't need them. But I will assure you that the drunk has bad credit. Then, if the drunk even contacts you (they won't) you can tell them you chose a tenant with better credit. If you honestly don't get a better tenant then just keep taking applications til you do. If the drunk calls (and he won't) say I'm still taking applications.
    What I do is ask the applicant what they think their credit score is. I don't charge a fee to avoid having angry people call me asking about their app. They can give me a credit score they got online for free. But when I go to decide I will ask the best applicant to pay a fee to confirm what they told me about their credit score.
    Keep all applications so you can prove you did this legally.
    Tell applicant they must write their credit score if they want to be considered.
    So keep the drunk's app especially if he writes "I don't know my credit score" because anyone else's credit score beats that.
    posted by cda at 11:56 PM on January 7


    "What I do is ask the applicant what they think their credit score is. I don't charge a fee to avoid having angry people call me asking about their app. They can give me a credit score they got online for free. But when I go to decide I will ask the best applicant to pay a fee to confirm what they told me about their credit score."

    This practice is illegal in my jurisdiction. This is why you should consult legal information from your own jurisdiction (even if not a lawyer, a reputable website or book with legal information for landlords. This should exist in almost any jurisdiction).
    posted by lookoutbelow at 8:44 AM on January 8 [4 favorites]


    You need jurisdiction-specific advice. Some jurisdictions offer courses for landlords to help you meet your legal obligations and avoid problems, if you want to minimize lawyer fees.

    You definitely want to know the legal boilerplate phrases for your area, because right now it sounds like you run a high risk of saying something that opens you up to legal liability.
    posted by momus_window at 9:59 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]


    The more unpleasant and drunk/high/belligerent a person is, the less I'd want to have a conversation with them about why I'm choosing not to give them an application. Just hand them the piece of paper!
    posted by aimedwander at 10:36 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]


    A further potential wrench, but are you using old school paper applications or using something like Cozy (which costs like $40 for the application) which also does a credit or criminal background check? Just asking because if it’s just a piece of paper with no cost to the potential tenant you may as well just let them fill it out. If the applicants have to pay for a background check but you know you don’t want to share space with them it does seem a little unfair.

    IANAL but I’m pretty sure you’re legally safe saying that you already have an application in and you’re just waiting for the background check to clear if anyone gives you bad vibes.
    posted by forkisbetter at 4:34 PM on January 8


    IANAL but I’m pretty sure you’re legally safe saying that you already have an application in and you’re just waiting for the background check to clear if anyone gives you bad vibes.

    Fair housing sting operations will do things like send out a person that might be discriminated against and then send out some able-bodied white male with the same financial characteristics. So if you lie to them and then don't lie to subsequent applicants you could get caught.
    posted by salvia at 3:12 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


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