Criminal background check – what to look for

Although many landlords stop at performing a credit check on all applicants, a criminal background check is just as important in the tenant screening process. You should never avoid a background check simply because it lengthens the screening process or costs a small fee; it can be the difference between an upstanding tenant and a nightmare one. Tenants with a history of violent or frequent criminal convictions can put your property, your other tenants, and your neighborhood at risk. While you may be inclined to give your tenants a chance despite their criminal histories, you should consider the following when deciding whether or not you should skip the background check. (Hint: you shouldn’t).

Why you need a criminal background check

You should be wary of potential tenants with a criminal history because they may put your other tenants, your neighbors and yourself in danger. You are responsible for the safety of all of your other tenants as well as your own personal safety, so you should never put this safety at risk by accepting an applicant with a history of violent crimes. If you would not feel comfortable living in close quarters with the convicted criminal, you should think about how your other tenants and neighbors might feel when they find out you have accepted a such a tenant.

You should make sure that none of your tenants are prone to violence, if they are you put yourself in a legally precarious situation should they become violent again on your property. Denying applicants with a history of violent crimes will help you protect yourself from potential lawsuits. If you choose to forgo a criminal background check or accept a tenant with a criminal history, you may be sued for negligence if the tenant commits a crime on your property or in the neighborhood. Should you have reasonable concern after the criminal background check that an applicant might commit a crime on your property or in your community you should deny the application.

You can, however, implement a policy that accepts applicants who have only committed misdemeanors that are not applicable to tenancy, such as underage drinking, or applicants who have had a clean record for at least five years. Whatever policy you decide to use, you should implement it equally among all applicants in order to ensure that you are practicing non-discriminatory policies.

A criminal background check is also an important tool in scaring away untrustworthy tenants. Right off the bat, this requirement will discourage applicants with criminal backgrounds from even applying. It also sends the message that you are serious about selecting trustworthy and reputable tenants. Should an applicant refuse to comply with a background check, you should not move forward with the application process because this is a red flag that the applicant most likely has something to hide. These immediate red flags indicate that these applicants are the most likely to give you problems when they move in. Even if you want to, don’t waive your criminal background check requirement for anyone in order to avoid a discrimination lawsuit.

Lastly, because background checks will discourage applicants that are not serious, the screening process will help reduce your tenant turnover. Tenants that don’t give you red flags during the screening process are more likely to be high-quality tenants who are there for the long run. With lower tenant turnover, you’ll lose less money during vacancies and stabilize your income stream.
Are convicted criminals a protected class?

You are legally permitted to deny an applicant because of their criminal history; the Fair Housing Act does not include convicted criminals as a protected class. In order to protect yourself from any discrimination lawsuits, you should create a uniform application and tenant screening process that you implement equally across all applicants. You should also remember that while you can deny an application based on the applicant’s history of criminal convictions, you cannot deny an application based on the applicant’s previous arrests. Lastly, you should only deny applicants with previous convictions that indicate that they may put the property, other tenants, and/or the neighborhood at risk.

In order to protect yourself should a denied applicant take you to court, you should always keep copies of the results of the background check; this will be valuable evidence in court. You can use these documents to prove that you denied an applicant because of a criminal conviction and not because the applicant was a part of a protected class.

Steps for conducting a background check

Start by performing a simple Google search on all applicants to see what you can find on your own; also search their name followed by words like “arrest” or “criminal.” If nothing questionable comes up, you can then search their phone number and investigate any links or photos that are associated with the number. Don’t forget to review the social media of all potential tenants to look for any red flags, such as posts complaining about their landlord or photos of wild parties. Lastly, many states have public court websites that allow you to search court cases; use this resource to search your tenant’s criminal history. If you do find anything that gives you pause, consider denying the application and skipping the professional background check altogether.

However, if you find nothing questionable in your own searches, you should still opt to complete a professional criminal background check. Because background checks may take a few days to get you results, you should request the report as soon as possible; this will speed up the application process and get a new tenant into your property as soon as possible. Collect county level criminal checks from all counties the applicant previously lived in for the past seven years. Use the addresses that come up in the applicant’s credit check to determine which counties to search instead of the addresses the applicant has provided you with; they can easily lie about their previous residences in order to pull the wool over your eyes.

Once you are prepared to request the criminal background checks from a professional agency, ensure that you have received the applicant’s written authorization as well as their legal name, date of birth, most current address, and social security number.

What to look for in a background check

Obviously, you should first look to see if the applicant has committed any crimes; if they haven’t you can move on with the rest of the screening process. However, you shouldn’t deny an applicant because they have simply been convicted but should instead thoroughly examine the report to determine whether or not they pose a danger.

You should determine what type of crime has been committed and if it is relevant to their potential tenancy. For example, the applicant may have convicted of being a minor in possession of alcohol, which is likely no indication of how they will behave as a tenant. Conversely, if you see that an applicant has been convicted of a felony crime like burglary or assault and battery, you are right to be wary of this applicant. Burglary indicates that the applicant may try to steal from you or your other tenants, while assault and battery indicates that the applicant may compromise the safety of your other tenants and the neighborhood. Misdemeanors are generally less of a red flag than felonies, while violent crimes are more worrisome than non-violent crimes.

You should also verify how long ago the crime was committed. If the applicant has a felony on their record but has been clean for over five years, you can assume that they have likely reformed and turned their life around. On the other hand, if the tenant was convicted recently, it is difficult to say that they will not commit another crime again.

The frequency of the convictions is another red flag the background check may raise. Multiple criminal convictions are an indication that the applicant does not mind breaking the law, while one single conviction may indicate that the tenant simply made a mistake.

Do not forget to take any legal requirements into consideration when you are reviewing the background check. You might not have a problem renting to a sex offender, but if your property is located near a school, you may not be able to rent to this person. Review any court restrictions that may create legal trouble for you in the future; even if you like an applicant, it’s not worth putting yourself on the line for them.

Whatever you do choose to look for when analyzing the background checks, you should apply the same policies to all applicants. For example, if you deny an applicant because they have more than one conviction, you should use the same reasoning for all tenants. If you do not, an applicant may be able to sue you for wrongful discrimination and may win.

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