Legal and Illegal Reasons Landlords May Turn Rental Applicants Down

What a landlord can and cannot ask you when you're applying for a rental.

A landlord is legally free to set whatever conditions he wants for a tenancy as long as they are reasonably related to his business needs and don’t violate antidiscrimination laws. The Federal Fair Housing Acts (42 U.S. Code § § 3601-3619) prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, familial status (having children), and physical or mental disability (including alcoholism and past drug addiction). In addition, many states and cities also prohibit discrimination based on marital status, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

A landlord may reject you for poor credit history, income that a reasonable businessperson would deem insufficient to pay the rent, negative references from a previous landlord or employer, a criminal conviction, or a prior eviction lawsuit (even one that you won). As long as they don’t discriminate, landlords can basically choose whomever they want. For example, a landlord can refuse to rent to smokers or disallow pets because smokers (and pet owners) as a group are not protected by antidiscrimination laws. If your landlord’s policy is no pets, no smoking, or some other legitimate lease or rental agreement term, you’re out of luck unless you can make some convincing arguments for your case. (Negotiating With the Landlord suggests ways to get around landlord restrictions.)â

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