Conscientious landlords screen all applicants before selecting a tenant and signing a lease or rental application. Thorough screening typically includes running an applicant’s credit report and checking references from landlords and others. Many landlords, following the lead of countless employers, also do a Google search on rental applicants as part of the screening process. Depending on how active the person is online, you may find a wide variety of personal information, particularly on someone who posts regularly in social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or a personal blog. You may even discover things that you couldn’t legally have asked a prospective tenant—such as the person’s sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or religion.
If, however, you use information found online to reject someone who is in a legally protected class and is otherwise a qualified tenant, you may face a discrimination lawsuit. (See the Nolo article Choosing Tenants: Avoid Fair Housing Complaints and Lawsuits.) On the other hand, if you learn that your applicant lied on the rental application (for example, by answering “No” to a question about previous evictions, but posting a request for apartment leads because her former landlord evicted her), you can factor that information into your decision. The reason is that material misrepresentations on an application are sound business reasons to reject an applicant. To protect yourself, be sure your rejection is based on a legitimate business reason, such as in the example above, and document it (print out the Web page and attach it to your applicant’s file).
That said, it remains risky to reject an applicant even for legitimate business reasons, when that applicant is a member of a protected class; for example, has a mental disability. Say you learn about the disability on the person’s Facebook page, but reject him because of less-than-stellar landlord references. If challenged by the rejected applicant, you’ll be on the defensive, trying to convince a fair housing judge that you ignored the legally irrelevant information (the applicant’s mental disability) and focused solely on the proper information (negative references).
For this reason, many landlord attorneys, taking a cue from their employer-side attorney counterparts, counsel landlords not to do a Google search, period. An “old-fashioned” screening process will uncover most of the information you’ll need, and you’ll have unassailable sources, such as a poor credit history, to back up your reasons for rejecting.