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.)

What about roommates? A landlord can limit the number of occupants for health and safety or legitimate business reasons. A landlord may not adopt a low occupancy standard if the result eliminates families with children—this is a violation of the fair housing laws, as discussed in Discrimination Prohibited by Federal Laws.

Caution! You are your own worst enemy if you lie on your rental application. Your landlord can easily find out that you don't make $50,000 per year by talking with your employer. Misrepresentations on the rental application are always legitimate grounds for rejection. And even if you slip by, ask yourself whether you want to rent from a landlord who is so careless. Would you be concerned to learn that the "former schoolteacher" next door is really a recently released rapist? If the landlord didn't check up on you, he probably didn't check up on your neighbor, either.

Rental Application Questions—How Far Can They Go?

Most landlords will want you to fill out a rental application with information on your employment, income, credit and financial information, rental housing history, and any criminal convictions. It's legal to ask for all this information and use it to make rental decisions. Landlords may also legally ask you for your Social Security and driver's license numbers and (except in New York and California) for proof of your legal residency in the United States. Landlords may even ask if you smoke or if you've ever been sued.

How far can landlords go? They can ask for any information that will:

  • tell them whether you're likely to be a good tenant, and
  • help them find you if you skip town owing them for rent or property damage.

Questions that don't relate to these two issues are probably not legal. Keep in mind, however, that not all discrimination is illegal, so some questions that may not "sound right" may in fact be legal. (See "Are You Two, Like, Together?" below.)

Look at it this way: When you rent a car, you're often asked for multiple forms of ID and your driving history. Renting a place to live isn't all that different: The landlord, as much as the car rental agency, needs to know whether you're a good risk and how to find you if things go awry. In fact, since rental property is a much bigger investment than a car, a landlord is motivated to be even pickier.

Too Expensive? Says Who?

Money talks, especially in rental housing. If the landlord reasonably concludes that you can't afford to pay the rent in view of your income and existing debt level (which he'll see on your credit report), he is not obligated to rent to you. Many landlords use a rent-to-income ratio of one-to-three (rent can be no more than one-third of your income) as a rule of thumb.

As a broad generalization, you too probably don't want to spend more than 25% to 35% of your monthly take-home pay on rent, but this will obviously depend on your other expenses. And you won't want to live in a penthouse if it means you need to eat popcorn every night.

Question One, Question All

While landlords are entitled to ask business-related questions on a rental application or during an interview, there is an important hitch: They should subject all applicants to the identical set of basic questions. As mentioned above, federal and state antidiscrimination laws make it illegal to single out members of certain groups (such as people of a certain race or ethnic background) for special treatment—and interview or application questions that aren't directed at everyone constitute special treatment. For example, landlords who ask about immigration history should ask all tenants, not just those whom they suspect might be in the country illegally. Questioning only those from the Mideast would amount to illegal discrimination on the basis of national origin. Similarly, requiring credit reports only from African Americans would also be considered illegal discrimination.

Do a little background investigation of your own. If your prospective landlord is conscientious, he'll probably take the time to learn about your rental and employment history. There's no reason why you, too, can't ask a few questions to find out whether you want to rent from him. Ask current tenants and neighbors what it's like to live there; ask the tenant whose unit you're considering why she's moving out. If you learn that she's leaving in disgust over poor management or dreadful neighbors whom the landlord won't evict, you'll want to think twice about signing a lease or rental agreement. Keep in mind that a building with a large turnover rate, and especially one where evictions are common, is probably not run very well.

Are You Two, Like, Together?

Most landlords don't care a bit about whom you share your bed with—they're much more interested in whether you pay your rent on time and are a decent housekeeper and a considerate neighbor. Unfortunately, a few landlords see themselves as enforcers of their chosen code of morality. For instance, some people do not want to rent to heterosexual, unmarried couples, and some refuse to rent to homosexual couples.

In most states, landlords can get away with these kinds of choices. That's because unmarried straight couples and gay and lesbian couples are not protected by antidiscrimination laws except in a few states. (See Discrimination Prohibited by State and Local Law.) This means that in most states it would not be illegal for a landlord to question you and your would-be roommate about the nature of your relationship.

If you and your friend are questioned concerning your relationship, what should you do? This is an issue for all roommates, even the ones who are just friends and heterosexual, whom the landlord would presumably welcome with no problem. Think about what this line of questioning bodes for future dealings with this landlord: Here is a businessperson who is inappropriately interested in his customers' private lives. Chances are he spends his time and energy checking up on his tenants' love lives, at the expense of running a pleasant and livable building. If at all possible, look elsewhere.

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