We often receive questions from landlords and tenants regarding how credit inquiries affect credit scores. A credit inquiry occurs when a consumer ‘applies’ for credit, whether that means buying a car or renting an apartment. Even if the consumer is not requesting credit assistance (applying for a loan), a company may choose to check the consumer’s credit history to determine if the consumer is responsible about paying his/her bills. This credit check results in an ‘inquiry’ or a ‘hard hit’ on the consumer’s credit report. Some landlords may worry that this will lower the potential tenant’s credit score and avoid doing a credit check for this reason.
It’s important to point out that credit inquiries have very minimal impact on credit scores. In general, inquiries account for less than 10% of a consumer’s credit score. One inquiry may impact the score by less than 5 points. In addition, rental housing credit inquiries will have a lower negative impact on credit scores than a loan or mortgage credit inquiry. Ultimately, the most important factor in determining credit score is paying bills on time and avoiding large debt and collections items.
For landlords, performing a credit check on potential tenants is vital in determining whether to rent to someone of not. While criminal and eviction background checks are also important in evaluating the quality of a rental applicant, credit checks help ensure that basic requirements are being met; the tenant can actually afford to live at the property and honor the lease.
We’d like to thank MHN and all of you who voted for us! Here at ScreeningWorks, our team works hard to offer our clients the best technology and service possible.
We work proactively to improve our offerings to stay ahead of trends, utilize new technology, and help our clients improve compliance as new legislation arises. Winning the MHN Technology Choice Award is truly wonderful, and we couldn’t have done it without the support of our clients.
To show our gratitude, we would like to offer all new and existing clients 15% off their next screening report, using promotion code: MHNaward11. Value expires 11/30/2011.
The ScreeningWorks Team
Some landlords and leasing agents have certain expectations of what a ‘tenant credit check ‘ contains. Furthermore, some landlords are not up to date on the nuances of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, either because they are new to the residential rental industry or perhaps because they have been in the industry for many years and assume things are just as they were 5 years ago. It’s vital that new landlords as well as veteran landlords and agents learn to navigate the ever-changing world of tenant screening.
First and most important, just because a landlord owns a rental property does not entitle him to view perspective tenants’ credit reports. In fact, the nation’s credit bureaus have made it quite difficult for independent rental owners and even small management companies to obtain in-depth credit report detail regarding an applicant’s consumer profile. To qualify for access to full credit reports, the landlord must provide extensive documentation (title, deed, mortgage bill, proof of ownership, tax documents etc.) and undergo an onsite inspection of their place of business. Many independent rental owners who operate out of their homes fail these inspections.
This is why many screening companies today offer a ‘credit evaluation’ or ‘credit decision’ instead. This means that the screening company will review the actual credit report themselves and only show the landlord a ‘risk level’ or an Accept or Reject decision. There are multiple benefits to this method:
• A credit evaluation does not require lengthy documentation or an onsite inspection from the landlord.
• Seasoned tenant screening companies have many years of experience evaluating past rental payment behavior as it’s applied to ‘scoring’ credit history. Their evaluations help take the guess work out of reading a full credit report.
• Using fixed credit ‘levels’ helps eliminate the risk of discriminatory litigation. For example, the landlord could reject all tenants with a ‘Serious Risk’ rating. On the other hand, a landlord who manually deciphers an entire unfiltered credit report must make his own decision as to how heavily he chooses to weigh a collection item of a 4-year old bankruptcy.
The bottom line is regardless of what type of credit information you prefer to get, make sure you understand what type of credit information your screening provider offers. In general, companies that don’t provide full credit reports have a much simpler sign-up process. Companies that provide detailed credit information will require a lengthy and thorough registration procedure including a mandatory onsite inspection.
We hope this post will help landlords be more informed when choosing a tenant screening provider.
Open your free account with ScreeningWorks today—over 21 years of resident screening experience with independent rental owners and multi-family operators alike.
A common issue landlords often run into is a hastily scribbled rental application. We hear about scenarios where prospective tenants rush to fill out the forms, they may have poor handwriting as it is, or they may have a roommate or significant other fill out the form in their place. Then the landlord tries to read the application several days later, without the tenant present, and that’s when the guessing begins. Is that a “0” or a“6”? A “u” or an “r”? These seemingly minor details are actually incredibly important when you are performing a background check on a perspective tenant.
Several identifiers weigh heavily when running a tenant screening report. First, the applicant’s social security number is vital if you plan to check their credit. There are thousands of individuals with common names and even common birthdays, thus the SSN is the unique factor that helps credit bureaus identify your specific applicant. By mistyping the SSN, you risk paying your screening provider for an inaccurate report.
Second, a correct spelling of the full legal name and date of birth is necessary for any eviction or criminal searches. Most public records databases have removed SSNs from their files. So screening providers use the name and DOB identifiers to narrow down their search. Thus, a criminal record for “Katherine Johnson, born 3/10/1983” may not come up if the landlord inputs “Kathy Johnsen, born 3/16/1988”.
Please be careful not to assume that you can alter input data once you run a background check. In many cases you may have to pay additional charges or you risk ‘hitting’ your applicant’s credit multiple times, which may negatively impact their score.
We recommend the following best practices:
- Get a copy of a government-issued ID. This is a great way to confirm spelling. (Afterwards, make sure to either shred the copy or lock it up in a safe place.)
- Explain that providing inaccurate information will require you to rerun the background check on their dollar.
- Double-check all pertinent information verbally with the applicant, either in person or via phone.
Most tenants who actually want to rent your apartment will do whatever it takes to speed up the approval process. They will understand the importance of writing neatly and verifying their data. As a landlord, please avoid rushing a background check on any applicant until you have fully confirmed their personal information.
Create your free account with ScreeningWorks today!
You heard it on the news, read about it in your local newspaper, and probably have a few stories of your own to share about… nightmare tenants. A search for the term on Google reveals more than 465,000 results, with landlord horror stories ranging from tenant rent default, theft, property vandalism, and exhausting eviction processes.
How can you, as a landlord, protect yourself against “bad” tenants? Perform a tenant background and credit check.
Your tenant screening process will usually start with the rental application form, which will contain information such as:
- social security number
- past addresses
- names of co-applicants
- income and financial references
- criminal history
- military status
- driver’s license
The application should also include a “release of information” statement which enables you to continue with the online tenant background check. The release of information should include, but not be limited to, the tenant’s criminal background check, eviction history and the tenant’s credit check.
Some landlords require tenants to pay a non-refundable screening, application or credit check fee. It is up to you to decide whether the tenant background check should be considered among your business expenses or not.
Upon receiving the signed application, you can start the online tenant background check. The screening report could include the tenant’s eviction history (not available in all states), the tenant’s credit check, past addresses, criminal records (not available in all states), sex offender records or evidence of social security number fraud. Remember that the information provided by your applicant in the application form holds little value if you do not verify it.
One of the general rules when it comes to tenant screening is to screen every applicant. Don’t let yourself be fooled by an applicant’s nice manners and appearance. Also, if you only screen tenants based on their poor appearance or other biased reasons you may be sued for discriminatory practices.
Another important aspect is to include a criminal records and sex offender search as part of your tenant background check. The Federal Fair Housing Act allows landlords to turn down an applicant who poses a threat to the health and safety of other persons.
Many tenant screening services offer a criminal background check as a separate product. Others, like ScreeningWorks, have acted upon their customers’ preferences and provide criminal searches as part of their main tenant background check product.
ScreeningWorks is a reliable online service to use for your tenant background and credit checks. It is a service aimed at small landlords or independent rental owners (IRO) and is offered by RentGrow, a 20-year-old provider of resident screening services for the multi-housing industry across the U.S.
ScreeningWorks’ tenant background check report comprises seven sections*:
- Multi-state criminal check
- Sex offender search
- Statewide tenant eviction search
- Tenant credit check
- Address history search results
- OFAC – Government watch-list search
- Social Security Number fraud
Because the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) does not allow any tenant screening service to provide a full credit report without an onsite inspection, ScreeningWorks has developed a unique and easy-to-use credit evaluation scale. The scoring system is specifically geared towards evaluating credit for tenancy and has a 3-rating scale. Your final tenant credit report will assign one of the three ratings to an applicant: minimal, elevated, or serious credit risk.
If your tenant credit check reveals a history of late payments, you have the right to deny the rental application. Please keep in mind that a written notice must be sent to the tenant, as several possibilities to deny such accusations exist. As state and local laws might differ, please contact your local enforcement agency for further details.
Other legitimate reasons revealed through your tenant background check, by which you can refuse a tenant are a record of eviction, intentionally falsifying information on an application, a criminal record history, or poor landlord references.
Having read all this you can start performing a background check on your tenant. ScreeningWorks delivers results in less than 15 minutes, making it a truly instant service. Give it a try now!
Note: Please note that in some states not all of the seven product offerings are available. Please check ScreeningWorks’ pricing & product information page for details.
Ask any manager today, “Who is your favorite resident?” They will probably tell you the one who drops the rent in the night deposit, is never late, and never comes in the office to complain! These residents are GREAT- move them in and they leave you alone!
Some of us will agree that this sounds like an IDEAL resident, but is it really good to have residents we never see? What is the average amount of time you spend getting to know a resident during his/her first year lease?
We are in a Customer Service Revolution and my advice is to stay in touch with your customers, do not avoid them! Communication, or lack of it, is a major factor in many areas, including the high divorce rate. A lack of communication between parents and teens has been linked to the alarming increase of teenage suicides. To keep any relationship healthy, an open line of communication is not optional, it is a must! Top business consultants tell us in order to create a successful business we must establish a good relationship with our customers.
With this in mind, I have designed a 5-phase program to help keep you in touch with your residents. These phases can be implemented with a simple clipboard system. List all move-ins, and when each move-in is completed, remove the name and place it on the phase 1 clipboard. Upon completion of phase 1 (personal visit), put the residents on the phase 2 clipboard, etc., etc., etc. Each phase is designed to keep the lines of communication open and to take care of any problems before they become difficult. Involve the residents in the property and activities. Insure and make sure they are living at the level of satisfaction you guarantee.
Phase One: A Personal Visit (3-10 days after move-in)
This is the most important part of the new relationship between the resident and management. This visit will let the resident KNOW YOU MEAN SERVICE- how often people give lip service only! This is not a REAL surprise visit, call first and ask if a visit within the next hour would be convenient. Take an unexpected gift along. You will need service requests and maintenance “tips.” Make sure everything is okay in the apartment, walk through and check again personally. A gift of a fresh herb or mint plant (small) might be the final touch for your resident. It says “we care” and it shows!
Educate your residents — spend some time explaining maintenance “how-to’s” and give them a card with the phone number on it. Encourage your resident’s use of community services such as banking facilities, dry cleaning, supermarkets, restaurants, etc. Make notes on a calendar for your follow up visit. This visit will establish a trusting relationship and let your residents know you really mean what you say! Ask if everything is okay in the apartment. If not, fill out the necessary service request while the resident watches, then follow up!
Phase Two: Welcome Letter
Thirty days after your resident has settled in, send him a welcome letter saying, “We hope you are enjoying your new home.” Enclose a small gift. We recommend welcome labels. Welcome labels work to get your residents “stuck on you.” They are inexpensive, self-adhesive return address labels that are presented as your special “welcome gift” to each new resident, or “thank you” to each renewal. This thoughtful gesture creates instant goodwill and secures positive relations from the start.
Welcome labels are easy to order and surprisingly inexpensive. There is no contract or commitment. As the management company, you simply enroll your properties. Welcome Labels provides a manual instructing your property managers about proper ordering and distribution procedures. Custom printed labels are returned within ten days, nationwide! The program only costs $1.69 per set of labels. You may contact Welcome Labels at 800-852-3350.
When you send this follow-up letter to your new resident, include a “community calendar” and coupons from local merchants (cross marketing)! Also, extend a personal invitation to the next community activity or program and encourage the resident’s involvement. Ask for service requests and resident referrals.
Phase Three: Telephone
The purpose of this telephone call is to touch base before you contact a resident for a renewal. Phase 3 is a time to clean up any reasons why he/she might not be willing to renew. Check all completed work orders for any recurring problems and discuss the general satisfaction with the apartment. This personal touch of the phone call validates your seriousness about service.
Telephone Follow-up: Review residents’ files, know their names and any problems or complaints they have had. Familiarize yourself with pertinent information concerning your residents. Personal concern in communication is the key element to good resident relations!
Marketing Questions: Are you using our amenities? How do you like…? Discuss the manager’s surveys and ask residents to participate. Thank them in advance. Is everything okay in your apartment? Do you have any requests for service?
Resident Referral: By the way, we have a beautiful apartment just around the corner, do you know of someone who would enjoy living in our community?
Phase Four: Letter Contact (Renewal attack)
Ninety days before the resident’s renewal date, print a formal invitation and leave it on the door with a flower. This is the first reminder of his lease renewal, so be creative — use your marketing genius!
“We would like to extend an invitation for your to reserve another year in your apartment.”
Leave a gift in the apartment, such as a Teddy Bear, with a note that says. “We can’t bear to lose you,” or “You’re worth a mint to us” (with a mint candy attached.) Your goal with this contact is to make an appointment for the renewal.
Some managers take renewing residents out to lunch to sign a renewal. To replace a resident in today’s market can cost as much as $1597. Compare that figure to a $15 lunch. It is worth it! Be flexible with the time and place, be creative with your invitation, and be bold with your rent increase!
Phase Five: Personal Visit
Make an appointment and go for renewal and increased rent. Be creative. Check the resident’s file before the appointment, take a gift with you and send flowers after the appointment. This is the actual renewal, so be prepared and go on time. Have your paperwork neat and in order. If the resident is coming to your office, serve refreshments. If you are going to his/her apartment, take a gift. Some managers send flowers or plants to the resident’s work place after they sign a renewal lease. It’s impressive and a great way to get referrals.
This 5-phase program is designed to help you get to know new residents and stay in touch with long time residents. Practice this and renewal leases will be no problem.
Toni Blake is a nationally recognized expert in customer service, sales and marketing. She travels to over 60 cities annually speaking to thousands of management professionals each year. Toni is known for her innovative concepts and is an industry trendsetter. She has been involved with Multifamily Housing since 1979 and currently resides in Greeley, Colorado. For more information visit www.TotallyToni.com Email email@example.com
First things first! Choosing a tenant is not an easy process. Landlords face a myriad of challenges in sorting through applicants. Among them, local, state and federal laws prohibit certain forms of discrimination and restrict the questions a landlord may ask of a prospective tenant and federal credit reporting laws restrict the fees a landlord may charge for a credit check and impose certain notification requirements on the landlord. These laws are complex and will not be dealt with here. Instead, this article will detail some hints so that landlords can find a “good” tenant.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD TENANT
In a word, a good tenant is “money”. Money in the bank, money in the landlord’s pocket, money saved from legal and other expenses. For a reputable landlord, the ideal tenant is one who pays rent like clockwork on the first of the month and is then forgotten for the next thirty days. That is not to say that a tenant that asks for repairs or who contacts a landlord is a bad tenant, as a good landlord will gladly address the routine requirements of a rental business. However, a tenant that breaks personal property, disturbs neighbors, or does not pay rent is a bad tenant. This is the tenant that must be carefully screened out.
THE SCREENING PROCESS
The tenant screening process begins with a prospective tenant. To avoid claims of discrimination or disparate treatment, a landlord should treat all prospective tenants equally and employ an identical process when checking out rental applicants. A landlord should begin by opening a folder for each applicant. This folder should contain all information regarding the prospective tenant’s application and should be maintained for at least two years (perhaps more depending on the laws of your jurisdiction). In all cases, a landlord should truthfully and carefully deal with a prospective tenant. The landlord should expect a truthful dealing back from the tenant. In most cases, a truthful tenant will opt not to rent from a dishonest landlord.
The place where the landlord most requires truthfulness from a prospective tenant is on the tenant’s rental application. All landlords should require written applications which should be completed by all prospective tenants and retained by the landlord (to possibly defend against future discrimination claims). The landlord should carefully review the application. A potential tenant’s refusal to complete a written application is a sure sign of trouble and a landlord should not consider renting to that potential tenant. At a minimum, the application should request the following information from all prospective tenants over the age of 18 who will reside in the property:
tenant full name (including middle name, maiden name, and aliases)
tenant’s employer’s name and tenant’s monthly income
tenant’s driver’s license number and social security number
(the landlord should get a photocopy of the driver’s license)
tenant’s date of birth
tenant’s credit and bank information, including monthly debt payments
a credit report authorization
tenant’s automobile information including license plate number
tenant’s rental history (at least the past four addresses where the tenant has resided, the
time periods of residence, and the name and telephone number of the landlord)
references (at least three to four references, including information on how long they
have known the applicant and in what capacity)
The application should include a credit check authorization that informs the prospective tenant that the landlord intends to verify and check the information contained in the application. The authorization should include a sentence authorizing the landlord to obtain and verify any credit, employment, and any other information, including that information contained on the application, from a credit reporting bureau in the form of a credit report, from the creditors directly, from the prospective tenant’s employers, and from the prospective tenant’s references and prior landlords.
CHECK FOR CONSISTENCY
Once a landlord has received a full application, the first step is to make sure the information is consistent. Does the name on the Driver’s license match the name on the application? Does the tenant’s signature look correct? Inconsistencies are not a guarantee of a problem, but can be an indicator. Are there gaps in the information? For instance, is there a gap of one year in the prior rental history? If so, the tenant may be trying to hide a landlord who the tenant does not want the landlord to contact.
CONFIRM REFERENCES, EMPLOYMENT AND CONTACT PRIOR LANDLORDS
Too often, landlords fail to check up on references, employers, and prior landlords. It is worth the effort to make these checks to screen out poor tenants. When contacting these people, landlords should keep detailed written records. Landlords should note the actual answers to questions as well as the attitude of the person giving the answer. Employers should be asked about the prospective tenant’s attendance at work and income levels should be verified. Prior landlords should be questioned about noise levels, complaints from other tenants, lease violations, promptness of rent payments, and evictions or other lawsuits against the prospective tenant. The most recent landlord will not be a good indicator.
References should be quizzed regarding the character of a prospective tenant, but in general, these are the least important persons to contact, as a prospective tenant would listed a reference unless they were sure any feedback would be positive. Be mindful of the fact that most people do not want to speak poorly of other people. Instead, they will be evasive or vague with answers. Obviously, if a reference does speak with disfavor about a prospective tenant, this is a red flag. The key is to actually check with these persons to make sure that the references are valid and possibly learn a bit more about the applicant.
THE CREDIT REPORT
Once a landlord has received a completed and signed application and credit authorization which looks promising and the landlord has checked references, employment, and prior landlords, the landlord should find a credit reporting bureau and order a credit report. As a side note, landlords can pass along the credit report charge to prospective tenants as long as the tenant knows that the fee will cover only a credit report. If a landlord does pass this cost on, he or she must charge only the actual cost of the report, no more. The report should be reviewed for a history of late payments, prior bankruptcies, and outstanding debts. The report will not usually disclose prior evictions or landlord information because this information is rarely reported to these agencies, but it will give a landlord a general idea of a prospective tenants creditworthiness. If the credit report turns up a valid reason to reject a prospective tenant, the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires that the landlord notify the prospective tenant of such and inform the prospective tenant of the name and address of the credit reporting agency along with a notice that the prospective tenant can get a copy of the report if he or she files with the agenct within sixty days of the landlord’s notice of rejection. Remember, if the landlord collects a fee for a credit report and does not obtain one, the money must be refunded to the applicant.
QUICK AND DIRTY CHECKS AND PROFESSIONAL CHECKS
Technology has opened up a new world of information when it comes to tenant screening. Many court systems now provide public records over the internet. It is easy for landlords to do their own inexpensive check to see if their prospective tenant has been involved in any other lawsuits or evictions. While it is advisable to have a professional prior eviction search performed, a landlord can easily spot a tenant with past evictions when there are reported cases online. Other governmental information can also sometimes be found online, including names of people who are delinquent on child support and names of criminal sex offenders. The world of social networking and blogging also opens up a non-traditional route to check up on a prospective tenant. Landlords can learn plenty about tenants by just doing a “google” search on the tenant’s name. Of course, landlords should be careful to make sure that the results they find are actually attributable to the tenant they are screening and not another person who shares the same name as their prospective tenant. Even in the world of new technology, a professional prior eviction check and even criminal background check can be worthwhile.
THE SECURITY DEPOSIT AND THE TENANTS ABILITY TO PAY
Landlords should try to make sure that tenants have the means to pay monthly rental obligations. To do this, a landlord should offset the prospective tenant’s income from the applicant’s other likely monthly obligations to make sure that the applicant can make the rent on a timely basis. Landlords should not assume that higher income equates to an ability to pay the rent. Plenty of high income tenants have large monthly obligations. An applicant with a lower income, no student loans, a fully paid automobile, and less monthly debt may be more likely to pay on time than an applicant with a large income, a leased luxury car, student loan debt, and a lots of other credit card borrowing.
Landlords should require, at a minimum, a security deposit equal to one month’s rent in advance of lease execution and possession up front along with the first month’s rent. A better policy is to require one and one half months (or even two months) security deposit from a new tenant. This prevents the landlord from being without security against damages in the event that a tenant wrongfully fails to pay the final month’s rent and desires that the security deposit be applied to that obligation instead. In addition, any tenant who cannot provide at least the required deposit and the first month rent is unlikely to be able to pay on a timely basis. When accepting a security deposit, it is essential that the landlord provide a receipt for the deposit to the tenant (it should explicitly state the amount of the deposit) and the deposit should never be comingled with the landlord’s personal funds. Many states and local municipalities have strict rules regarding the procedures to be employed dealing with security deposits. A good landlord will seek out,
understand, and follow these laws.
SET CRITERIA AND DECIDE
Before considering any applicant, the landlord should set some basic criteria that will guide the landlord’s decision making process. Criteria to consider are minimum income available for housing costs, maximum occupancy of the rental unit, minimum credit score, minimum history of stable employment, clean history regarding prior evictions or prior criminal conduct, and any other criteria not prohibited by Fair Housing or other anti-discrimination laws. A landlord should make the decision to accept or deny an application based upon these criteria in all cases to prevent claims of discrimination. A landlord rejecting an applicant should clearly document the reasons and comply with any disclosure laws depending on the reason for denial. Landlords should not rush the decision to accept a tenant or be swayed by a prospective tenant’s “sob” stories. A comprehensive and uniform set of standards can help a landlord avoid making an
irrational decision based upon emotion or financial need.
AFTER ACCEPTING THE TENANT
The single greatest mistake made by landlords is the failure to adequately screen a prospective tenant. A good tenant is a joy to deal with and is profitable to a landlord. A bad tenant can be a costly disaster. Many times, a landlord will lose focus when leasing an apartment. The landlord will accept security deposit payments in installments or even worse, require none at all. Some landlords have been known to accept a new tenant and turn over possession of an apartment without even a rent payment or security deposit. This is a disaster waiting to happen. A landlord may be so desparate to rent a property that any tenant with cash is acceptable. Most landlords who get into these unacceptable situations regret their actions down the line when they lose other tenants or lose rental income as a result of accepting a bad tenant. Property ownership is a business and should be treated that way. Landlords provide a service to tenants. Through adequate screening, a landlord can significantly cut the risk of trouble tenants and costly procedures down the road. This is the key foundation to successful operation of a rental property.
Richard Magnone is an Attorney with REDA CIPRIAN MAGNONE, LLC http://www.illinois-attorney.com/
We recently sat down with our Public Records Manager, Lisa Legere, to provide some insight into the world of public records and criminal background screening.
Q&A with Lisa Legere, RentGrow’s Public Records Manager
Q: Lisa, what are “public records”?
Legere: In the context of resident screening, the term “public records” typically refers to criminal records, sex offender records, and civil court eviction records and filings.
Q: As RentGrow’s Public Records Manager, what do you do every day?
Legere: As a public records manager I have two primary roles:1) I oversee our team of public records analysts, and 2) I manage our public records data sources and products.
I am constantly striving to improve our delivery and turn-around for our customers. I help the team with complex customer questions related to specific public records.
In addition, I constantly research the available public records data sources around the country to ensure that we incorporate the strongest records sources into our products. I work closely with RentGrow’s entire management team to make sure we are delivering public records in a manner that pleases our customers.
Q: Where do Criminal Records data come from?
Legere: Well, first I should clarify that state and federal law enforcement has its own database of criminal records. The general public does not have access to that database, nor does any private property management company or screening firm. RentGrow and other screening firms’ access databases primarily constructed from department of corrections and courthouse records. There are thousands of courthouses and corrections departments across the country. There are hundreds of data companies that retrieve and package those records into databases.
At RentGrow, we get our records from public records data providers that stand out on a regional basis. As a private and independent company, we have the unique advantage of researching and selecting the very best data providers on a local level, then weaving them together to create the best comprehensive criminal screening. We also provide records from the national sex offender registry.
Q: Why do the contents of criminal records vary from state to state? And why is there the possibility of “false positives”?
Legere: With credit information there is a national standard for the format and information included on the reports, and all credit reports include Social Security Numbers (SSN). This is not the case with public records such as criminal and court records. The various courthouse reporting practices and state laws regulate the format and information provided on public records. For reasons of privacy, nearly every state and courthouse excludes SSN from public records. In certain states, the public records even remove date of birth or address. Because there are no SSNs on these records, in the event of a common name, results may require additional research to ensure there are no “false positives.”
As a professional screening company, we recognize that even the best available public records have these inherent inconsistencies and limitations. The best thing we can do for our clients is to be experts in our field and take care of filtering, deciphering, and servicing the records for our customers. This makes the landlord’s job much easier and saves time.
Q: I understand there are national and statewide criminal databases where you have instant access to information, but we’ve all heard of county-level searches. Why would someone want to run a county-level search? How do you retrieve data on a county-level search?
Legere: First of all, there are a few states that don’t report substantial criminal information to automated state or national databases: specifically Massachusetts, Delaware, Wyoming, and South Dakota. In those states, a county-level search is really the only viable option.
Even in states where automated data is available, the databases can have limitations and some customers opt to conduct supplemental county searches to be extra thorough. The upside of a county search is that the records are very detailed and accurate. However, because it’s a manual search, it has downsides: turn-around varies from next-day to a few days, the geographic scope is narrow, and it costs more than the automated searches.
We retrieve county-level search requests by partnering with professional court runners/researchers around the country. When a customer requests a county search, it triggers one of those researchers to physically go to the county courthouse, check for files, and return the results.
Lisa, thanks for your time!
Legere: Thanks. As the Public Records Manager, I can confidently say our team is always working hard to improve our operations and be the best in the industry when it comes to delivering public records.
Here’s some new information that California landlords should be aware of that relates to the California Civil Code 1786.16. Under this code, a residential landlord has an obligation to provide a copy of any report they receive within 3 days of receipt if the consumer checks the box. Under the law, a landlord may contract with another entity, such as ScreeningWorks, a service of RentGrow, Inc., to provide a copy of the report on their behalf.
Here’s a sample of the language that ScreeningWorks posted on our website and is passing along to our customers: California landlords should add the following language to their residential rental applications: “California applicants or residents only: Please check this box if you would like to receive a copy of an investigative consumer report or consumer credit report at no charge if one is obtained by the Landlord whenever you have a right to receive such a copy under California law. [ ] Check off box “
As with any legal changes you make to your residential lease agreements and applications, you should always check with your lawyer.
While the subject of “criminal screening” may sound cold or even offensive to some applicants, it’s important to remember this: whether property owner or resident, we all want safe and peaceful places to live. In the multi-family industry, criminal screening has become one of the most important components in accomplishing this goal. Criminal screening protects your residents and your property. It’s a key marketing point to let applicants know that they’ll be living in a safe environment. And, in some cases, you may need to conduct criminal screening to comply with state and federal regulations.
However, this sort of screening–unlike credit checks–is still in its infancy. So how do you know if your criminal screening policy is effective, yet fair and consistent? Consider the following tips.
1. Carefully define your criminal criteria. Determine what offenses are unacceptable. For example, you may identify specific types of misdemeanors, such as those that are violent towards people, or felony convictions within the last 5-10 years.
2. Educate yourself on discrimination laws. Remember, look only at the records. Don’t make assumptions based on things like a name or a personal characteristic that someone may or may not be a criminal. Consistency protects you, so treat all applicants equally. For example, you can’t reject someone based on a criminal screening if you’re not screening everyone. Make sure your policies are documented and that they fall within any federal, state, or county guidelines. (This website is a great resource: http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/FHLaws/index.cfm)
3. Verify that you have the right applicant. You should always verify the applicant’s identity before you even begin the process of criminal screening (or credit checks). For example, say your applicant’s name is Chris Smith. While your applicant might be female, the record that comes up might be for a male. Methods for verifying an applicant’s identity include checking government-issued IDs, such as drivers’ licenses, social security cards, or passports. Cross checking can also be valuable. It is important to be able to cross check references before you even see the records at your request as well as do an address search so you can learn about their identity instantly.
4. Streamline the criminal screening process through a third party, such as RentGrow. Set specifications with your screening partner to filter results based on your specific criteria. This helps take the burden off your leasing agents and lets them focus on the job they do best—attracting residents.
5. Look beyond the data. Choose a screening partner who can help you interpret results and whose service provides a recommendation to accept or decline the applicant.
6. Keep in mind that for affordable properties, certain rules exist for resident selection:
• Owners must develop and make public written selection policies.
• The plan must include any preferences in the admission of residents.
• The restriction or preference must cite the supporting documents to ensure nondiscrimination.
7. If you handle the criminal screening process in-house, use consistent staffing and follow consistent procedures:
• Limit access to staff who have been fully trained in order to eliminate inconsistencies.
• Provide written, step-by-step instructions for staff to ensure consistency.
• Use standard forms so that each applicant is subject to the same practices and will receive the same consideration.
• Use objective criteria.
• Follow a formal written process for collecting information. Owners should be careful about informal information “gossip” about an applicant. Such information is discriminatory and will affect applicants inconsistently, since the owner does not collect this for all applicants.
Remember, information collected from the criminal screening process enables property owners to make informed and objective decisions. An effective screening policy will also ensure fair, consistent, and equal treatment of applicants. Last, but certainly not least, criminal screening will help create a safe place for residents to live–and peace of mind for you.