As a landlord, you want to find the perfect tenant, so that means carefully screening applicants and getting to know them as best you can. But, there are question cannot ask an interested renter.
Part of the process of finding qualified tenants includes an interview or two where you ask the applicant about their background and interests.
For naturally friendly people, there are certain questions that many use to break the ice, get to know a person better and open up conversations that can be interesting and fun.
However, some seemingly innocent questions can actually be against the law to ask in a landlord/applicant setting. While you may be familiar with the obvious no-no’s, like “Are you disabled?” or “What race are you?” there are more subtle forms of questioning that may seem innocent, but can actually get you into trouble.

7 innocent-sounding questions that landlords cannot ask rental applicants:

1. In what country were you born?

The Federal Fair Housing Laws prohibit landlords from discriminating against someone based on their national origin, race or color.
In an interview, it’s wrong to ask an applicant question like where they were born, where their parents were born, what an applicant’s native language is or where their spouse/significant other is from.

2. Do you have a service animal?

While this question may seem innocent enough for landlords who simply want to know what to expect as far as animals on the property, it actually violates the law.
Similar to asking whether someone is disabled, landlords cannot inquire about service animals, or even what tasks and duties the animal performs for the applicant.
Applicants must provide you with documentation about any service animals and you will find out soon enough, so don’t ask the question.

3. Your children are adorable, how many do you have and how old are they?

This question is often used in casual conversations to get to know someone a little better, but in a landlord-tenant situation, it’s a big no-no.
Discrimination against familial status is protected by Federal Fair Housing Laws, and asking about children, their ages and even what an expectant woman’s due date is can put landlords on shaky legal ground.

4. Do you have any arrests?

Many landlords believe that an applicant’s entire history with the law is fair territory for questions.
While a background check will reveal if an applicant has ever been convicted of something, landlords cannot ask if an applicant has been arrested.
Many people are arrested and let go, or arrested and not convicted. Landlords should focus on convictions when making their decisions, not arrests.

5. Are you interested in the nearest church/temple/mosque?

While this kind of questioning may seem more helpful than harmful, it’s actually a problem because it is related to religion.
Besides the fact that you are assuming what an applicant’s religious beliefs are, it could be seen as an illegal screening technique by asking such a loaded question.
Stay away from any line of questioning that brings in religion and you’ll be in the clear.

6. So, when’s the big day?

When any couple–straight or gay, old or young–applies to rent a property, it may seem natural or even friendly to ask whether they are married or engaged.
Questions about familial status are not allowed in the interview process for prospective tenants, and some states and municipalities have laws that specifically prohibit questions about marital status.
As a landlord, you can still screen both people and see if they qualify by your pre-set standards but their marital status should never be a factor in that decision or a part of that interview.

7. Will you be retiring soon?

Asking about someone’s age during a rental application interview is another piece of information that is protected.
Landlords cannot ask about a person’s age, whether they are quite young or seniors.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, as for retirement or senior communities that comply with 55+ state and federal regulations, but in general, keep any questions and assumptions about age to yourself.
It takes practice to conduct an interview that meets your needs for screening the tenant, while steering clear of those topics that could land you right in the middle of a discrimination lawsuit. It’s a good idea to create a list of questions beforehand, keep the interview succinct and professional and trust your background screening service to pull up any significant issues for your attention.

8 Comments

  1. On the item about age discrimination: I usually give a 100.00 discount to anyone over 65. I’m 82 and related to the ills of the golden years

    • Do you wait until after they’ve been “approved” before you offer the discount? If not it could be considered a way of fishing for the person’s age which might land you in hot water. For example you “offer” a $100.00 discount to anyone over 65 but then you rent to someone younger. Was your “discount” just a way of finding out you didn’t want to rent to them because they were old?
      I can tell from your post that isn’t your intent, but someone who didn’t get the rental might claim otherwise and you’d be in a position of trying to convince the judge.

      • Businessman Jerry has a legitimate point here. I too can see that the intent is not to discriminate, but it’s treading some dangerously thin ice. The wrong person can totally pervert the original intention of the discount and turn it on you. As sad as that makes me.

    • Occupants is the key word here Paul. You can ask for the number of occupants, and you can also require any occupant over the age of 18 to complete a rental application for the purposes of screening.

  2. Great point here Shalom!
    As per the federal fair housing laws, owner occupied buildings with four or fewer rental units are exempt from anti-discrimination laws.
    However, don’t forget that each state has their own fair housing laws. And the very point of many of those laws is to cover gaps in the federal laws. A perfect example is California, where state housing laws do NOT exempt owner occupied buildings with four or fewer rental units from anti-discrimination laws.

  3. Age and family status are both protected classes. A landlord can ask, are you over 18? But not what’s your specific age?
    Source of income is absolutely relevant considering it will play a big part in how you’ll be able to pay your rent. But asking age and family status is NOT cool.

  4. All legal. They want to be sure the kids are not over the age of 18, which is the difference between a tenant and occupant and changes the lease. I guess you can be upset if they asked specific age versus a general statement of “are they over the age of 18?”.
    And asking your occupation is absolutely acceptable. Why wouldn’t it be? They need to ensure that you can pay the rent and have a right to examine your details. They should be calling the employer in fact.
    Keep in mind you’re getting the keys to an asset that is likely worth 10 times what your car costs. Of course your information will be pertinent and certainly verified. Just like when you bought or leased your car.

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