Most landlords want to carefully screen their tenants before renting to them. This process can make the difference between working with great renters who pay on time and take care of the property and ending up with those who do not meet the obligations set forth in the lease.
D.C. landlords must follow a series of tenant screening laws to screen those renters to the best of their ability, however. These laws are designed to help protect tenants’ privacy and their right to rent a quality home. Below is more information about several tenant screening laws and their impacts
5 Tenant Screening Laws in D.C.
1. Landlords Are Allowed to Charge an Application Fee for Tenants Interested in Moving Into Their Properties
D.C. law does not mandate a limit on these fees, which the landlord can then use to conduct background checks or complete other steps in the screening process. These fees can also help landlords weed out applicants who aren’t really interested in the property or who know they will not pass the landlord’s screening process.
2. Landlords Need the Applicant’s Permission Before Conducting a Background Check
As a landlord, you must get the applicant’s signature before conducting a background check in the DC area. You cannot move forward with the background check without that signature, which means you will miss out on a vital part of the screening process. Thus, you may not learn as much as you had hoped about your tenants before choosing the one who will rent your property.
3. Landlords Can Determine the Minimum Requirements They Want to See in Potential Tenants
While landlords cannot discriminate on the basis of factors like religion or race, they can set specific screening criteria that will give them a better idea of the tenant’s ability to make rent and care for the rental property. Landlord criteria may include:
Landlords may not want tenants who smoke. Smoke can cause substantial damage to the property that may require an expensive fix in order to restore.
Landlords may look carefully into whether a tenant has any pets. Some landlords will allow small pets, including hamsters and rabbits, but not allow cats or dogs. Others may have a weight-based size limit or breed restrictions for the dogs they will allow to reside on their property, or allow a tenant to have one or two pets, but not more. Prospective tenants with pets should carefully consider the requirements issued by a landlord before they apply for the property.
Some landlords prefer tenants who have no previous eviction history. Tenants with a history of eviction — especially due to nonpayment of rent — may have a greater likelihood of making the same decision again, which can restrict a landlord’s ability to collect rent on the property.
Ideally, landlords want to see that the tenant’s rent makes up 30% or less of their income. Real estate often represents a significant financial investment for a landlord, and a tenant who cannot pay the rent on a property can also make it difficult for the landlord to pay his bills. Landlords may also want to see that a tenant does not have a recent history of bankruptcy, and may look into the applicant’s credit history to ensure he or she does not have a history of nonpayment.
In a multifamily property, landlords may not want to introduce a tenant who could pose a danger to others in the building — or who might cause damage to the property that could be hazardous to current and future residents. Overall safety must be their priority here, and that may restrict some applicants.
This is sometimes even true in a single-family dwelling. Landlords may not want to rent to tenants previously convicted of drug or violent crimes, for example, because drugs in a house can lead to substantial damage and violent crimes could put both the property and landlord at risk. Savvy landlords conduct criminal background checks to get a better idea of the tenant’s history and how it may influence that individual as a tenant.
4. Landlords Cannot Deny an Application Based on Protected Criteria
Race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, family status, age, and source of income are all protected criteria, and a landlord cannot deny an application for any of these reasons. Legally, landlords cannot discriminate when it comes to tenant applications. If you suspect that you have faced discrimination when applying to rent a property, contact an attorney as soon as possible to learn more about your legal rights.
5. Landlords Can Deny an Application Because an Applicant Does Not Fit Their Preset Minimum Criteria
While landlords cannot deny a potential tenant on the basis of protected criteria, they can deny one who does not fit their predetermined criteria for a specific property. Landlords should carefully establish their criteria for tenants before putting their properties on the market. Many who work with property managers find they can put together more comprehensive lists of requirements, including whether they want to allow pets, smoking versus non-smoking rules, and what income level they expect from potential residents.
Landlords who want to limit pet ownership in their properties should note that service animals do not qualify as pets, and landlords cannot deny an application because of a tenant’s service animal. Service animals are protected by law, and landlords cannot discriminate on the basis of a disability that requires a service animal.
Tenant Screening Laws and You
Effectively screening tenants helps ensure that landlords get quality renters who are likely to stay in their properties for a long time and take care of it while they’re there (rather than tenants who bounce around, fail to pay their rent, and leave significant damage behind them). Landlords should make sure they understand the Washington, D.C. tenant screening laws and the criteria they can legally use to approve or deny a tenant access to a property they own before getting started. Working with a property management company can help them ensure that tenant screening is done correctly and legally.