Tenant Screening Laws in Washington, DC

Most landlords want to carefully screen their tenants before renting to them. Tenant screening can make the difference between great tenants who pay their rent on time and take care of the property from tenants who do not meet obligations set forth in the lease and may struggle to make rent payments on time. In order to screen those tenants to the best of their ability, however, DC landlords must follow a series of tenant screening laws that help protect tenants’ privacy and their right to rent a quality home. 

1. Landlords Are Allowed to Charge an Application Fee for Tenants Interested in Moving Into Their Properties

DC law does not mandate a specific limit on these fees, which the landlord can use to conduct a background check 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. Without that signature, you cannot move forward with the background check, which means you will miss out on that 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:

No Smoking

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. 

Pet Regulations

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 size limit to the dogs they will allow on the 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. 

Eviction History

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. 

Financial History

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. Landlords may also look into the tenant’s credit history to ensure that the applicant does not have a history of nonpayment. 

Criminal History

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.

Tenant Screening Laws in Washington, DC

Even in a single-family dwelling, however, landlords may not want tenants previously convicted of drug crimes or violent crimes. Drugs in a house can lead to substantial damage, while violent crimes could put both 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 a tenant who does not fit their predetermined criteria for a specific property. For this reason, landlords should carefully establish their criteria for tenants before putting the property on the market. By working with a property manager, many landlords discover that they can more effectively put together a list of requirements for the property, including whether they want to allow pets, whether they want to allow smokers to rent the property, and what income level they expect from potential residents.

Landlords who want to limit pet ownership in their properties should note that, while they can choose not to rent to an applicant with a pet, 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. 


Effectively screening tenants helps ensure that landlords get quality tenants who are likely to stay in the property 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. Before screening tenants, however, landlords should make sure they understand the Washington, DC laws related to tenant screening and the criteria they can legally use to approve or deny a tenant access to a property they own. Working with a property management company can help many landlords ensure that tenant screening is done correctly and legally.

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