Wolf in field.
Photo by Mark Kent | Flickr Creative Commons

Good or Bad, Your Tenant’s Past Will Impact Your Future

Part 2: The role of background checks in tenant screening.

By BreAnn Stephenson

Is your prospective tenant a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Uncovering a potential tenant’s financial standing is a key component in the screening process, which we covered in the first part of our discussion on tenant screening. While the ability to make rent is important, don’t overlook the importance of character. Missed rent payments can derail your cash flow, but someone who doesn’t respect your property (or you) can end up burning the house down—literally. A thorough background check should be a nonnegotiable part of your screening process.

What qualities should you look for in a background check service?

ACCURACY

If the information you receive from a service isn’t accurate, you might as well be looking at a report on Kermit the Frog. The service needs to deliver accurate information on the correct person.

When using a background-check service, check out reviews of that company and see what other users of the service say. Sites such as Top Ten Reviews or Top Consumer Reviews are a good place to start. Any additional time spent finding a reputable service is a minor investment compared to the cost of an eviction or an insurance claim later down the line.

EASE OF USE

Look for a service that will allow you to access your reports easily at a later date. Your No. 2 or No. 3 choice for an apartment today might be your No. 1 choice on a unit six months from now.

If the information presented in background checks is not familiar to you, you will want a service that will include explanations of each section of data, or that has a responsive customer support line.

SEARCH CUSTOMIZATION

A solid search service should provide a preview page that contains possible matches to the individual you are searching. That way, you don’t spend money on a report for the wrong person. Look for a service with expanded search capabilities, offering you a variety of ways to search for an applicant—by name or address, for example.

HELP + SUPPORT

The best service is usually found with companies that provide a variety of ways for you to reach them. Many will allow you to contact them through phone, live chat or email.

Take a tour around the company’s website. See if you can easily find the information you’re looking for. Is there an FAQ menu and keyword search? If you call to inquire about their services, is the staff friendly and engaged in the conversation? Chances are, you will have questions about the search results, and when that time comes, you will want a patient guide on the other end of the line.

What types of searches are performed?

The more information you can gather about potential tenants, the better. Database searches may include state or county court records, America’s Most Wanted, FBI’s Most Wanted, terrorist databases and the National Sex Offender Public Registry. The following are some of the most common types of checks:

CRIMINAL SEARCH

Although many sites may advertise a nationwide criminal record check, let’s be clear.  Only law enforcement professionals have access to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which compiles a plethora of information to help criminal justice professionals apprehend criminals. That stated, reputable background search services can compile data for you through multiple state searches.

A criminal search may return a list of names that aren’t always a match to the applicant. For example, non-matching information may show up if there is only a partial name or date of birth in the court record. It is important to return all possible results to you as excluding a partial match may eliminate a record that may be just the one you’re looking for. This is precisely why such broad search criteria for criminal records are used.

It is also important to know that criminal searches can vary from state to state. Each state has different guidelines for what information is available immediately. For example, Utah makes both felonies and misdemeanors available from the Utah District Court, while in Wyoming, there isn’t any information provided to the database. Instant criminal results may not be available for Delaware, Massachusetts, South Dakota and Wyoming. This is why many services and property managers recommend doing a county search. Criminal history can be found by name and verified by the date of birth.

FEDERAL BUREAU OF PRISONS DATABASE

This database contains the whereabouts of federal inmates incarcerated from 1982 to current.

STATE PRISON INMATE LIST

Aside from searching the federal database, you will want to search the state inmate list as well. Most state corrections departments have a search tool on their official websites. Be sure you are only using a government-sponsored search. Here’s an example from the Kansas Department of Corrections.

COUNTY COURT RECORDS

At the county level, one of the most important documents to look for is an eviction record. It can be a challenge to find eviction records as these may only show up if the eviction was filed and a judgment occurred. These searches will also give you results for other offenses at the county level, such as traffic violations.

To be doubly sure that your potential applicant hasn’t been evicted, your results should be cross-checked against a phone call to their previous landlords. If your potential tenant does show up in the county records, inquire further about the circumstances of the eviction and also be sure that you make notes accordingly in their file.

THE OFFICE OF FOREIGN ASSET CONTROL’S LIST OF SANCTIONED NATIONAL THREATS

Not only can renting to someone on this list be dangerous for others in the neighborhood, it can also get you in major trouble with the federal government if you transact any business with them.  Executive Order 13224, signed right after 9/11, “prohibits any U.S. company from doing business with any person that (1) has committed a terrorist act, (2) poses a risk of committing or supporting terrorist acts, or (3) is identified on the list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons generated by the office of Foreign Assets Control.” One can search this list right on OFAC’s website.

A NOTE ABOUT THE TSA NO-FLY LIST

This list is maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC). Don’t be fooled—the No-Fly List is not publicly available for search. The Department of Homeland Security makes it available for air carriers flying into, out of or within the United States for passenger pre-screening. However, the website no-fly-list.com is a fake. You may notice it references a “Terrorist Security Administration,” but according to the FBI, the Terrorist Screening Center cannot reveal whether a particular person is in the TSDB.

NATIONAL SEX OFFENDER SEARCH

Whether you are performing searches yourself or having a service do them for you, be sure that your applicant doesn’t come up on the National Sex Offender Registry. Like the criminal search, these records are listed by name and date of birth. They may also include a photo of the offender.

UNCOVERING THE TRUTH

In order to determine if the records match your applicant, you will want to check the details listed on the record against observations about the applicant and the details they submitted to you on their application and ID card. No matter the results, you will want to keep a copy of your findings for your records. You may be asked later to prove why an applicant was denied and that it was a lawful denial. Rentler recommends checking the following: Applicant’s Name, Date of Birth, Gender/Sex, Race, Address, Picture and Social Security Number.

A few last words

Just because an applicant has a “history” doesn’t mean that you cannot rent to them. Carefully weigh the type and severity of offenses and how long ago the applicant was involved in any criminal activities. If your prospective tenant is in her mid-40s, you might be able to give her a pass on the candy bar she stole at age 14.

If, however, their offenses suggest a violent past, that could be a big red flag. Those with multiple alcohol-related charges demonstrate a disregard for the lives of others and a willingness to endanger themselves as well. Most importantly, obtain accurate information so that you can choose the best of the best. You won’t regret the added time or effort—I promise.


Are there particular attributes you look for when doing a background check? Share your experience with everyone in the comments section below!

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