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A Landlord’s Guide to Using Criminal Background Checks

A criminal background check form sits with a pen on a wooden surface, ready for the rental applicant to fill out.

Landlords need to proceed cautiously when they’re reviewing applicants with criminal histories. A criminal record does not necessarily indicate someone won’t be a responsible tenant, but you need to be sure to make choices that protect your property, other tenants, and the surrounding community.

This issue can be complicated, and you need to strike the right balance between not being discriminatory and not putting yourself, others, or your property at risk. This guide helps you decide what to do if a criminal background check indicates that an applicant has a criminal history.

What to Consider When Assessing the Results of a Criminal Background Check

A criminal background check can show an applicant’s felonies, misdemeanors, history of incarceration, and pending criminal cases, and if you find out that a prospective tenant has a criminal background, you should consider the following when deciding whether to rent to them.


Make sure that you only consider convictions for crimes, which means the applicant was found guilty in a court of law. An arrest, on the other hand, does not prove that they committed a crime.

Nature of the Crime

You should consider the type of crime when deciding how to approach the results of their criminal background check. An applicant guilty of murder or sexual assault, of course, is guilty of a crime much more severe than something like shoplifting.

Risk for the Property

Think about any potential risk to the property that the potential applicant may pose. Writing a bad check may not seem like a serious crime compared to violent assault, for example, but you probably don’t want to rent to someone with a history of financial crimes. A record of arson or vandalism may also signify a threat to your property.

Risk for Other Tenants

Consider potential risks to your tenants or neighbors as well. A rental applicant with a history of violent crimes may pose a danger to others, especially if the crimes were perpetrated on strangers.

Time of the Offense

People can change, and you don’t necessarily want to hold someone responsible for their past mistakes if they’ve already paid their debt to society and rehabilitated themselves. Consider the timing of the offense. You probably don’t have to worry about a crime that happened a decade ago from someone who doesn’t exhibit a history of that behavior.

You have the right to choose your tenants, but you need to ensure that you don’t accidentally discriminate against people with criminal records. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) bans landlords from having blanket bans against people with criminal histories, and it requires landlords to assess each applicant on a case-by-case basis.

How to Deal With Applicants With Criminal Histories

a criminal rental applicant that is handcuffed

It’s wise to balance a strong sense of fairness against your desire to protect your property and your tenants. You should keep the following elements in mind as you create policies and review rental applications:

Reasonable Protections Are Not Discriminatory

You cannot have a policy to never rent to anyone with a criminal record, but you can implement reasonable policies to protect yourself and your property. Not renting to someone who recently committed a violent crime, for instance, is an example of a reasonable decision.

Local and State Laws Vary

Consider consulting with a lawyer well versed in housing laws to ensure your policies align with state and local laws. These laws often go beyond the requirements outlined in federal housing laws like the Fair Housing Act.

You Need to Have Consistent Policies

Try to be as consistent as possible when dealing with applicants who have criminal histories. You put yourself at risk of facing a discrimination charge if you refuse to rent to multiple applicants who have drug distribution charges but then accept a renter guilty of the same crime, especially if that applicant is of a different race. A history of consistency can be essential if you’re trying to make a case against a discrimination charge.

You May Be Liable for Your Tenants’ Safety

Landlords who knowingly rent to someone who poses a significant risk to their tenants may be found liable if the renter hurts one of their tenants. You need to find a way to minimize your liability risk while also ensuring you don’t act in a discriminatory manner.

Being a landlord often requires you to balance several different elements, and this balancing act comes into play when you’re deciding how to deal with a prospective tenant with a criminal background. The right screening tools, and the advice of a lawyer, can be essential.

Mistakes to Avoid When Renting to Tenants With Criminal Histories

A former criminal may prove to be the best tenant you’ve ever had, or renting to them could be a mistake you’ll regret. The stakes are high, and you should be careful about avoiding these common mistakes:

  • Don’t ban everyone with a criminal record
  • Don’t forget to do a criminal background check
  • Don’t assume that local anti-discrimination laws are the same as federal laws

Making the right decision can be challenging, but the process is always easier if you know as much as possible about your tenants. Don’t go into the situation in the dark — always make sure you perform adequate background checks on your client.

Contact Rent Safe to Improve Your Applicant Review Process

Reviewing rental applications can be challenging, whether the applicants have criminal histories or not. You need to know as much about your prospective tenants as possible to be an effective landlord.

Rent Safe facilitates this process by allowing you to easily do credit checks, criminal background checks, and more on prospective tenants. Contact us at Rent Safe today to learn more about how our platform can help improve your rental property business.

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