Screening FAQs

Tenant Screening is vital part of the tenant selection process. Learning about your potential tenants is important to make sure that they have the ability to pay rent and comply with all your building rules.

In compliance with federal regulations, RHAWA certifies landlords who request credit checks on their applicants. The certification verifies your identity, business purposes for looking at a full credit report, and ensures that you keep the credit information secure. The certification process is a one-time event it last for the length of your membership. If the membership lapses there is a re-certification process.

Your minimum screening criteria is a very necessary part of your business. Not only does it help prospective applicants understand what they need to have in order to qualify, but it also protects the landlord from fair housing claims and other problems. Having a clear, objective criteria helps you screen consistently and fairly.

Every credit report will read differently, however, there are certain factors that will be the same no matter what agency reports the information. Each report will include Identifying information for your applicant, this will include their name, date of birth, social security number, and address. The report will show each trade your applicant has on their credit. Trades are credit accounts created by the various lenders. Trades range from credit cards, automobiles, mortgages, to loans. The report will also show certain public records, keep in mind these are not criminal records. The records will be civil records, they will include garnishments, bankruptcies, tax liens, lawsuits, and more. The credit report will also identify which trades are in a collection status. Lastly, the report will show you how many inquiries this individual has had into their credit recently, this can be helpful to validate the individual credit story.

Landlords have the right to determine if an applicant has the income and rental history necessary to meet their criteria. Best practice is to screen applicants in a manner that complies with fair housing laws, as well as RCW 59.18.257 which covers the “Screening of Prospective Tenants.” Per RCW 59.18.257, prior to accepting applications, landlords are required to provide all applicants with a written checklist of desired criteria, compliant with fair housing laws. Post screening, RCW 59.18.257 also requires landlords to issue an Adverse Action Notice to all applicants that were denied based on the written rental criteria.

When several applicants are interested in the same rental property, it is best to screen them on a first-come, first-serve basis. Primarily applicants must meet all of the rental criteria. After compiling the qualified applications, process them one at a time on a first-come, first-serve basis. This is the safest method for screening applicants, alleviating any doubt regarding individual preferences or bias. This method also eliminates the “What do I do now?” adverse action scenario, which inevitably arises when you have multiple applicants who are equally qualified based on their criminal and credit history.

RCW 59.18.257 states that prior to obtaining any information about a rental applicant, the landlord shall first notify the applicant in writing, or by posting the following:

  • what types of information will be accessed to conduct the tenant screening
  • what criteria may result in denial of the application
  • if a consumer report is used, the name and address of the consumer reporting agency
  • and the prospective tenant's rights to obtain a free copy of the consumer report in the event of a denial or other adverse action, or to dispute the accuracy of information appearing in the consumer report

The landlord can only charge a tenant screening fee if they comply with those requirements. If a landlord conducts their own screening of prospective tenants, the landlord may charge his or her actual costs in obtaining the background information only if the prospective landlord provide the above information. The amount charged may not exceed the customary costs charged by a screening service in the general area. Those costs may include costs incurred for long distance phone calls and for time spent calling previous landlords, employers, and financial institutions.

If a landlord denies an applicant, or accepts them conditionally upon further considerations, they must provide the tenant with an Adverse Action Notice.

A landlord who violates these requirements can be liable to the applicant for an amount up to $100.

If the landlord uses a tenant screening service to run background screening on applicants, the landlord may only charge the applicant for the costs incurred by running the screening. However, if the landlord conducts the background screening, on their own time, they may charge their actual costs associated with running the screening. However, a landlord must be sure to disclose to the applicant, before running any background screening that there is a fee that will be charged to them (RCW 59.18.257).

Landlords are required to perform an individual assessment on applicants who have a criminal record. This means evaluating the length of time since the crime, the applicant’s efforts to incorporate themselves back into society, and their efforts to pay anything owed to the court system. Landlords can then decide to accept the tenant or not.

For rental properties in Seattle, effective February 19, 2018 landlords can no longer restrict tenancy based on past criminal or arrest records. Criminal records will not be included in RHAWA screening reports at that date.

Yes, you can refuse the applicants based upon their criminal record. However, when refusing applicants, landlords must be sure to provide the applicant(s) with an “Adverse Action” form that discloses the reason for which their application was refused.

In the State of Washington, having a criminal record is not a protected class under the fair housing laws; therefore, landlords may establish screening criteria that rejects an applicant who has a criminal record.

For rental properties in Seattle, effective February 19, 2018 landlords can no longer restrict tenancy based on past criminal or arrest records. Criminal records will not be included in RHAWA screening reports at that date.

A consumer report is the combined information that is returned with your tenant screening order on a prospective tenant.

The general definition as defined by the “Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) in section 603(d)(1) is any written, oral, or other communication of any information by a consumer reporting agency (CRA) bearing on a consumer’s credit worthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living which is used or expected to be used or collected in whole or in part for the purpose of serving as a factor in establishing the consumer’s eligibility.”

This means that credit information, criminal and eviction information, as well as rental and employment verification information all falls under the definition of a consumer report.

Federal and State law impose regulations on what CRAs are allowed to report. FCRA section 605 and Washington State RCW 19.182.040 has the following restrictions on consumer reporting agencies:

  • Bankruptcies not to be reported farther back than 10 years.
  • Accounts placed for collection or charged off as a bad debt not to be reported back farther than 7 years.
  • Criminal and Civil records not to be reported back more than 7 years from date of disposition, release or parole.

This is important information to keep in mind when you are screening an applicant that says that they have been convicted of a civil or criminal felony and that record does not show up on their consumer report. This is also important to remember if you choose to search a criminal or civil courts database on your own.

Section 615(a) of the FCRA states that “when users of consumer reports take adverse action based on any part of the consumer report it is your responsibility to provide oral, written, or electronic notice of the adverse action to the consumer / applicant.”

Adverse action is defined as rejecting an application or renting to an individual on a conditional basis based on information that was returned in their consumer report.

When you provide this notice to your applicant, it gives them the information they need to better understand why their application has been rejected. They can then contact the proper reporting agency to fix the derogatory information or at least be aware of what data will show up on their consumer report in the future. This can help them decide when and where they are qualified to submit future rental applications. RHAWA provides an Adverse Action Notice to our members for this purpose, log on to our forms page to download a copy.

Yearly re-screening is always a good idea because it will help you make sure that your tenant still qualifies for your unit. Life changes for everyone and you will want to make sure that your tenant still meets all your criteria. This can include their financial situation, job, credit, or criminal background (unless you are in Seattle).

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