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Fair Housing


Tenant Screening

by Mel Metts


Michael and Barbara Green applied for my 2-bedroom apartment in Zion.  The Greens have a son, age 15.


According to their application, the Greens have been living one block up the street for the past year.  They list their landlord as "Mrs. White," and provide her phone number.


I call Mrs. White's number and I'm told to leave a message.  When Mrs. White returns my call, she says, "You called about my tenants, the Greens.  What would you like to know?"

Sample Forms


Rental Application (English)

Authorization for Background Check (English)

Rental Application (Spanish)

Authorization for Background Check (Spanish)

Fair Credit Reporting Act - Summary of Rights

(give to applicant if you will be conducting a credit check)

Employment Verification

Rental Verification

Mrs. White says that the Greens are nearly perfect tenants, always pay on time, keep a clean unit, and there's never a conflict with the neighbors.

Should I rent to the Green family?  Is Mrs. White really the landlord?  Should I have asked her a few more questions, such as How much is the rent, and How long have the Greens lived in their apartment?

When I called the county treasurer's office @ 847-360-6363, I found that the property is owned by Mr. & Mrs. Brown, not Mrs. White.  And when I called Mr. Brown, I found that the Green family is being evicted for unpaid rent amounting to $2,000.  If Mr. Brown couldn't be contacted by phone, I could have learned the same information by visiting the Greens' apartment building, and asking some of the neighbors.  The neighbors could also tell me how to contact Mr. Brown directly.

Lake County has a wonderful website that will provide a wealth of property information online.  Go to http://www.co.lake.il.us/maps

To locate the owner of the property, click Property Tax.  When that page loads, click Search (on the second line of the menu).  Enter the property address in the spaces provided, and click the Search button.  Scroll down the page until you see the Taxpayer's name.  To find the taxpayer's address, click Check here for tax bill payment status.  Scroll down the new window until you see the taxpayer's Bill To Address.


Find the taxpayer's telephone number using Comcast's online white pages directory at http://kevdb.infospace.com/_1_HDVTDJ02676RTR__info.comcst/wp/index.htm.

Comcast also provides a reverse telephone number search online at http://ypng.infospace.com/_1_35ttweonldym4__info.comcst/ypv3/reverse.htm.  Use this to verify that a telephone number given by the applicant truly belongs to the landlord.  You can also search by address.

Neither search tool will work for cell phone numbers.

Does this sound like a lot of work?  You bet!  But it's nothing compared to what a wrong decision will cost you.  And while you're renting to bad tenants, you'll have a devil of a time attracting good ones.

Once the tenant has the keys to your rental unit, the balance of power shifts from you to the tenant.  Considering the tremendous cost, in time and money, to correct an error on your part, it is imperative that you carefully screen each applicant before making a renting decision.

A thorough screening process includes employment verification, current and prior landlord verification, a credit report and a civil/criminal background check.

Other landlords in your area are your competition.  If they are reasonably competent in weeding out their bad tenants and rejecting bad applicants, those applicants are going to show up on your doorstep.  Either you check them out carefully ahead of time, or you're stuck with the dregs of the community.

Always follow this rule:  If you can't verify the information, deny the application.

We are amazed at how many landlords accept tenants without even talking to the previous landlord.  Many of our tenants move on to other landlords and we rarely receive a call to verify their rental history.

At a bare minimum, thorough tenant screening includes:

Additional steps that you may need to take, at least some of the time:

Many bad tenants are experts at finding apartments; they do it all the time.  But they leave clues, and the list of tactics below are familiar to every landlord who's been in business long enough to regret some of his mistakes.  In the second column are some suggested techniques to protect yourself from undesirable tenants.

Tactic Used

What You Can Do

Impersonating someone else Check a valid photo I.D.
Falsifying current/prior landlord and/or address Ask questions the fake landlord is not likely to know (i.e. How much is the rent, what's the street address, how long has Susie rented from you?).
Ask for current utility bills in the applicant's name to document address.
Find the real property owner by checking with County Treasurer @ 847-360-6363, or online using the link provided above.
Verify telephone numbers through the telephone directory or use Comcast's online reverse directory at http://ypng.infospace.com/_1_35ttweonldym4__info.comcst/ypv3/reverse.htm.
Falsifying current/prior employer Ask for a current pay stub, call employer's Personnel/Human Resources Department.  Don't take the word of Susie's supervisor, "Mary."
Concealing a prior eviction Civil records, credit report or current/prior landlord.
Underreporting the number of occupants Check with current/ prior landlord.
Creating a sense of urgency (i.e. "We have the cash, our belongings are in the car, and we need to move in now.") Just say "No!"  Don't take shortcuts you'll regret.

One thing is sure:  Undesirable tenants know that you're probably too lazy or too busy to screen them properly.  Let them know how wrong they are!  And if you find it difficult to verify some of the information, shift the responsibility to the applicant (i.e. "Since your previous employer has gone out of business, give me names and numbers of some of your coworkers I can contact").  Be especially thorough if you observe some of the following behaviors.

Warning Signs

The Application form is the first step in the screening process.  Make sure your application looks professional, and include every question that will be needed in your verification process.  Ask for even more information, where legally possible, that might help you track down a tenant who later skips out with unpaid rent and damages.

Every experienced landlord has strong opinions on how to take a rental application.  What works for you may not be right for someone else, but you're welcome to try any of these and select the ones you like:

In conclusion, we want to stress that there are wonderful tenants out there, and you can arrange for them to live in your apartments.  And as you weed out the undesirables, the job becomes easier -- less litter to pick up, less damage to repair, fewer late or bounced rent checks, longer-term tenants.

And finally, remember our "Golden Rule," If you can't verify the information, deny the application.


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