It’s every prospective tenant’s worst nightmare.
You’re preparing to move. You’ve started packing up. You applied for that awesome apartment just a few days ago and the prospects looked like they were in your favor. Then, the email comes… and you’ve been rejected.
Not only is a rental rejection frustrating, but a lot of times it can come out of left field. A lot of tenants think they’ve done something wrong. However, in many cases, the decision to reject a tenant’s rental application may be out of the tenant’s hands or be the result of unlawful discrimination.
Let’s look into some common reasons why landlords will reject tenant applications, common criteria landlords will use to approve or reject tenants, and some discriminatory questions to look out for when applying for a rental property.
16 Reasons Your Apartment Rent Application Could Be Rejected
Unfortunately, evictions can say a lot about a prospective tenant. If you’ve been kicked out of an apartment or rental home for any number of reasons-- neighbor complaints, being behind on rent, damaging a property, etc.-- then prospective rental managers may see you as a huge liability. It isn’t impossible to find a new apartment with an eviction on your record, especially if the eviction is several years old. Some property managers will overlook evictions and charge a higher security deposit instead.
2. Frequent moves
Landlords will have to decide what constitutes “frequent moves” and apply the same criteria to every single applicant to avoid discrimination. If a tenant has a history of moving frequently, it could mean that they tend to not be happy with the property they live in or engage in activities that require them to dip out of an apartment quickly. When we say “frequent moves,” we aren’t necessarily talking about paying rent on time for the duration of a lease, and then not renewing that lease. We’re talking more about breaking leases constantly and consistently.
3. A Bad Credit Report
This can be a deal breaker for many property managers, unfortunately. If a report shows that you are not current with any single bill or have debts that have been turned over to a collection agency, the property manager will likely reject the application. They may also reject the application if you have been sued for a debt or have a judgment for a debt. These do not have to be debts connected in any way with housing, keep in mind-- if you have a history of not paying your bills, that could make landlords uneasy about how dependable you are.
4. Short-lived job
A landlord will have to decide what “too short a time” or “short-lived” is and apply the same criteria to every applicant. This essentially means that a potential tenant has been employed for too short of a period of time to have a stable projected income in the long-term.
5. Too New to the Area
This is a rare occurrence, and landlords will have to have a very good reason for barring against new arrivals that will have to apply to all rental applications.
If you are a known smoker or admitted to smoking in the rental application, a landlord can reject your application on the grounds that smoking could damage the property. However, a landlord will usually make it clear before it comes to signing the application that no smoking is allowed.
7. No Verifiable Source of Income
All landlords will typically run a thorough tenant screening background check on new applicants. This will determine if the prospective tenant is actually making money and not just saying they are.
8. Too Many Vehicles
Having many cars can be a real source of conflict between neighbors and can also make the entire neighborhood or apartment complex look bad or trashy. It could also signify that the tenant repairs vehicles on their property, meaning the property could be littered with car parts. To keep up the appearance of the property and happiness of other tenants, there may be restrictions put on how many cars one may own.
9. Too Many Tenants in the Household
This could easily leak into family discrimination (which we will discuss later) but sometimes, landlords will request that only a certain amount of tenants live in a property due to safety reasons. If a group of friends wants to move into a studio apartment as roommates, the capacity may be seen as a liability for landlords.
10. Illicit Drug Use
If you are in a drug treatment program and no longer use drugs, the federal U.S. government considers you handicapped and protected by the Fair Housing Act. If you are a current user and your prospective landlord has proof of this, your application will likely be denied.
A landlord will usually have a very clear pet policy in place before the application process. If you somehow revealed that you have pets or the landlord has reason to believe you will be hiding pets on the property, they could reject your application.
12. Unsatisfactory References
Poor or non-existent references from landlords, employers or peers could result in a rejection. Poor references could include reports of chronic disturbance of their neighbors’ peace or reports of gambling, prostitution, drug dealing or drug manufacturing. Non-existant references are the result of incorrect contact information.
13. Evidence of Illegal Activity
This includes convictions, but a landlord cannot legally ask you if you have ever been arrested. The landlord must be able to come up with some kind of satisfactory evidence in order to prove that you have a recent history of a crime if you do not have a prior conviction on your record, but this is often difficult to do.
14. History of Late Rental Payments
If the landlord contacts your previous landlord and discovers that for the last six months of your lease you were consistently late to pay up, they may reject you as a possible liability money-wise.
15. Insufficient Income
A landlord must have a set rule for what is and what is not sufficient income from a tenant. They will run a background check to see how much money you are earning on a monthly basis and where that money is coming from. If the numbers don’t add up, they can legally reject your application. If a landlord is willing to accept only one member of a married couple to supply the total dollar income, they must also be willing to accept the same of unmarried, co-tenants that share the housing. Under Fair Housing laws, they cannot require that unmarried people meet different income requirements than married people.
16. Too Many Debts
Even if your gross income is sufficient to rent, you may have so many other debts that you would likely be hard pressed to make all the payments plus your new rental fees. A rule of thumb for many landlords is that all contracted debts including rent cannot exceed half of your gross income. Contracted debts would include such things as credit card payments, car payments, student loan payments, etc. They would not include cable TV, internet, cell phone, or other utilities.
Resources and Criteria Landlords Use to Evaluate Potential Tenants
There are a myriad of resources and techniques landlords and property managers use to prejudge potential tenants.
The basic things a landlord will look for include:
The tenant’s income
Their willingness to pay their rent on time
The long-term likelihood of their employment or job stability
Their cleanliness when it comes to maintaining a home
Their involvement with crime, drugs, and other types of illegal activities
How “stressful” a tenant could possibly be
If they make at least three times the monthly rent
A lack of evictions
To help the process along, landlords will often use readily-available tools to complete a tenant check:
- Rentberry Comprehensive Tenant Screening Test - An online third-party tenant screening application that checks for credit scores and legal history.
- Rentalutions Rental Application - A single page form for collecting personal, residence, and employment history from a prospective tenant.
- State Rental Laws Guide - Since rental laws vary by state in the U.S., landlords need to know what landlord-tenant laws and regulations apply to them and their tenants. This guide features a full state directory of state laws, federal laws, and fair housing guidance.
Unlawful Screening Criteria and Rental Questions No Landlord Should Ask
Being rejected from a rental application is certainly a troubling experience. Many tenants may feel as if they’ve done something wrong to be deemed not ideal for a rental property.
However, there are some situations that could lead to an application rejection that are 100% unlawful. Even though landlords reserve the right to screen possible new tenants and will often want to be as thorough as they can, certain questions are totally off-limits. These include criteria and questions asked by the rental manager that are not supposed to be asked under U.S. federal fair housing laws. Just as well, personal questions are also off-limits.
Although it would seem obvious, here are a few of the more common questions, comments, and screening criteria that are a big no-no:
- You would like this area, there are a lot of minorities that live here. You’re a minority, right?
- Are you white or Latino?
- There aren’t a lot of Muslim temples around here, so I don’t know if you’d fit in too well.
- I’m sorry, but I don’t feel safe renting to a woman on the bottom floor.
- What country were your parents born?
- Is English your first language?
- Are you disabled or something?
- I don’t allow pets on my property, so I can't allow your service animal.
- I don’t rent to families with kids, sorry.
- Are you currently pregnant? I really don’t want a baby disturbing the other renters.
- Where do your children go to school?
- Do you go to the church in the next neighborhood?
- Are you currently married?
- Are you currently divorced?
- Are you gay or transgender?
- How old are you?
- Sorry, I think having your boyfriend visit will make the other tenants uncomfortable. (This is especially discriminatory if the potential tenant is part of the LGBTQ community.)
- You’re going to need to pay a higher security deposit because your income is from unemployment benefits, and I’m afraid I might have to evict you in the future because of it.
- Have you ever been arrested for a crime? (You can ask a tenant if they have been convicted of a crime, but not if they have been arrested.)
Illegal Reasons for a Rental Rejection
Complementing the illegality of the questions above, no landlord should reject a tenant for any of these reasons:
- The tenant’s race
- The tenant’s skin color
- The tenant’s religion
- The tenant’s sex, sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression
- The tenant’s national origin
- The tenant’s disability and/or handicap, either physical or mental
- The tenant’s family status, such as a family which includes minor children or a family member that is pregnant
Federal law defines discrimination as "refusing to sell or rent a property" (based on the above criteria). Discrimination also includes setting different terms and conditions for a rental based on the above discriminatory factors, as well as falsely denying that housing is available for rent.
If you’ve been asked any of these questions or put through unlawful screening practices, and have subsequently been rejected from a property, there are some steps you can take. You could certainly take the discriminatory act to court if you’re willing to deal with the legal system. Otherwise, this list can be used as a cautionary warning. If you’re applying for an apartment and the property manager asks you discriminatory questions, you can refuse to answer them and may want to look elsewhere for housing.
Have you had an experience with rental application rejection? Do you believe you were unlawfully rejected from renting a property? Share your story with us in the comments below.