Why Background Checks Matter

As a landlord, you’re loaning one of your most valuable assets, a home, to someone who is essentially a complete stranger. That’s a pretty big deal. And as much as you’d love to believe that all prospective tenants are perfectly good people who would never damage your unit (or your trust), it’s simply not the case. Past bad behavior too often indicates future bad behavior, so knowing a bit more about who you’re would-be-tenant is can make a huge difference in ensuring you find the best renters. Background checks are therefore one of the best preventative measures you can take to see that renting runs smoothly. While most of the information on these reports is self-explanatory, it won’t mean much if you aren’t interpreting that information properly. By following this guide, you can be sure to make the most of any renter’s background check.

A quick note: according to the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal to refuse to rent to a potential tenant based on the applicant’s race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, or disability. To avoid any risky violation, it’s critical that you establish a set of parameters that are important to you and stick to them.

What We Mean by “Background Check”

Your tenant screening process may involve many different checks and key pieces of information. You’ll find tips for interpreting your tenant’s credit report and creating the perfect rental application in our other posts, and we encourage you to check those out. For the purposes of this post, we will limit our discussion to eviction and criminal reports and will refer to both together with the blanket term “background check.” But before we dive into interpreting these, it’s important to understand the varying levels of detail a background check service can provide.

All criminal records are filed under the name and date of birth of the offender. This is, therefore, the minimum amount of information needed to run a successful check; however, using only these criteria can lead to confusing inaccuracies. After all, it’s not uncommon for two people with the same name to share a birthday. Fortunately – though it’s not a requirement – some counties and courts also include the address of the offender at the time of the incident. This can be a critical benefit in narrowing your search. In fact, using as many additional unique identifiers as possible can help ensure you’re looking at the right information for the right person. Even a middle name can make a tremendous improvement to your report’s accuracy.

The most unique national identifier, the social security number, is not included in criminal records for privacy reasons, but it still has a use in the background check process. Some background check services will use a subject’s SSN as a means of verifying their identity, uncovering any aliases they’ve had, and tracking any past addresses. These additional names and addresses can then be used to corroborate and narrow down the criminal information whenever available.

Source Data for Criminal Reports

When it comes to criminal reports, there are three potential sources of information: broad yet efficient national databases, more specific individual state databases, and hyper-focused county level records. Each has both advantages and disadvantages:

When it comes to criminal reports, there are three potential sources of information: broad yet efficient national databases, more specific individual state databases, and hyper-focused county level records. Each has both advantages and disadvantages:

County Records

County records are the most accurate and up-to-date available. Any felonies or misdemeanors committed by the subject within the last 7 years will be reported. Critically, however, these records are limited to those crimes that occurred within the county. Let’s say, for example, your prospective tenant has lived in County A his whole life. One day she traveled to County Z a thousand miles away and committed a crime. You have no reason to know that you should request a criminal check in County Z, so you limit your search to County A. As a result, you could miss a major and relevant red flag. Similarly, cities that span multiple counties will require more than one county check, a costly investment just to acquire a baseline of information. And the files you do request can be slow, as they need to be obtained from local courthouses individually. This process can take anywhere from a single day to a couple of weeks.

State Records

With the exception of Wyoming, Delaware, South Dakota, and Massachusetts (records in these states aren’t processed electronically), state-based information can be accessed instantly. State records of course pull from any crimes prosecuted at a state level, but the amount of additional info varies by the state. For instance, some states require county participation and provide full county-level coverage. Others do not and, as a result, will have spotty county-level coverage at best. Information on state criminal records can go back up to 70 years.

National Records

National reports contain the broadest amount of data, as they pull information instantly from the 46 states with electronic databases (the exceptions are listed in the paragraph above). Over 30 million records from agencies across the country (both state and county) are used to indicate potential matches to an applicant. Unfortunately, participation is not mandatory, and the process is not formalized, so national records can lag behind their county and state counterparts by months or even years. Following up with county searches wherever hits are detected is the best way to acquire the most complete report. Many national level checks also bundle info from the National Sex Offender Search, the Terrorist Watch List (OFAC), and other useful data sets.

National State County
Speed Typically instant Typically instant Can take anywhere from 1 to 14 days*
Cost

 

$13-60 (varies widely based on level of information requested) $10-25 per state $16-25 per county checked

 

Main Benefits

 

Most far-reaching. Can be bundled with other databases (sex offender, terrorist watch list). Contains both state and county level records (where available). Most accurate and up-to-date.
Main Drawbacks

 

Not as accurate as county level. Variance/inconsistencies in information by state. Limited to a small location, slowest to obtain.

*This is particularly notable for states like California in which county courts go on furlough for up to two weeks at a time.

When determining the reporting service you’d like to use, it’s important to weigh the cost-benefit of all three levels. If you rent your properties in a rough neighborhood and you’ve been burnt in the past, it may be worth it to go for county level data. But for most landlords, this is way overkill. Oftentimes, a fast, cost-efficient national background check paired with a high-quality credit report and a tenant’s record of evictions will provide everything you need to know.

Source Data for Eviction Reports

Like criminal checks, most eviction records are only filed by name. If your service is too broad, you may end up sifting through a flood of returned information and run the risk of seeing inaccurate data. The best eviction reports will match the applicant’s name against their prior addresses to ensure the most accurate data possible. This is also often accomplished using an SSN verification as part of the check.

Keep in mind that the purpose of tenant screening is to significantly reduce risk. It is impossible to eliminate it entirely and you should not expect perfect records. Recognize the limitations of any service as you search for the best fit for your needs.

Interpreting Criminal Reports

Criminal reports contain a wealth of information regarding your tenant’s history with the law. They generally dig through hundreds of millions of records from sources across the country to compile a complete report. If something comes back, it’s important not to automatically rule out the tenant – in fact, it’s illegal. Take the time to see what the incidents are and how they will impact your decision as a landlord.

What to Keep in Mind

  • Consider the severity, frequency, and relevance of any reported criminal activity. Obviously, a single traffic ticket from 5 years ago isn’t as severe or relevant to you as an assault charge. But petty crimes can be a red flag as well if they’re showing up frequently. An individual with a repeated history doesn’t have any serious intention to follow rules or change their behavior.
  • Be sure that whichever service you use to obtain your report includes information from all 50 states (and instant reports from the 46 states that allow it), including the Most Wanted Databases and the Sex Offender Public Registry. Due to the nature of their crimes, sex offenders have limitations on where they can live. For instance, they cannot be close to schools or public parks. This makes conducting background checks even more critical to ensure safety in your community.
  • Similar to evictions, there may be inconsistencies if some courts haven’t filed their reports electronically or used incomplete data. Always check with references if applicable and thoroughly review the tenant’s application to ensure accuracy.

Interpreting Eviction Reports

Evictions can cost landlords thousands of dollars in legal fees and hours of time, so it’s helpful to see a prospect’s eviction history before choosing to rent them your property. Eviction reports can include any or all of the following information: dates and locations of any prior evictions, reasons behind the eviction, judgements for rent or possession (judgements refer to the rental amount uncollected by the landlord), and the result or actions taken by the court (some phrases you are likely to see are “Civil Judgement” or “Forcible Detainer”, which imply that the tenant was deemed at fault).

What to Keep in Mind

  • As of July 2017, eviction records are no longer included in credit reports. So, if you’ve run credit reports to find this information in the past, be aware that you’ll now have to find eviction history separately.
  • There are many reasons why a tenant’s prior eviction may not show up in your screening:

Ensure that your report is national beforehand. Not all screenings are, which can be problematic if an eviction occurred in an area not covered by the report.

There can be lag time between a tenant’s eviction and when the court actually files the case.

Many tenants who don’t pay their rent will leave the unit before completing a formal eviction process. As a result, a public record is never created.

After 7 years (5 in Oregon), reported evictions are removed from public record. Therefore, any evictions prior to 2011 will no longer be documented.

  • To avoid missing out on information from the points above, reach out to previous landlords/references when applicable. Compare the information they provide with that returned by the report as well as the tenant’s rental application.
  • Prior evictions by no means guarantee a bad tenant, but analysis has shown they are very predictive of future behavior.

Better Safe Than Sorry

No matter how clean a tenant’s background check looks, there will always be risk. Doing everything that you can to mitigate this risk and better screen your tenants can be the difference between making money or spending it on legal fees. Of course, the more information you have, the better you can judge a person’s character and decision-making ability. So take the time to look at background checks, talk to previous landlords or employer references, and even consider scrolling through their social media. You are allowing them to live in your home, after all. It’s the least you should do.

 

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