What Questions Can a Landlord Ask on a Rental Application?

by Carina Jenkins J.D.
Realtor, landlord consulting, explaining terms of contract

If a new acquaintance asks how many kids you have or where you go to church, they're probably just trying to get to know you. But these questions could be illegal if they appear on a rental application.

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Landlords are allowed to ask many questions to help them to determine whether a tenant is likely to pay rent and comply with the lease terms. However, landlords can't ask discriminatory questions or violate privacy laws.

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What Questions Is a Landlord Allowed to Ask on a Rental Application?

Generally, landlords can ask various questions to determine whether a potential tenant is a qualified renter. Landlords often use a screening process to determine whether a renter can afford the property or meets other legal requirements.

There isn't a list of standard questions landlords can ask, and laws vary by location. But questions about the following are usually allowed on rental applications:

  • How much money you earn
  • If you smoke
  • Your rental history
  • Whether you have a criminal record
  • Whether you have any pets (though there are protections for service animals)

In many states, rental applications can also ask for your marital status.

Landlords are typically allowed to use these tenant screening questions to decide whether to rent to you. For example, landlords can usually refuse to rent to people who smoke, have a criminal history or don't have enough income.

Can Landlords Ask for Proof of Your Answers?

Landlords can also request proof of this information during their screening process. Some of the things they might request include:

  • Pay stubs or W2s
  • Bank statements
  • A credit check
  • A background check
  • References
  • A copy of your driver's license or other identification

Prospective landlords can contact previous landlords to ask about your rental history. They can also ask your employer to verify your income. However, landlords can't use these techniques to gather information that would otherwise be discriminatory, such as asking your employer about your religion.

What Questions or Categories of Questions Are They Not Allowed to Ask?

Federal laws prohibit landlords from discriminating against tenants based on any of the following:

  • Race or color
  • Religion
  • Sex, including sexual orientation
  • National origin
  • Familial status, particularly having children under the age of 18
  • Disability

Tenant screening questions can't ask about these categories. Some exceptions exist for landlords who own fewer than four single-family homes. There are also exceptions for private clubs and retirement communities.

Checking the laws where you live before seeking rental housing is a good idea because some locations offer tenants additional protections.

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What Laws and Regulations Protect Renters in This Case?

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that protects renters from certain forms of discrimination. Federal housing laws are enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Many states and cities also have laws on rental application questions.

Landlords can't use rental applications or tenant interview questions to discriminate against protected classes of people. Discrimination includes refusing to rent to someone, but it can also include other landlord actions. Landlords can't demand additional rent or house people separately based on a protected class. For example, landlords can't charge someone extra rent because of race or only house families with children in a particular part of an apartment complex.

Do Illegal Rental Application Laws Depend on Where You Live?

Rental application laws can vary by state. Local jurisdictions, such as cities, counties and states, may offer additional protections to tenants. Some states prohibit discrimination against additional categories, such as ancestry, source of income and marital status. Local laws may also provide fewer exceptions. For example, landlords with only one or two properties may still need to comply with state laws.

What Should You Do if You Get an Illegal Rental Application?

You can consider filing a fair housing complaint if you believe you've encountered illegal tenant screening questions. HUD will investigate your complaint and may seek to correct the problem or get compensation for those who experienced discrimination. Sometimes, HUD may require landlords to fix their applications and eliminate illegal rental questions.

Many states and cities also have housing departments or a division of the state attorney general's office that can assist with discrimination. Legal aid offices and private attorneys can also sometimes help people who encounter discriminatory tenant interview questions.

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