Having multiple qualified applicants vying for a rental unit is great, but it can also be a trap for the unwary. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to refuse to rent based on an applicant's race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, or disability.
In addition, many states have laws that include other statuses, such as sexual orientation and marital status. The key to avoiding Fair Housing Act issues is to have a clear policy that is fairly and consistently applied.
Before you advertise your rental property, create a document listing your qualification requirements. Keep this in front of you when you're conducting phone screens, and give printed copies to applicants when showing the property. This will help ensure that you apply consistent standards when interviewing potential tenants. Typical criteria include the following:
Some applicants won't meet the criteria. In those cases, list the reason(s) why on the application.
If multiple applicants meet the criteria, choose them fairly. The following two options are both good practices.
One way to handle multiple qualified applicants is to sort the applications based on when each application was submitted, and offer the property to the first qualified applicant. While this method is the simplest, it may mean the most qualified applicant doesn't get the rental.
You may prefer one qualified applicant if he or she exceeds certain minimum requirements. For example, one applicant might have an outstanding rental history, long-term stable employment and a higher income than the other applicants. In that situation, you may offer the lease to that applicant. Make sure you document your file with the reason he or she was more qualified than the others. If a few applicants are equally qualified, then choose the one who submitted her application first.
If an applicant was denied based on credit report information, the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires that you give notice of the denial to the applicant, along with other information. Typically the credit-reporting agency will provide you with specific language.
Let the other applicants know in a simple letter why they were rejected (for example, failure to submit a complete application, failure to meet a specific criteria, another applicant ahead of them was qualified, or there was another more qualified applicant). Again, make sure that your files clearly document the decision-making process. If those reasons are legal and any application denials are not based on any person's membership in a protected class, you should be in compliance with the Fair Housing Act.
The Fair Housing Act can be confusing. As always, be sure to check with your attorney if you have any questions or concerns before you make any decisions.