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Renting an Apartment & Background Checks

Background checks are part and parcel of renting an apartment whether you're new to renting or you've been leasing apartments for years! Most of us don't give the background check much thought until our application for a place to rent gets denied. You could look like the ideal tenant in your application with enough to afford the monthly rent but when the landlord finds a previous eviction or negative credit rating, your application could be in jeopardy.

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Get to know the background check and you can avoid surprises

A background check is a big deal, and everyone should pay attention to it when applying for an apartment to rent. If you know what your landlord will look at from your past, there are ways you can prevent your application from being rejected right off the bat!

So, whether you are interested in what a background check entails, or you want to know exactly the types of information that landlords can access, then read on to find the answers to your most pressing questions…

Why are Background Checks Needed?

Whether you want to rent an apartment, or your lease renewal is coming up, landlords have the right to perform a background check. The reason they look into your history is to help them gauge your character, reliability, and dependability as a future tenant. This might seem unfair to some, but it is a legal and pretty standard process that isn’t set to change any time soon.

An infographic about passing a background check
Infographic - Tips to pass a background check

Today you might have a good salary and affordability but yesterday's difficulties or challenges that show up in your background check could make it harder for you to get approved. So, what do you do if you need a place to rent but a past arrest, an eviction, or debt is getting in the way of your application?

Well, let’s start by looking at the information that your landlord can access and your rights concerning personal information.

What is a Rental Background Check?

The purpose of a rental background check is to see if there are any issues or matters in your past that would affect your reliability as a tenant. It is also to verify the information you present in your application and avoid any potential problems down the line.

It is a screening measure or tool that landlords use to help them examine a potential tenant’s behavior.

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Be truthful about the information in your application

What Personal Information Does a Landlord Have Access to?

Credit History

Landlords will be able to retrieve your credit report using trusted credit bureaus. The purpose is to perform a credit check which tells them a little bit about your financial behavior. They want to know if you have outstanding debt and how well you’re able to manage this debt when they examine your credit score.

Criminal History

They can look into any criminal records, felonies, or arrests. For some rentals including public housing, there are certain charges including illicit drug dealing that may be denied approval because of community safety considerations; however, if you need housing and you have a past conviction, you can contact the HUD for housing assistance.

Rental History

Landlords will also be able to view your rental history. They are looking at how long you tend to rent in one place and if you frequently change apartments as this could be seen as a red flag. If you have former evictions or an interrupted rental history, then it’s better to explain to the landlord why this is so. This information shouldn’t be hidden because the landlord will probably find it, so it’s better to explain a particular situation rather than try to keep it a secret.

Employment History

The longer that you’ve been employed, the better the odds of getting approved for an apartment to rent. Landlords want to know that you have a full income and a reliable one too which ensures you can afford your monthly rent and you won’t break the lease.

If you have periods where you’ve been unemployed, this is often viewed negatively by a landlord because it doesn’t say much about your job stability. You could explain to the landlord why there are gaps in your employment history, and they might view this differently when considering your suitability to rent.

In your apartment application, you will have to prepare information such as your most recent paychecks to help the landlord check your overall earnings and your affordability.


Outstanding accounts that haven’t been paid can be rated as a collection on your personal report. This ranges from credit cards and phone bills to utility bills and more. Collections are considered serious because it is not merely late payment. It is an outstanding bill that hasn’t been paid for at least 6 months after it was already considered late and could be a major indication of failure to pay and keep track of your financial responsibilities. It could also indicate a court judgment against you that is not viewed as favorable in the eyes of landlords.

Background Checks and Your Rights

Landlords have the right to access your criminal history, financial history, and your rental history. They can perform multiple checks without asking for your permission to access confidential information. So, if you rent, where do your rights come in and how far can a landlord go to denying or approving your rent application?

If an application to rent an apartment is denied on the basis of your background, race, gender, sexual orientation, or age then you can contact the HUD to handle your case. Landlords can access personal information without your consent and only if you feel confidential information has been handled in an unjust or unfair manner can you approach legal or HUD services for assistance.

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Speak to someone if you feel that your rights have been violated

What Can a Landlord Look for in a Background Check?

Landlords typically have access to the following when they perform a rental check:

  • Personal information such as your social security and current physical address

  • Proof of income

  • Your credit score/history

  • Employment history

  • Outstanding collections/debts

  • Eviction and public records

  • Criminal records

Can I Hide Certain Types of Personal Information?

It is best to be honest with the landlord about your history, whether it be financial, rental, or criminal. Remember that landlords are people too and many of them are willing to work with you and help you with renting an apartment provided you are honest and upfront with them.

For example, if you’ve had gaps between jobs, explain to landlords if you’ve attended school during those periods or whether you’ve had a long recovery from surgery or illness.

Where you’ve got outstanding debt that you are actively paying off, provide them with proof of your debt management practices and the steps you’re taking to improve your financial status.

What if I Have a Criminal Record?

In more than 3000 counties in the US, criminal records are publicly accessible based on the last 7 years. The 7 year period is what is included in the courts but it is also considered the standard “lookback” period that landlords can use to check your eligibility as a tenant. This period can start from the date of release from prison or it could start from the date of the conviction.

If you live in the following states, you will be subject to the 7 year lookback period:

  • Washington

  • New York

  • California

  • Montana

  • Massachusetts

The lookback period typically ranges from 7-10 years; however, the introduction of certain consumer protection regulations may restrict just how far back one can search to find information concerning records. Remember that convictions and even arrests can be included in your criminal history.

It is up to you to decide whether you want to reveal or discuss a record with a landlord but it will most likely be accessible to them (especially if convicted or arrested in the last 7-10 years).

A court judge holding a gavel
Be honest about your past

Passing a Background Check

If you want to learn more about passing a background check, you can visit our guide on How to Pass a Background Check. We provide steps and tips that you can use in your next rental application to help you get the apartment or rental home, that you want.

Your Renting Journey and Background Checks

A background check will be part of renting wherever you go. From taking on a new lease to the renewal of a lease, your landlord will check your credit score, eviction/rental history, and any outstanding collections or criminal records in your personal history.

If you need an apartment to rent and you want to prevent a denial, then speak to landlords about things like a former eviction, an arrest, or your credit rating. Some landlords are happy to hear you out and your honesty will certainly place your character and potential as a tenant in a very good light.

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Make your rental journey a rewarding one

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