5 Tenant Characteristics It’s Wise to Discriminate Against

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Today, the word “discriminate” gets a bad rap. Don’t get me wrong, much of that is for good reason, but we humans discriminate in all sorts of ways every single day. It is just something we do as a part of life, and we often do not even realize that we are doing it. Discrimination is not something most of us would like to admit that we do. But have you ever stopped to consider that perhaps discrimination is something we need to do, something that should even be encouraged?

If you are already or would like to become a landlord, the answer is yes.

Should landlords discriminate against everything? No. You should not discriminate against people because of their age, ethnicity, race, religion, national origin or familial status. It is illegal, wrong and the reason the word discriminate has such a negative connotation today. But almost everything else is and should be fair game.

Related: Protect Yourself As a Landlord With These 6 Crucial Documents

For example, do you or would you review someone’s income stream before renting to them? Of course! You do not want to rent to someone who cannot afford it. That is discrimination based upon income.

What about criminal history? Would you rent to someone without checking if they have a serious criminal past? If you would, then you might be naive and are likely to face many other problems down the road.

So what other factors could you use to discriminate against possible bad tenants? Here are five possibilities for you to consider.

5 Characteristics You Can Discriminate Against as a Landlord

Smoking

You can ban smoking in your properties. Yes, you cut yourself off from a chunk of the rental market, but by discriminating against smokers you also reduce your clean up costs and risk of fire, and you may actually attract a better class of tenants.

Pet Ownership

You do not have to allow pets in your properties, or you could only rent to people who have pets. Pet owners are a significant part of the rental market, but many landlords feel the damage pets can cause is not worth it. On the other hand, some feel that pet owners make better tenants and cater their properties towards them.

pets-in-rentals

Job Type

Being discriminatory in your rental application process is all about reducing your risk and increasing the likelihood of collecting the rent. You may therefore want to eliminate certain jobs from contention.

Lawyers are one example. Some landlords will not rent to lawyers because some lawyers have a tendency to sue. Other landlords may not rent to truck drivers or landscapers, as they do not want 18 wheelers or mud all over their properties.

Constant Moving

Ever have an applicant who seems to move every year? If so, you do not have to rent to them. Tenant turnover is one of the major cash flow killers in the landlording business. So if possible, you want to find tenants who will stay for the longterm. You can discriminate against the ones who want to move every year.

Sloppy Living

Ever have someone show up just plain filthy, with food dripped down the front of their shirt and a car full of trash? I have, and I did not rent to them — and neither should you. If you do, all of that filth will move into your property. It is best to discriminate here.

So remember, it is OK — and even advisable — to discriminate if you are or plan to be a landlord. In fact, you simply have to discriminate in order to protect your interests and property. The key however is to be consistent in your discriminatory practices. You cannot let one lawyer in and keep another one out, for example.

hoarder_house_tenant_abuse

Related: The Top 8 Mistakes Made By Rookie Landlords

You should give careful consideration to how you will and how you will not discriminate in your landlording business. Write everything down, and keep it handy in case you are ever asked for your rental policies. Remember, you can discriminate, but the person you discriminate against may feel they were wronged and sue. Protect yourself by being consistent and having written policies in place.

[Editor’s Note: We are republishing this article to help our newer members make good tenant selections. Please note: To make sure you’re on the right side of the law as a landlord, always refer to Fair Housing Laws when making decisions about potential tenants.]

Who do you discriminate against in your landlording business?

Please share with your comments!

About Author

Kevin Perk

Kevin Perk is co-founder of Kevron Properties, LLC with his wife Terron and has been involved in real estate investing for 10 years. Kevin invests in and manages rental properties in Memphis, TN and is a past president and vice-president of the local REIA group, the Memphis Investors Group.

68 Comments

  1. Good advice–also beware of renting to landscapers–they have trucks & equipment everywhere and they work in dirt so your house will be filthy-especially your flooring! and ironically, they never take care of their own lawn. People in construction are the same way–we avoid them too–Im not saying they are all this way, but for us they have been–I have never met a landlord who voluntarily rents to attorneys–

  2. Is that OK for use criteria like the following (I leave obvious things such as credit score, income, lack of criminal records out):
    – must not work as a lawyer, paralegal, truck driver, etc.
    – must be legal resident of the U.S.
    – must not receive any kind of public assistance (Section 8, foodstamps, etc.)
    – must not have trash in their cars
    – must not live in a trashed out home
    – must not have visible tattoos

      • You’re right. None of them are protected but what if a person who fits in any one of these descriptions is also a member of a protected class (or more than one)? What if that person decides to sue because they think they were rejected based on their even though the rejection letter stated that they were of a wrong profession?

        • Kevin Perk

          Mike,

          Anybody can sue anybody for anything. If it happens to you you will need to demonstrate consistency with regards to your tenant selection criteria.

          Perhaps you have turned down other tattooed people. Perhaps you have rented to others in the protected class who were not tattooed.

          As long as you can demonstrate that you are not going after a protected class with written criteria and consistent application, I think you will be OK. But remember, I am just a landlord, not an attorney.

          Thanks for the questions. They are good ones,

          Kevin

      • Kevin Perk

        Fionn,

        Thanks for reminding the readers to consider local regulations as well as Federal ones. Many local jurisdictions have added other classes to the protection list. Source of income is one you mention, sexual orientation is another I can think of. It is wise for all landlords to keep up with their local laws.

        Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion,

        Kevin

        • Kevin,

          Thanks for the kind words. I sat in a on a lecture yesterday at a local real estate investment group here in Chicago. The attorney, in addition to being a great speaker with the dry topic of, evictions, was really helpful in outlining the criteria that we should apply to out applicants but more so in the fact that he stressed we should have our criteria written down and applied universally to each applicant. Even if it changes in the future because changes in laws, have written procedure is the way to go.

          We in the city of Chicago are subject 4 different definitions of protected classes, each defined by the federal, state, county and city laws.

          Kevin, thanks for taking the time to write the article and follow up.

          Cheers,
          Fionn

    • I would sure want to run a list like that past my attorney before going public with it. I’m no atty but seems like the potential costs – from just one person raising a legal stink – outweigh the potential benefits. Seems better to keep terms like “trash in cars”, “trashed out home”, “public assistance” in the back of your mind but not on paper.

      This is just IMO – I’m a small-time landlord, but in the 15 years I’ve rented my old house and another out I’ve had only 1 truly bad tenant – that was the 1 time I didn’t pay for a background check and bought tenants’ sob story because it was winter and I wasn’t getting any nibbles. (Also ignored tenant’s tattoo, but I have a tattoo as do millions of perfectly good folks.)

      • Kevin Perk

        John,

        I think it is perfectly OK to list “sloppy appearance” on your criteria list. I do not think anyone will fault you for not wanting to allow sloppy people into your properties. Is a lawsuit expensive? Yes. Does the sloppy guy have the money to bring one on? Maybe. More likely her and his lawyer will move on once they see the how professional you are in running your business.

        Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion,

        Kevin

  3. Do you think I am opening myself to lawsuits by not discriminating against everyone with a certain characteristics? For example, people with visible tattoos have trouble getting jobs so I feel that it is a risk renting to them. However, I rented to one tenant who looked scary with tattoos and piercings but was actually a mild-mannered high school teacher. Does this mean that the people with tattoos that I chose not to rent to can sue me and win? Is using common sense illegal?
    I am not being sarcastic. I really want to know. Also, I follow a different set of criteria if I have a vacancy in December or January. You must have a pulse and money. Can I lose a lawsuit because I didn’t want to have 3 months of vacancy plus high heat bills to pay on a vacant property?

    • Kevin Perk

      Michelle,

      You need to be consistent at all times. If you let a tattooed person in just because it is December you have violated your own written policies and will have a difficult time justifying your position in front of someone in authority.

      You are correct in stating that not everyone with tattoos is a bad risk. But it may be your experience that most are. If so, you need to ban them outright and not rent to anyone with tattoos in order to be consistent in my humble opinion.

      As Eric said, if you are having a hard time renting a property, lower the price but do not bend your rules. You will likely be sorry later on.

      Good luck and thanks for the good questions,

      Kevin

      • Can’t I then get sued for lowering the rent though, since it is an apartment complex and my Section 8 tenants’ leases state that I cannot charge higher rent to them than my other tenants?

        • Kevin Perk

          Michelle,

          Not real sure about the section 8 rules but I think you can adjust your rents based upon the conditions in the marketplace. We drop a price all the time if a property does not rent quickly, even in apartment buildings.

          But like I said, not sure about the Section 8 rules.

          Thanks for the questions,

          Kevin

  4. Put fast food workers on your radar too. I rented to a couple that both worked at Wendy’s (like Mc D’s). They stood in fryer oil all day that spilled on the floor. They hop in their car, come home and track it right in. The carpet went from new to near black in 6 months! The only good news is that it can be cleaned out, but still…..

  5. It is good to know that so much discrimination is going on.

    Makes my job easier as a property manager as I will be able to pick up all the “bad” tenets that everyone will pass up because they have a tattoo or work construction or are a lawyer.

    I will make sure that I post this article in my reception room so everyone can clearly see the myriad reasons why they were turned down for a rental.

    Breaks the first rule of business, never make it hard for a customer to put money in your hand.

    • While you may view taking on potential problem tenants as a win because it makes it easy for you to put a warm body in a unit and collect a commission, I view property managers with your outlook as the primary reason I self-manage.

      The second rule of business is that you get to choose who you do business with.

    • Kevin Perk

      Dave,

      I hear what you are saying. But I think it is best not to think of tenants as a customer. Yes, they are in one sense in that they are going to pay you money for a product. But in another sense you will be entrusting them with an asset worth tens of thousands of dollars. Thus I think it is better to think of tenants more like employees (h/t to Mike Butler on this analogy) than customers. You have to interview your tenants, just like employees, to find the best fit for you and your property. No you cannot discriminate based on the federally protected classes, but you can based on your knowledge and experience of what has worked and not worked for you in the past. Been sued by a lawyer over something frivolous? Had a motorcycle repair shop in your living room? Then you may not rent to lawyers or motorcycle owners. Or you might. Or you might take up the position you hold. That is the one of the beauties of real estate. There is no one right way to do it.

      Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion. I appreciate your comments,

      Kevin

    • Thanks Dave. I have tattoos and am a teacher. Due to a bout’ with cancer, I receive partial assistance, e.g., HCV aka Section 8, and Medicaid. I do not have the fanciest car or highest credit score, either. My clothes are not name brand. I do paralegal work, as a side business, to make ends meet. I am your average American.

      While screening tenants makes sense, stereotyping does not. Only the sub par or cheap owners would not rent to me, again. I took care of my home and returned it in decent condition. Yes, it is mine, while I’m a paying customer. If I’m treated like a “less than”, or an “employee”, I will eventually move, and make sure my experience is well noted, via social media. I have no reason to sue, unless the property is not kept up, or if I’m charged for your upgrading, or investment improvements, that have nothing to do with normal wear.

      I believe the criteria listed, for most, is a backhanded method, of avoiding people that will assert their rights and/or classism. If you’re a good owner and treat people like customers/people, instead of employees (this implies a master/slave mindset of renting), you should have few issues. My uncle used to rent properties in my old hometown (I didn’t live there ). He rented to many blue collar labor/type families, that lived in his properties for years. They often performed minor repairs and renovations. When they moved, he didn’t charge for re-rental business costs, that were HIS, e.g., carpet replacement, painting. He only charged for actual damage, which was rare. Often, if he pointed it out, the tenants would remedy this.

      You choose who you do business with. Your reputation as an owner/property management, determines who WANTS to do business with you. The richest/prettiest people on paper, aren’t a guarantee of success. My uncle always had people wanting to rent from him. Rarely did he have to advertise. He was a businessman and a professional. He was a human being first. Some of you might try it.

  6. I’d appreciate people’s thoughts on the following. What do I tell an applicant/potential applicant when I turn them down? You have a sloppy car, and we don’t accept tenants with sloppy cars, for example? Or you are dressed sloppily, and this means you may treat the property badly? I understand all these reasons and agree, but it must get tricky telling people this, or do you tell them at all? Thanks.

    • Kevin Perk

      JD,

      It does get tricky but you should be honest. Here is the thing though, if they are sloppy I can almost bet that there are other problems as well, such as credit or job issues, that will likely help in your decision.

      Thanks for reading and the comment,

      Kevin

    • JD,
      I call back all the ppl that took the time to fill out an application. If I don’t want to rent to them I simply call and let them know I had multiple applicants and I have decided to go with someone else. I thank them for checking out my place, let them know I enjoyed meeting them and I will keep their application if something else comes open, and wish them luck on their search. I’m very polite and professional and I have never had someone demand a specific reason beyond my normal explanation. Often they are thankful to have an answer/call back. Hope that helps.

  7. Hmm, I have had tattoos for years and never had an issue renting a place to live. Always paid my bills on time. I am glad my landlords didnt discriminate, I could have been homeless. I now am renting houses to other people with tattoos and the pay their bills too. Could it be geographical, or luck?

  8. I agree that WHAT the tattoo is matters (seen some really nice ones on co-workers in rock-n-roll, but tears on the face or “thank god I’m white” in gothic script on the neck? um, nope.)
    As far as “contractors, & handyman” types I’d say sort of depends on the person. One I had problems with (his estimation of his skill was extremely over-generous). Current tenant I am very, very sad to see leave -.he’s been great, & even fixed a yard hydrant that blew a leak in December for $15 labor. (Can’t really advertise “must work for family plumbing company” though, much as I’d like to..)

    • Kevin Perk

      djo,

      Thanks for the comment. Of course it always depends on the person. It is hard to make these blanket statements like “no handymen” of no tattoos.” Unfortunately, the law and courts in this country have said we need to be consistent in how we discriminate thus leading to blanket statements.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting,

      Kevin

  9. Ken Pemberton on

    I have to object to the blanket “no smokers” rule, and more so about the relationship to a better class of tenant! Wow. I’m a smoker. But I don’t smoke indoors, and don’t drop butts in the garden. So what’s the problem?

    I’m also a mature (approaching 50) well-paid, full-time-employed professional who pays his rent in full, on time, every time.

    Arbitrarily saying NO SMOKERS means I can never rent from you, and neither can the entire “class” of people like me. To paraphrase another commenter, you’ve made it too difficult for me to give you my money!

    • Kevin Perk

      Ken,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and write in.

      “I have to object to the blanket “no smokers” rule, and more so about the relationship to a better class of tenant! Wow. I’m a smoker. But I don’t smoke indoors, and don’t drop butts in the garden. So what’s the problem?”

      Most of your fellow smokers do not in my experience and the only thing I can go on is my experience. Since I have to be consistent, it is all or nothing.

      “I’m also a mature (approaching 50) well-paid, full-time-employed professional who pays his rent in full, on time, every time.

      Arbitrarily saying NO SMOKERS means I can never rent from you, and neither can the entire “class” of people like me. To paraphrase another commenter, you’ve made it too difficult for me to give you my money!”

      Yes, I know and I hear what you are saying. Sorry, it is the choice some of us have made for our properties just as you have made a choice to smoke. We all have to live with our choices.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment and add to the discussion. I do appreciate it.

      Kevin

  10. Frankie Woods on

    Reasons 3 and 5 are my favorite. Discriminating against lawyers is priceless! I never considered the aspect of them sueing more often. I figured that since they generally have a good income, they are good tenats…eyes opened! Sloppy tenets are also only recently a no-no for me. Before BP I would not consider this, but now, absolutely! Thank you for the great article.

  11. what about landlords who do NOTHING to the property? I have lived in this house almost 9 years and have put more work and money into this house because the landlord will do nothing to it. I hear landlords talking about tenants all the time but nothing about do nothing landlords.

  12. Here’s a group I won’t rent to. In Houston there are “gentlemen’s clubs” on every other street. I will not rent to someone who has a job as a pole dancer, aka stripper. Every one I’ve rented to had substance abuse issues, drama filled lives and inconsistent rent payments. Nothing wrong with doing that as a job, you just won’t rent one of my places if your job is dancing on a pole.

  13. I have to agree about the smoking point. I realize that there are responsible smokers that are out there, however, most of the smokers I’ve met think otherwise.

    The smell of smoke is one of the most difficult smells to remove from a home. The home has to be Kilzed, Painted, ozone machine used, and possibly the ducts cleaned and the carpets replaced. It simply isn’t worth the risk of renting to smokers. This is particularly true in a city where smoking is heavily frowned upon and the non-smokers are a larger majority than the smokers.

  14. I agree on avoiding several of these criteria. Key item here (as you said) is to always remain consistent in your screening. Even if you are discriminating against someone for a legal reason, if this discrimination is applied unevenly, a tenant may be able to successfully claim that the real reason for discrimination was some other unlawful criteria.

  15. Olga B.

    Kevin,

    I read many of your posts. and all of the comments in this section specially.

    I have a specific question: I am a Jew and an my husband is an immigrant. We are landlords. My house is in a very nice neighbourhood, most desirable zip code. rent is high $5000 – $6000 per month. We only once had a case of tenant paying late: but even she paid her rent. albeit after late fee.

    Some tenants could be racist though. Pay their bills, in full and on time but could give us a VERY hard time: Mostly we have rented to Christians, we have NEVER discriminated against anyone. Iam white, he is brown,.

    I do not know how to explain my problem.. we just have some very difficult time with 2 tenants… who made their stay almost painful.. in the most literal sense. i will save you the story… but in one of the criterion you said : after paying their rent in full and on time was – WONT GIVE YOU – THE LANDLORD IE – A HARD TIME

    In our past 13 years of experience as landlords we have found some professions to be painful… and some people are really really really extremely conservative and we are an inter-racial couple.. we just want to know: can we say – wont rent to lawyers, accountants { smokers are fine with us ] – but also to those who hate jews or hindus ? – CAN WE ? PLEASE DO ANSWER … I am desperately looking for that

    also: our house is in a neighbourhood that phenomenally desirable .. people are desperate to do anything and say anything to rent a house in that school district and that neighbourhood … all the rich and known people live in my neighbourhood.. so, they never SAY that they dislike this or that race.. but SOME can be pain.. pain in the butt.. its emotionally draining to have to deal with them..

    I mean can i say – sorry but you are too conservative for US ? can we ?… i mean they keep on reminding us – how this and that liberal is piece of shit.. or how this is america but israel or india?

    OR if what i asked is hard to answer – can i just say – I talk to TALK TO A PERSON ON PHONE AND SEE HOW I FEEL – before i decide whom to rent to? i mean i have choices.. many to rent to..

    can we do that?

    thanks
    Olga

  16. Jerome Kaidor

    I *always* talk to people on the phone before I rent to them. Long talks. I go through
    every line of their application with them, and make sure I’ve got all the names and numbers right. I discuss things at length like – “why did you leave this place”? “What’s
    that gap in your tenant history about?” The long initial phone call gives me a chance to
    get to know the person a bit, and make a gut prediction of what sort of tenant they would be. I have rejected more than one because they sounded unpleasant or aggressive over the phone.

    After that, I whip through the application and call every single phone number therein. I also generally look at their prior addresses with Google streets. If I’m happy with the phone calls, I do a credit check and an eviction check. OTOH, if I am rejecting on the basis of the phone calls, I call them, inform them, and give them back their background check fee. The credit check and eviction check often bring up new questions. New addresses that they didn’t disclose. Debts to bail bondsmen.

    I recently had a prospective who lived at a complex near mine. She gave me a name and number of the manager. I used google Streets to look at her complex, saw a “for rent” banner on it with a phone number. A different number. Called *that* number, and found that she was being evicted.

    Another lady gave me an address – Google Streets showed that it was a tropical fish store. Bunking with the Bettas?

    Anyway, you are within your rights to refuse anybody you want, for whatever reason, as long as you are not discriminating against a “protected class”. But for self protection,
    it’s wise to ALWAYS have a good business reason for refusing them. Because *everybody* belongs to some protected class or other.

    If I was renting $5K a month stuff in a desirable neighborhood, I would be *very* fussy, including verifiable tenant history and a queue of verifiable happy landlords. And a FICO
    of no less than say 720. And with a property like that, I would expect to have multiple applications, and could always say “sorry, somebody beat you out”.

  17. John Teachout

    As someone mentioned earlier, many “less than desirable” potential tenants will disqualify themselves in other ways so I don’t think putting messy car or tattoos as a criteria is wise. Rent score, credit score, minimum income, references, etc can all disqualify a tenant without getting too specific with lifestyle preferences. I will rent to someone that doesn’t fit my minimum criteria if I feel comfortable enough with them and that they deserve another chance. For example, I have tenants in a house now that had a horrible “rent score” but after talking with them and verifying the rest of their data, I collected additional deposit and they signed the lease. I’m pretty sure it will work out although they’ve only been there a few months.
    Finding the right tenants is beyond a doubt the most important aspect of making any money in this business.

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