Any Chicago apartment landlord who's been around the block knows that every successful Chicago apartment tenancy begins with tenant screening and a tenant credit check. But due to changes in Cook County law, all Chicago landlords were revisiting their tenant screening procedures in 2020, when a new Cook County anti-discrimination law called the Just Housing Ordinance went into effect.
Here are a few great resources that make checking a potential tenant’s credit and criminal background quick and easy. And we’ll explain the laws about tenant screening that landlords need to know and what information landlords should gather in a rental application form.
Is a tenant screening service the same as a tenant background check?
The best way to think of a tenant background check is a snapshot of a renter’s history with previous apartment rentals. If a renter is serious about signing a lease for an apartment, a landlord should get serious about checking their references. Landlords should ask for at least two previous landlords (not roommates, not significant others) in the tenant's rental application form and follow up with them. Aside from the obvious questions about eviction and damages in the tenant’s history, landlords might want to inquire about neighbors' complaints, the apartment's cleanliness, and any other potential red flags in their apartment rental history.
What Chicago/IL/USA tenant screening laws do I need to know?
In April of 2019, the Cook County Board of Commissioners voted to pass the Just Housing Ordinance (JHO), with the ordinance scheduled to take effect on December 31, 2019. The ordinance requires all landlords in Cook County to assess a potential tenant's qualifications before looking at their criminal history. In other words, Chicago landlords can not ask an applicant about their criminal history until the landlord gives a provisional ‘OK’ to the tenant. The JHO prohibits landlords from denying housing based on arrests, juvenile records, and sealed and expunged records. Suppose a criminal background check shows that an applicant has a criminal conviction. In that case, the landlord must disclose the source of information to the applicant so that they can dispute its accuracy. Landlords must also perform an individualized assessment of the tenant's criminal history before denying housing.
In addition to concerns about criminal history, most landlords review a tenant's credit history. Federal law mandates that all three major credit bureaus—TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax—require landlords to undergo a rigorous on-site inspection by a licensed third-party inspector before receiving an applicant's full credit check report. Inspectors check to ensure that reports are stored in a locked file cabinet, that there is a shredder on-site, and that the landlord’s home office is separate from the living area. Inspections can take several days to schedule and incur an additional cost to the landlord. Additionally, many part-time landlords may not pass such an inspection. For these reasons, the recommended services here on Domu do not require an on-site inspection. Because the applicant initiates the tenant screening process, an on-site inspection is not necessary to use the services below, making them ideal for smaller landlords who screen tenants only a few times each year.
What are the best questions to ask potential tenants?
All Chicago apartment landlords should not accept any rental application, irrespective of the credit report results until they've examined a bona fide form of photo identification tying the prospective tenant to the name on the report. That has been known to happen occasionally, so landlords are doing themselves a favor when they’re vigilant in their own “pre-screening” process. Careful landlords should check the birthdate on a credit report to the birthdate on a driver's license to ensure that children who bear the same name as their parents do not attempt to finagle their way into a lease by substituting parents' pristine credit for their own.
What is a tenant background credit check?
Landlords can think of a tenant credit check as a report card on a tenant’s finances. A credit check will return a numerical score that indicates the overall financial stability of a potential tenant or their total credit. This will help landlords answer a number of questions.
What information will a tenant credit check provide?
A tenant background check provides a wide array of helpful information to landlords. For example, does the applicant have outstanding debt or other financial obligations? Do they have large balances on credit cards? Do they have any liens are taken out against them or their property? These answers could significantly affect a tenant’s ability to pay the rent in full and on time.
Can I choose a tenant based on their credit?
Landlords should determine an acceptable range of credit to move forward with a tenant’s application. Many of the recommended services here provide more guidance on what a healthy credit score looks like. Landlords should apply the same credit history requirements to all tenants -- remember that in Chicago and Cook County, landlords cannot discriminate based on a tenant's source of income. Landlords ought to be familiar with fair housing laws and can read more about how they work here.
What are the main problems with tenant screening services?
Tenant screening services like the ones we review here are beneficial for several reasons, and the chief among those is that they’re really quick. Landlords in a hurry might appreciate a fast, cost-effective tenant screening process, but some drawbacks come with the speediness of some screening services. Namely, the reliability of aggregated data. What does that mean? Think of a Google search for a common name like John Smith. The results will number in the millions, if not billions, and how might someone reliably narrow down the results to the *one* John Smith that they wanted to check? These screening companies are pulling data from several public databases. There is an increased likelihood that landlords will see results for a completely different person in their tenant screening report with a common surname.
Another problem with tenant screening reports comes in the form of customer service. Tenant screenings are generally viewed as speedy and quick transactions that follow the typical script of 1) landlord provides email address to screening company, 2) applicant receives email from the company and pays the screening fee, 3) credit report comes back to the landlord, and then the ball is in the landlord’s court. The decision to move forward with an applicant is squarely on them, and they (hopefully) hold enough information to make an informed, unbiased decision. Suppose the decision is ultimately, “No, I’m not going to move forward with this tenant’s application,” and the reason is because of something that showed up in the credit report. In that case, the landlord must inform the tenant that the credit check was the issue. The Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires landlords to provide an adverse action letter to tenants to inform them that something in the credit report was concerning and the name and contact information for that credit agency, too, so that the tenant can request a copy.
What are some recommended tenant screening services?
Here are some tenant screening services that have worked for both large- and small-scale landlords who list their apartments on Domu.
How it works: Before creating an account, landlords are asked a short series of questions to verify their identity. The landlord then receives a unique URL that links to the property’s rental application. The landlord directs potential tenants to this link, enabling them to complete the application and submit payment online. The landlord is notified by email when applications are completed and may view the renter’s credit, criminal, and eviction reports within minutes. Results include the applicant's full credit report, including a credit score.
What we like: Registration is fast, and the site allows landlords to customize their rental applications, adding and removing questions as needed. To protect the renter's privacy, reports show only the last four digits of the applicant's social security number.
Cost: The rent Application is free for landlords. The applicant pays fees upon submission of the application. Landlords can specify which reports they’d like processed. Pricing is below.
- Credit report $19.95
- A criminal background report, eviction history, employment verification, and landlord verification are available for an additional $10 each.
The general information that Domu provides about Chicago landlord-tenant law is not intended as legal advice. Domu endeavors to provide accurate information, but the law is subject to change, and Domu is not a law firm or provider of legal services. Questions about your particular leasing situation should be directed to a lawyer.