If there's one thing that even the most experienced landlords dread, it's having to evict a tenant. The process is not complicated exactly, but it does involve a lot of paperwork and time-consuming steps. The best defense is an offense, as the saying goes, so it's a good idea to screen potential tenants for any patterns of behavior that could make them an eviction risk. To do that, you need to check their eviction histories in the court records.
What Information Do You Need?
Before you start searching, think about the information you'll need to run an efficient search. Ideally, you should obtain the applicant's full name, address, previous addresses and any previous names – for example, a maiden name if the applicant is married. You can ask for this information on the tenancy application form.
Do You Need the Tenant's Permission?
The answer is not as clear-cut as you might expect. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a landlord must give the applicant a "clear and conspicuous" form, specifying which background checks will be run, such as criminal history and credit checks, and ask for the tenant's signature. If you're basing the rental decision on the results of an eviction check, then you must get the tenant's permission first.
That said, evictions are public records. Anyone can search the court records to find out if someone has been evicted in the past or whether an eviction lawsuit is ongoing. You don't need permission to check these records as an interested citizen, so it's possible to snoop around a roommate's history if you wish.
If you are a would-be tenant and you're thinking about making a rental application, then obviously you can search your own record. Evictions stay on a background check for seven years, so it's worth checking whether a past mistake is still sitting on your record, haunting you, or whether it has dropped off your credit report.
Check the Court Records
The easiest way to find out if a rental applicant has a history of evictions is to check the court records. You can always do this by visiting the courthouse in the county where the applicant lives and searching the records using the person's name and other details. Some courts have digital records, which you can search online. The search should pull up a list of eviction actions as well as other dealings that the applicant has had with the court.
If an eviction case shows up in the listing, click on it or ask the court clerk for details. The file will tell you whether an eviction order was granted or whether the case was dismissed. A judge might throw an eviction action out if, for example, the previous landlord filed a frivolous lawsuit. Or perhaps the tenant was justified in withholding rent at his old place because the landlord didn't make any repairs.
Searching the court records is usually free. You'll pay a small per-page fee if you want to make copies of the file.
Bring in the Experts
The problem with searching court records is that every district has its own courthouse. There's no central database listing every eviction or lawsuit someone has ever faced. If the applicant has moved around a lot, you'd have to check with every court in every place the applicant has ever lived to get an accurate picture. This can be quite the task!
Here, the best option is to use a tenant screening service. Online search companies like My Rental and Rent Prep offer national eviction searches for a fee. Plans start around $20, but you'll get a lot more than an eviction report for the money – most plans include credit reporting, employment verification and criminal history checks as standard. Many eviction cases end up being dismissed if the tenant pays the money owed, so a full screen is the best way to find out if your applicant is as clean as the record suggests.
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