Tenant screening basics

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

When you are looking for an apartment, landlords must follow the law when they decide whether to accept or reject you as a tenant. This is called screening. Although landlords screen tenants in different ways, in general they want to know if you will:

  • Pay the rent on time,
  • Keep an apartment in good condition, and
  • Be a good neighbor.

If you apply for public or subsidized housing, the law allows certain types of tenant screening. The rules are different depending on the program. Knowing how screening works for different programs helps you apply to programs, prepare your application, and protect yourself.

Where do landlords get information about me?

Credit reports

Landlords use credit reports to predict if you can and will pay the rent. Credit reports show how you borrow and repay money. They also show how much debt you have.

Before you look for a place, get a copy of your credit report. You can get 1 free copy once a year by filling out the Annual Credit Report Request Form.  

To get this form:

Tenant screening reports

Landlords can buy tenant screening reports from private companies. These reports can include eviction history, court cases, former addresses, social security number verification, and criminal record searches.

Criminal record information

Landlords should not automatically exclude any person with a criminal conviction record. When screening, landlords should consider each individual applicant and the nature and severity of any conviction.  

The Massachusetts Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI for short) is the most common type of criminal background check. Before any landlord, property manager, or real estate agent can reject your application based on your CORI, they must notify you.  

What if you are denied?

If you are applying to public or subsidized housing, the CORI rules are different than in market rate housing. If you are denied, you can challenge the denial. 

Court information 

Massachusetts trial courts make information about court cases available to the public on the internet. This information may include mistakes. It also may not tell the whole story.  

For example

Last year, you had trouble paying rent at your current apartment. Your landlord filed a case in court to evict you. After this case was filed, you and your landlord came to an agreement. You followed this agreement, and your landlord did not continue the court case. The court information will show that your former landlord filed a case in court to evict you. It will not show that you came to an agreement with the landlord and that you followed the agreement.

Currently, there is no process to seal an eviction. If you have been involved in a housing case in court, make sure there are no errors online. Look up your case on the court's website. If you find an error, use the Error Correction Form (Booklet 11).

Rental and eviction history

Landlords may ask you for references from your current and former landlords. If you are worried that a former landlord may unfairly give you a bad reference, ask your former landlord for a simple reference letter that says you paid the rent on time.

If you have no rental history, try to use other sources of information that show your ability to pay rent on time and keep an apartment in good condition. For example, a car loan, insurance payments, and letters of reference from clergy or employers may help.

What can I do if my application was denied?

If a landlord or property manager denies your application for an apartment, you can:

  • Ask them why. A landlord can deny your rental application for a number of reasons. But landlords cannot apply screening criteria in a discriminatory manner. For example, it is illegal for a landlord to ask you about your race, religion, age, sexual preference, or whether you are pregnant. For more information about other types of discrimination see Housing Discrimination
  • Correct the information. If they have information from a tenant screening report, court record, or criminal record (CORI) that doesn’t tell the whole story or is wrong, you may be able to correct the information and show the landlord that your circumstances have changed.  
  • Challenge the denial if you believe they denied your application based on an illegal reason. The process differs based on whether you live in private housing or in public or subsidized housing. 

Private housing

If your application was denied, ask the landlord or building manager if they used a screening report. If a landlord denies you housing based on the report, they must give you a written notice telling you the name of the tenant screening agency that provided the report and how to contact that agency. Once you get a copy of the report, you can see if there is any misleading or incorrect information.

Public or subsidized housing 

Every denial letter must tell you the reason for denial.

If you want to challenge a denial of your application, you must request a hearing in writing by the deadline noted in your denial letter.

Survivors of domestic violence 

In Massachusetts, a landlord cannot reject your application for housing if you had to end your lease early or change your locks at a previous apartment because of domestic violence. This applies to all landlords and all rental housing. 

Can my landlord make me pay for my screening?

No. Landlords cannot make you pay for your screening report, credit check, criminal background check, or any other form of screening. See Background Checking Fees.

This is an overview article. For more information, see Legal Tactics, Chapter 2: Tenant Screening.


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