Application and background checks

What is an Apartment Background Check?

Rob Whiting
Boom Team

So, you get your application ready, and you head on over to meet your potential new landlord. Once you get there, however, you find that there is one last hurdle that you need to get past: the apartment background check.

Now, apartment background checks are standard, and most landlords will have them for every interested renter. But what exactly does an apartment background check entail, and how can you prepare for one?

Let’s find out!

What Is Included in an Apartment Background Check?

While apartment background checks can vary from one landlord to another, there are parts that are standard, such as:

Rental History

This is arguably the most important part of your tenant screening. Your potential landlord will ask for references from your past landlords to find out if you have a good standing as a tenant. You will need to include all your past addresses as well as contact information for your past landlords.

Typically, this will include your rent payment history, as well as any issues you might have had with neighbors. Your rental history will also include any complaints against you, such as if you’ve ever been evicted.

If you’re a first-time renter, you obviously won’t have a rental history. This won’t necessarily disqualify your application from being approved. Instead, the landlord will rely on other parts of your background check.

Employment History

Your employment history can be a powerful factor in getting your application approved. Landlords will ask for employment history for two reasons. First, they want to make sure that you can afford the rent. Typically, this is calculated based on gross rent and may vary from state to state. In New York, you will need to earn an annual income that is 40x the gross rent, while in Massachusetts, it’s 3x gross rent as your monthly income salary.

Landlords can also ask to verify your current employment location. They’re more likely to rent to someone who is working close to the unit because it increases the chances of getting a longer lease. However, if you’re moving because of a new job, this can also be to your advantage. You can ask for a letter from your employer stating that you’re a new hire and that you need an apartment in the area.

Credit History

Typically, landlords will look for a credit score of at least 600 to prove that you have a good credit history. They will also look at your financial patterns, such as whether you have a history of paying bills on time.

If you have a bad credit score, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be rejected. However, this will mean that you will need to provide extra assurance to your landlord. You may be asked to find a guarantor or pay for a bigger deposit upfront to secure the apartment.

Criminal History

A criminal history takes into account all your legal and civil issues, not just convictions. This means that if you have any pending cases or cases that were dismissed, those will also turn up. Take note that pending cases and non-convictions stay on your record for up to seven years, while convictions are permanent unless the cases are sealed or expunged.

If you have any issues that can cause concern in your criminal history, it’s best to be upfront with the landlord during your application. It will give you a chance to explain and show that you are an honest person.

Reference Verification

Aside from calling your past landlords and employers, an apartment background check can also contact your past roommate or character references. Make sure that you provide updated and reachable contact information for your references. If they are hard to reach, it can cause your application to be rejected. Take note that reference verification isn’t always part of tenant screening, but it always helps to have positive references ready in case you need them.

How Far Back Does a Background Check Go?

According to TransUnion, the credit report will go back around seven to ten years. As mentioned above, your criminal history will depend on what is included, so it can range anywhere from seven years to your whole lifetime. For employment verification, most landlords will also for your current employer, or your previous employer if you are in between jobs.

How Much Does a Background Check Cost?

Typically, background checks fees will range from $20 to $50. However, some landlords might charge more if they need additional information from you. Take note that in some states, there is a cap on the amount that a landlord can charge. Be sure to check your local laws to avoid getting saddled with exorbitant fees.

A background check fee is non-refundable. You will not get your money back if you are rejected.

What are my Rights During a Background Check?

Even if you have any issues that come up during your tenant screening that can be grounds to be rejected, you are still protected by renter laws. The landlord must provide you with a notice stating clear reasons why your application is rejected, and they must give you a copy of your background report.

If you have been rejected because you have a criminal record, the landlord must prove that they have acted in a way that is “substantial, legitimate, and nondiscriminatory”. They should prove that the type, severity, and recency of the offense would be enough to put other tenants at risk.

While this can be difficult to prove, you can file a complaint with HUD if you feel that your rights were violated and that you were unfairly discriminated against on the basis of your background check.


Do all apartment applications go through background checks?

Generally, yes. Most landlords will conduct a background check, whether they are a private owner or part of an apartment complex. However, it can be easier to pass a background check with a private owner since they can decide when to bend the rules. Background checks are more stringent when it comes to apartment complexes.

Are there any questions that I can refuse to answer?

Yes, if the landlord asks you questions that are explicitly forbidden under the Fair Housing Act. Questions pertaining to your national origin, race, religious affiliation, disability, or sexual orientation should not be part of your background check. If you encounter these questions during a background check, you can also file a complaint with HUD.

Final Thoughts

A background check can be annoying, but they are necessary if you want to be approved as a renter. Before you apply, make sure that your affairs are in order as much as possible so that you don’t run into any snags. You should also anticipate any problems that might come up during the background check to make the process as smooth as possible.

Ready to take the next step to better credit?