International Tenant Screening: A Landlord's Guide

Housing is a human need – so why limit your tenant pool to the United States? Most landlords do this simply because they don’t know how to screen someone without a social security number (SSN), though many live in internationally popular cities like Washington, D.C., and Miami. This article outlines what you need to know to screen international tenants, including what to evaluate when you can’t pull a background check.

Before Screening Tenants Without SSNs

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In this context, that means you need to hone your tenant screening process before opening the applicant floodgates. Don’t risk making avoidable fair housing mistakes that can cost up to \$16,000 for your first offense – no matter how good your intentions are. If your first reaction is to say that you’ll sidestep any trouble by denying applications from international leads, grab your wallet. Such a move would violate the Fair Housing Act.

That’s why you need to:

  1. Learn about the Fair Housing Act. Under this law, landlords cannot discriminate against tenants based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. This means that you cannot refuse to rent to an international tenant simply because they are not a U.S. citizen.
  2. Gather the same information from all applicants, regardless of their country of origin. Get the same information from international leads as you would request from any other applicant, such as their name, address, phone number, employment history, income, and references.
  3. Consider cultural differences. When interacting with people from different backgrounds, it’s critical to be mindful of cultural differences. There are varying standards for what constitutes a good credit score and a criminal background. Also, the Fair Housing Act protects non-English speakers against discrimination.

    “Having a limited ability to speak English should never be a reason to be denied a home,” said Gustavo Velasquez, assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at HUD. “Every family that calls this nation home has the same rights when it comes to renting or buying a home, regardless of where they come from or language they speak.”

  4. Brush up on U.S. laws and customs. International leads will likely have questions about your rental property, the process of renting it, and U.S. laws and customs. You don’t have to become a lawyer, but being able to answer their questions clearly will go a long way.

Screening International Tenants: What to Evaluate

Just because someone doesn’t have a social security number doesn’t mean you can’t make sure they’ll be a good fit for your rental unit. To learn more about any prospective tenant without an SSN, we recommend that you require:

  • A copy of their passport and visa (as applicable). These documents will verify the lead’s identity.
  • A letter of reference from their previous landlord. Validate their rental history and assess their track record as a tenant with a note from their last landlord.
  • A letter from the lead’s employer verifying their income. Feel more confident about your prospective tenant’s ability to pay rent with this document.
  • Two months of pay stubs. If your lead is employed in the U.S., they should be able to provide this information.
  • A credit reference letter. This letter should detail a financial relationship the lead had with an individual or business to illustrate their trustworthiness and ability to make payments on time. Asset documentation or a letter of financier support would suffice!
  • A monthly billing statement. Something like a phone bill or utility statement can reveal the lead’s ability to make on-time payments.

Accepting or Denying International Leads

Regardless of where your lead was born, they’re entitled to protections under the Fair Housing Act – including protection against being denied housing simply because they weren’t born in the United States. That said, you’re well within your rights to have specific tenant screening criteria that leads must meet to qualify for your rental unit.

Typically, tenants must meet specific income requirements, provide documentation to prove their ability to make payments on time, and interact cordially with those involved in the screening process. If an international lead doesn’t meet one or more of your screening requirements, you can deny their application just as you would any other prospective tenant.

Pro Tip:

If you run a credit report to evaluate a potential tenant and deny them, you must let them know that they have the right to request a copy of their file for free by contacting the consumer reporting agency that pulled the report. Screening tenants with social security numbers through TurboTenants means we send this message on your behalf. 

It’s best to let the applicant know that they will not be moving forward in the process with a kind but vague message. For example, you could say, “Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, we’ve decided not to move forward with your application.”

Good luck with your international tenant screening!

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