Top Questions Landlords Can’t Ask
Landlords have a bad enough reputation without asking illegal questions of potential tenants or homebuyers. But that doesn’t mean some of them won’t ask them anyway. That’s why it’s important to know your rights before renting or buying.
Your rights as a homebuyer or renter are all covered in The Fair Housing Act, (FHA). This 1968 Act protects people from discrimination when they are renting, buying, or securing financing for any housing. In mortgage lending, for instance, no one may take any of the following actions based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap (disability):
- Refuse to make a mortgage loan
- Refuse to provide information regarding loans
- Impose different terms or conditions on a loan, such as different interest rates, points, or fees
- Discriminate in appraising property
- Refuse to purchase a loan or
- Set different terms or conditions for purchasing a loan.
It’s up to you to know your rights when it comes to renting an apartment or house. Not everyone knows the laws or cares. FHA specifically covers discrimination because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children. Here are the top questions landlords ask, either knowingly or not, that are illegal. Here is a list of all the FHA prohibited actions.
1. Kid, have you ever been arrested?
It sounded funny when Arlo Guthrey asked in the pop song “Alice’s Restaurant,” but it’s not funny to stare down at it on a rental application, or in an interview. It’s a trick question and an illegal one. Lots of innocent people are arrested but never convicted — for whatever reason. Legally a landlord has a right to know if you have been convicted of a crime, but not arrested for one. If you’ve been arrested and haven’t gone to court yet, that’s still none of their business. Landlords are not entitled to arrest records. Just say “no.”
2. Do you have kids?
Even if they sound like they’re just making conversation, or you have little ones in tow when you put in your application, landlords have no right to ask about kids. They can’t ask how many you have, where they go to school, how old they are if you plan to have more. You can initiate a conversation about things like schools in the area, whether the property is near a bus line, or if there are local daycare centers around, but the landlord cannot. Be aware that they’ll be listening, however. Most landlords equate kids with noise, messes, and destruction. They may get around not asking about children by putting a place on the application for your children’s names. You don’t have to fill that out. If they tell you that you do, a simple call to the local Fair Housing Act.
3. Are you Section 8 or on welfare?
Landlords cannot discriminate based on the kind of income you have, although they can ask for proof of income.
4. Do you have any disabilities?
Every apartment must be accessible to every tenant. If the unit you want is not accessible, the landlord must make it so. There are units and apartments that are “grandfathered in,” but the law is explicit about providing access to any unit, regardless of the type of disability. You are not required by law to report your disability, but you may choose to do so to ensure you get the unit you want.
5. Are you gay, transsexual, straight or bi-sexual?
Asking about your sexual preferences is illegal. One, it’s rude, but two, there’s actually a law against it.
6. So you’re a Baptist, Muslim, Jew?
This may be an opportunity for the landlord to invite you to their local house of worship, but that’s not likely. Asking a potential tenant anything about their religion, or lack of it is a direct violation of the Fair Housing Act.
7. What race are you?
Commenting on your looks, skin color, or facial features, even to pay an honest compliment, is illegal. Comments like, “With those high cheekbones and dark eyes, you look Native American or Greek.” It may sound like flattery, but it’s illegal. You can report any landlord who asks for discrimination.
8. How old are you?
Unless the rental property is giving senior citizen discounts on rent, or is a senior retirement community or nursing home, asking about your age is inappropriate and illegal. There will often be a place on the rental form for your age, but don’t fill it out. It’s not legal for them to ask and is often a way they discriminate against certain age groups, typically college students and the elderly.
9. What to do if you feel you’ve been discriminated against.
If you think you’ve been discriminated against by a landlord, who has asked one or more of these questions your next step is to file a complaint with the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. (FHEO). You can find the full process on the HUD website.
The only housing exempt from the act is owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker, and housing operated by organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members. Get the facts before you buy or rent so you’ll recognize when you’re being discriminated against.
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