Sometimes it does hurt to ask: the tricky world of screening tenants

January 9, 2019

Bringing a new tenant on board is always a risky venture. The more you know about them, the more sure you can be that they'll pay their rent on time. However, getting the information you need can be tricky if you don't know the rules
welcoming a new tenant


The Rules

The rules surrounding what is and isn't allowed in Saskatchewan are governed by both the Residential Tenancies Act and the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. The rules are broadly similar in other provinces.

The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code prohibits discriminating against potential renters on the basis of their religion, creed, marital status, family status, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age, colour, ancestry, nationality, place of origin, race, gender identity or being in receipt of public assistance. This means that any questions you ask and any advertising you do must not be able to be construed as discriminatory. The reason this gets tricky is that some questions, which seem quite innocent to ask, actually violate the rules. For example, "Do you have any kids?" seems, on the face of it, to be an innocent, natural question to ask in a conversation. But, during a tenant interview this can be seen as discriminating on the basis of family status, and therefore, against the law.

When it comes to questions about finance, the waters are just as murky. For example, you can't ask if the person HAS a job (may be discriminatory based on being in receipt of public assistance) but you can ask for references from employers and you can ask what their income is.

Clearly we are skating on some thin, unpredictable ice here. However, there are ways to get the information you need without breaking the rules. You just need to be a bit more clever with your questions and read between the lines.
skating on thin ice


Getting the information you need, without breaking the rules.

Here are a few questions you are not allowed to ask, along with some alternative questions that fall within the rules. Please note that this is not to be construed as a way to get around the prohibitions against discrimination. That kind of practice is, rightfully, shunned. However, in order to protect your investment, the more you know about your potential renters, the better.

The following questions would be considered discriminatory because they ask about your tenants family status:

  1. Are you married, single, divorced? 
  2. Do you have or are you planning on having kids?
  3. Will your family or boyfriend/girlfriend be visiting?
  4. Are you planning on getting married.

The relationships between the people living in the home is none of your business and can't be used to screen tenants. However, it IS your right to know who will be living in the house, so it is perfectly permissible to ask:

  1. How many people will be living in the home and what are their names?

From a financial perspective, as mentioned above, it is not permissible to ask:

  1. Do you have a job?
  2. Do you have a disability?

However, you do have a right to the reasonable expectation that you will be paid your rent on time, so you can ask:

  1. Where do you work?
  2. What is your income.?
  3. Can I do a credit check?

None of the following questions are allowed (for obvious reasons, in my opinion)

  1. Where were you born?
  2. Anything to do with religion (Do you go to church? What faith are you?)
  3. Anything to do with politics.
  4. Anything to do with sexual orientation.
  5. Anything to do with ethnic background.
  6. How old are you?
  7. Are you a Canadian citizen?

Besides having nothing to do with your tenants suitability, asking any of those questions could leave you open to a human rights complaint. There are a couple of questions, however, that can be revealing about the kind of renter the person is likely to be. You are allowed to ask about their last rental situation:

  1. Why did you leave your last place?
  2. Can I get a reference from your last landlord?

Talking to their past landlords is probably one of the best ways to find out if the applicant will be a good tenant or a pain in the butt.

The best question to ask (and it's follow up)

the talker
People love to talk about themselves. The more you can get them to open up, the more you will know about them. This is where you discover your tenants character, and character, perhaps more than any other factor, will determine the quality of your tenant.

The best question to ask your potential tenant isn't really a question at all, just say:

Tell me about yourself.

And then follow-up with:

Hmm. Tell me more.

The more open-ended you keep your questions, the more you will learn. Sometimes more than you want to know (too much information anybody?). In any case, the answers you get from these kinds of questions can tell you a lot about the character of the person across from you. When they get on a roll, people reveal all kinds of things about themselves, both good, and bad. If you are choosing between equally qualified tenants, character is your best indicator of which way to go.

Landlords Beware!

Human rights complaints don't just happen because a landlord asked the wrong question. Every word, comment, gesture and joke you make is a potential problem.

Watch your words: This probably doesn't need to be said but don't use homophobic, racist, sexist or other derogatory slang.

Watch your comments: Stay away from derogatory comments about any group or individual. Even if you get in to a "complaint trading" session about the world keep your comments at pleasant and upbeat. If you are like me, once you get going on a "rant" discretion gives way to bluntness and being blunt can get you in trouble.

Watch your jokes: Remember, your prospective tenant doesn't know you very well. What seems like an innocent joke to you might be deeply offensive to them if they don't realize you are joking (maybe even if they realize you are joking). Save the jokes for your friends. The more business-like you keep the interview, the safer you will be.

Remember, the best way to stay away from human rights complaints is to be respectful, business-like and culturally sensitive. Use a checklist of questions to avoid problem areas. If you are the kind of person who is easily worked up or can't seem keep comments (even funny comments) to themselves, it might be best to get someone else to do your screening for you.
two people talking