How to Easily Compare Types of Tenant Screening Services

In the multifamily housing industry, there are sizable differences between traditional and consumer-initiated tenant screening services. While consumer-initiated screening hasn’t been available within the industry for long, it’s caught like wildfire amongst independent rental owners (IROs) and real estate agents. Whether you’re looking for a new tenant screening service or are curious if the newest screening technology is a better solution, we’ve got all the answers on what makes these two tenant screening processes so different.

Traditional vs. Consumer-Initiated Tenant Screening

Traditional Tenant Screening

When it comes to tenant screening, most big players in the multifamily housing industry use a traditional screening setup. Property management companies, apartment associations, and public housing authorities depend on traditional tenant screening (as opposed to consumer-initiated screening) because it can handle the sheer volume of reports needed,  allows multiple users to access the reports, and can typically integrate into their pre-existing property management software. The biggest benefit to a traditional tenant screening account is having direct access to request an applicant’s credit and background check 24/7 (with most online providers), but the complication is the three major credit bureaus have additional requirements.

While traditional screening requires a physical inspection to verify the permissible purpose of requesting a consumer’s credit report (as in accordance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act), these procedures are the cornerstone to a long-lasting relationship with your tenant screening company, who will continue to provide guidance to your rental properties on how to lease legally. Plus, those who choose the traditional route can typically leverage the number of units they own/manage to negotiate discount pricing for high volume portfolios!

Consumer-Initiated Tenant Screening

Consumer-initiated screening is used the most by independent rental owners (small-size landlords) and real estate agents who specialize in rental housing because it offers a low liability screening solution, completely online. As the newest background check solution for rental housing, the consumer-initiated screening process is a little different from the traditional screening process. Rental applicants are required to verify their identity with a credit bureau, approve access to their tenant screening report and then share it with their verified landlord or realtor. Because the applicant consents to releasing their credit, eviction, and/or criminal information to their landlord/realtor, a physical inspection to verify permissible purpose is not required for new accounts.

While consumer-initiated tenant screening does not reap the benefit of discounted bulk reporting like traditional screening recipients do, they can get free or add-on leasing tools (like online rental payments and rental applications) they may have not had access to before, and may also save money through lower setup costs and by deferring the purchase of reports to applicants.

Traditional Screening

  • Often allows multiple users to be added to the tenant screening account
  • Uses a custom-built website and platform hosted by the tenant screening service
  • May integrate with property management software providers
  • Physical inspection of office space required
  • Contract-based accounts
  • Generates a “hard inquiry” which will impact the applicant’s credit score

Perfect for:

  • Property management companies
  • Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs)
  • Apartment associations
  • Public housing authorities
  • Companies with frequent rental vacancies who need immediate results

Cost: 

$7.50 – 40 per report*

Consumer-Initiated Screening

  • Each user verifies their identity and creates their own account
  • The entire process can be completed online
  • Integration with property management software providers might be more limited.
  • Identity verification required online
  • Typically does not require a contract beyond standard Terms and Conditions.
  • Tenant credit checks are a “soft inquiry” and will not impact an applicant’s credit score

Perfect for:

  • Independent rental owners (landlords) with about 10 units or fewer
  • Real estate agents who specialize in rentals
  • Real estate brokerages who want a low liability option to recommend for agents

Cost: 

$15 – 40 per report**

*Report package cost can sometimes be negotiated
**Some screening companies directly charge the rental applicant for the cost of the report, meaning there is no cost for the landlord or real estate agent to use their service

Legal Requirements: Physical Inspections vs. Identity Verification

Physical Inspections

Whether your tenant background check includes an eviction or criminal history scan, accessing your applicant’s credit information (which is included in most basic tenant screening packages with traditional background screeners) requires a physical inspection. Site inspections are required by the credit bureaus to ensure you’re a legitimate business that would use credit reports for tenant screening purposes (or another permissible purpose). On top of making sure your business has permissible purpose, inspectors look for things like lockable filing cabinets, accessible methods to destroy outdated documents (like a cross-cut shredder), and other security standards in place to make sure your tenants’ and applicants’ personal information doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.

While this might seem like a big hassle, if you know you (or others besides yourself) are going to be storing and processing a lot of tenant screening reports and renter information, this authorization method can help you and your team from getting in legal trouble with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Identity Verifications

Consumer-initiated tenant screening solutions allow potential renters to verify their identity, run a background check on themselves, and then share their report with a verified landlord or realtor… but how does one get “verified”? While verification might vary from business to business, most services partner with one of the 3 major credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion – to verify a consumer’s identity. This can include:

  1. Verifying your identity with the credit bureau through your social security number*
    *this can be optional for some platforms
  2. Answering security questions acquired directly from your consumer profile that only you should know the answers to. Eg) Knowing which financial company provided your auto loan.
  3. Establishing a unique identifier (alternative to SSN) that can prove your identity.

Because the rental applicant is giving consent to share their credit, criminal and/or eviction information with you, landlords, agents, and companies who choose this screening method won’t have to complete a site inspection.

The Ins and Outs of Background Screening Integrations

When it comes to property management software integrations, traditional tenant screening services have consumer-initiated platforms beat – for now. Not all tenant screening services have the option to integrate, and many have a specific list of software providers that they can work with. Specialty integrations can occur if one, or both, companies are willing to develop the programming required when a potential client of either company submits a request.

While consumer-initiated screening doesn’t have the same variety of software integrations as traditional screening does, the demand is growing and it’s likely we’ll see a rise in integration availability from the more popular consumer-initiated tenant screening companies.

Let's Talk Price: Which Tenant Screening Service is Right for your Budget?

Now for the nitty gritty, price. As with most services, how much the tenant screening report costs depends on multiple factors: (1) what you want in your reports and what additional features or tools you want, (2) the type of tenant screening you choose, and (3) the size of your rental portfolio.

Depending on how you answer each of these categories, traditional tenant screening can range from around a low of $7.50 (with no price negotiations) to upwards of $40 per report. Consumer-initiated tenant screening ranges from $15 to $40, however, some screening companies directly charge the rental applicant for the report, so you don’t have to incur the expense.

1. What you want in your Reports

Not all tenant screening was created equal. First and foremost, you’ll need to look out for red flags for data inaccuracy. Tenant screening can be a big investment, and it’s vital that the credit and background reports you depend on are as accurate as possible to ensure you’re getting the right tenants.

When you’re looking at what report packages to choose from, make a list of all the things you, your company, your owners, or landlord clients want their rental applicants to be screened for. At its very core, your reports should include a credit score (FICO or VantageScore) and credit report from one of the major credit bureaus, but beyond that, reports can include:

  • National criminal history scan
  • National eviction history scan
  • Sex offender registry scan
  • Fraud search
  • More!

On top of the report itself, screening companies can offer additional tools to help streamline your leasing process, like online rental applications, online rent payments and tenant decision models. Decide on what your rental applicants should be screened for and what additional features or tools are on your wish list before you go shopping around.

2. The Type of Screening your Choose

After everything we’ve gone over about the differences between traditional and consumer-initiated tenant screening, it’s time to choose which one is the best for your rental properties!

If you chose a traditional tenant screening service, then you’ll want to keep property management integrations in mind and narrow down what additional features (that your management software doesn’t already provide) you might want. You’ll also need to factor in the cost of the on-site inspection, training, and/or set up fees.

If you chose a consumer-initiated tenant screening service, you’ll want to make sure you have a secure internet connection available to you. You’ll also want to look deeper into what type of features and tools are either included or available as an add-on.

Quick Tip!

Avoid consumer-initiated tenant screening companies that charge a flat membership fee on top of the report cost! Most services should only charge you (or your rental applicants) for the cost of the report.

3. The Size of your Rental Portfolio

With your report type and screening type chosen, it all boils down to how many units you have in your rental portfolio.

Those with mid to large portfolios looking into traditional screening might be able to negotiate on the final package price based on how many units they have.

Independent rental owners or real estate agents who are going the consumer-initiated route should look at how often they have vacancies to measure how much to budget towards tenant screening. If you’re going this route, there’s also the option of using a screening company that directly charges the tenant for the report (meaning no cost to you).

Whether you prefer traditional or consumer-initiated tenant screening, you’ll need to be mindful of the purpose of screening. Tenant screening enables you to find the perfect tenants for your rental properties while mitigating legal liabilities. In order to get the best bang for your buck, you must ensure all of the tenant screening reports you or your team handle are compliant with the FCRA. Regardless of what tenant screening solution you choose, it’s your responsibility to lease legally!

Which Tenant Screening Service would Choose?

Let us know in the comments!

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Becky Bower is the Content Strategist here at the CIC Blog. She holds a degree in English, with a focus in creative writing, from CSU Channel Islands. Her biggest weakness is cake and favorite superhero is Batman.

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