According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, a trade association for the apartment industry, an average of only eight out of 10 tenants pay their rent on time. During the first two months of the COVID pandemic in the United States, that number dropped to seven out of 10.
Savvy landlords can play defense by using a good tenant screening service to check the applicant’s credit, income, rental, and eviction histories, as well as their criminal background. Having access to this type of private data, however, comes with rules and regulations governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).
We reviewed 18 tenant screening services based on price, the breadth of their services, speed, and whether they are compliant with the FCRA. From this research, we chose the best seven to help you protect your investment.
The 7 Best Tenant Screening Services of 2020
Best Overall: First Advantage
First Advantage wins best overall because of its broad scope of services, a robust library of white papers and datasheets, and their human review process to minimize the risk of false positives.
No pricing online; must call for quote
So many services and divisions that it can be confusing navigating the website
Website boasts customer service open seven days but it was not when tested
Founded in 2003, First Advantage has grown to become one of the largest screening services in the world. The company has 26 locations in 14 countries. The company powers 71 million background screens annually to 18 million applicants. It’s considered one of the most competent companies in the screening industry. AM Best has given its parent company First American Financial Corporation an A (Excellent) rating.
Landlords call or email First Advantage’s sales department to discuss criteria needs and quantity of screens to get a price quote. A unique package is crafted that draws on the scope of First Advantage’s services, plus the supplemental offerings from the company’s partner ecosystem. For example, with Credit Passport from Nova Credit, you can get credit insight for foreign national tenant applicants who have not yet established credit history in the U.S.
First Advantage provides rental, landlord, and utility debt history, in addition to criminal background checks across every state. Their FCRA-compliant services extend into identity fraud as well. Since many evictions are not reported to credit agencies, First Advantage maintains its own database updated with initial filings, possessions, judgments, timely payments, and lease disputes. As a result, most information landlords need is available within a few minutes. Another factor that earned First Advantage top marks was the fact that you can learn why these criteria are important in their online library, full of webinar video recordings, white papers, blog posts, datasheets, and trend reports.
Landlords can choose from any or all three of the credit reporting agencies when screening a potential tenant. First Advantage also offers a streamlined service for landlords that allows them to store forms online. As a result, everything from initial screening to tenant payment performance, to filings, to collections can all be captured in the forms database.
For customer service, landlords and applicants can call or email for guidance or file a dispute. First Advantage also has an FAQ page with answers and links to speed solutions.
Best for Realtors: SmartMove
Some landlords have their realtors not only market the property but also conduct the screening. SmartMove is the best tool for realtors with this responsibility because they can choose to have the applicant pay for the screening, and they can manage multiple properties from one account.
No membership needed to request a report
Manage multiple properties from a single account
Charge the applicant for the screen if you wish
Performed by TransUnion
Federal, state, and local laws may prohibit SmartMove from reporting on some criminal records
Criminal results not available for Delaware, Washington D.C., Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, South Dakota, and Wyoming
Founded in 2008, TransUnion's SmartMove brought big customer power to small business realtors trying to conduct criminal reports economically and quickly. In 2018, TransUnion was named one of Forbes’ Best Regarded Companies.
SmartMove offers three plans: SmartCheck Basic for $25, SmartCheck Plus for $38, and SmartCheck Premium for $40 per screening. For Basic, you receive a credit-based resident score and a national criminal background check. The Plus plan adds a full credit report and a national eviction report. With Premium, your SmartMove gives you their Income Insights report, which lets the realtor know if the applicant needs further income verification. And for the benefit of the applicant, the Income Insight report accounts for non-work income such as child support or alimony.
There are no setup fees, no minimums, no monthly service charges, and no hidden fees. There’s also no wait to find out if your account is approved. Within minutes of registering, you can be running your first applicant screen. In each tenant screen, you can choose to charge the cost to the applicant or to your company. It rises above other services because it is a system designed for delegation; a landlord can delegate the screening responsibility to their realtor. The pricing is transparent and the realtor can screen for multiple properties within their single account.
Customer service is available via phone or email or through an online form.
Best for Multiple Properties: RentPrep
Fidelis Screening Solutions’ RentPrep is the best option for landlords with multiple properties because they offer a discounted bulk volume price.
More than FCRA-compliant, they hire, train, and employ FCRA-certified screeners
Substantial discount for owners of 50 or more properties
Not a software company, but instead highly trained screeners; better accuracy
Associated with TransUnion’s SmartMove Reporting
Phone, chat, and email customer support
Cannot provide reports instantly
No option to charge the applicant directly for the Basic, Pro, and Platinum reports
Credit check does not include the credit score of the applicant; reported as pass or fail
Where other screening companies boast about the size of their databases and the speed of their reports, RentPrep believes that many of the sources these reports pull from are inaccurate and therefore the usefulness of their speedy reports is questionable. RentPrep has built a company that invests in the screening skills of its people so that they can perform manual screening supported by technology.
Two plan options for screening tenants are RentPrep Background Check for $18.95 and SmartMove Full Credit Report for $38.00. The lower-priced plan does not require involvement from the applicant. It verifies Social Security numbers, address history, evictions, bankruptcies, judgments, and liens. For a $4 upcharge, you can add a nationwide criminal and sex offender search. For $9.95 you can order a credit decision report.
Suited for bulk background checks, the Standard plan at $9.95 checks for Social Security number, date of birth, aliases, addresses, and evictions. The Advanced bulk plan reports on all of that plus a nationwide criminal search, the U.S. National Sex Offender Registry, and the Global Homeland Security Database, for $14.95 per applicant. A credit decision report would still need to be added for that information. For landlords with multiple properties, we found RentPrep to be the most aggressive with their volume discounting.
RentPrep reports are supplied in about an hour during normal business hours. SmartMove reports are available within minutes, but that clock doesn’t start ticking until the applicant verifies their identity.
The company uses phone, chat, and email options for customer support and for tenants to initiate a dispute.
Best Value: E-Renter
While E-Renter does not have the lowest price entry point, it is close to the lowest, and the Basic plan’s content is extensive including criminal records and sex offender searches, bankruptcies, liens, and judgments.
Blog content is old
No option to charge the applicant directly
Credit check does not include the full credit report for the landlord services
E-Renter was founded in 2003 by two rental property owners who wanted to create a better way for landlords to screen tenants. The company has a reputation for good customer service, with consumers generally reaching an FCRA-certified representative by phone within a minute.
The Basic plan costs $19.95. In this package, the report will verify the applicant’s Social Security number and will do an Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and Patriot Act search. Even at the introductory level, the report also includes evictions, judgments, criminal, sex offender, liens, lawsuits, and bankruptcies. E-Renter earned the best value here because there were no hidden fees, and at $19.95 they were the lowest price for a large bundle of searches done in the entry-level tier.
E-Renter’s more comprehensive plans are also less expensive than their competitors’. For $29.95 the Premium plan includes everything in the Basic plan plus a FICO score and credit check (though you don’t receive the full credit report).
Their Ultimate plan, at $34.95, adds an advanced background check that includes Rent Check Advisor, which is a report that indicates whether you should accept checks from the applicant, as well as validation of the applicant’s name, identity, and addresses. Finally, the Ultimate plan also does a Social Security number name match and a check against the Social Security Death Index. Note that the Premium and Ultimate plans charge the applicant $1.99 for the credit check.
Their reports are generated online in minutes by scouring various databases across the country. There is no signup fee, no monthly fee, and no minimum orders. Customer Service is available via online form, email, or phone, Monday through Saturday.
Most Comprehensive: VeriFirst
VeriFirst earned our vote for being the most comprehensive service because it offers instant reports, integrated complementary services like debt collection and property management systems, simultaneous screening of guarantor and co-applicant, and access to custom acceptance and denial letters.
More than FCRA-compliant, employees are FCRA-certified
Extensive, free, and up-to-date learning library
Integrates with property management systems
Seamless transfer to online debt collection system
No online pricing
Cannot charge the applicant directly
Must call to identify which services are basic and which are premium
No sample reports published to view
Launched in 2004, VeriFirst is accredited by the Professional Background Screening Association with a staff of FCRA-certified screeners to minimize false-positive screenings.
The company does not publish its pricing. Instead, you complete a form indicating what services you are interested in, and they will reply with a quote. They do not have minimum orders or monthly charges.
VeriFirst earned high marks for their comprehensiveness because their reports are robust, their technology is fast, their employees verify the data, and last but not least, their online learning library is the best we found.
Services available within your custom-quoted report include national criminal and sex offender database searches, plus county criminal, statewide criminal, and federal district court searches. You can also request credit history reports, eviction records, and driver's license records. VeriFirst can also verify employment and education, drug testing, and I-9 (an employment eligibility verification that checks citizenship status).
Reports are available instantly except for the local county court records. Those take up to three days because there is some manual extraction involved.
To file a claim, or to obtain other customer service help, VeriFirst provides an online form, an email address, and a phone number on its website.
Best Criminal Background Search: BetterNOI
BetterNOI understands the importance of an accurate criminal background check to a landlord, and how to dig for records that do not show up in the online databases on which other companies rely.
Instant national database searches
Fee-based state and county searches
County researchers dispatched to court houses across the country
U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control and Fair Housing compliance
No pricing online; must call for quote
No resource library or blog designed to educate the landlord
No sample reports to review
Founded in 2001, BetterNOI does not publish pricing on its websites. You can request a demo to see the program, discuss your needs with a customer service professional, and then receive your custom quote.
Reports provide detailed credit reporting such as address history, debts, collections, open loan accounts, and third-party inquiries. Criminal background reporting includes nationwide searches as well as staff-confirmed research efforts at county courthouses to capture information that is not reported to the standard databases. Detailed court reports show eviction cases and BetterNOI packages the information to be easily digested. Enter the criteria important to you, and BetterNOI will tell you if the applicant passes your acceptance guidelines. The detailed steps they take in researching criminal records were a level above their competitors, and therefore we gave them the best criminal background search award.
Rounding out their background checks, BetterNOI checks for Social Security number fraud and verifies employment and income history.
BetterNOI adheres to FCRA, OFAC, and Fair Housing compliance. Some information is available instantly, such as basic credit checks and national criminal checks, but the research that requires manual investigation can take a day or more.
Applicants can file a claim or make an inquiry through an online form, phone call, or mail.
Best Predictive Model: RealPage
RealPage has put more emphasis on prediction by expanding its scope of research. Artificial Intelligence (AI) plays a big role in RealPage’s model to go beyond just income and credit to determine if an applicant will have trouble paying their rent.
E-books, articles, videos, and an online learning system that uses gamification
The industry’s first and only AI-enabled predictive model
The industry’s only database of actual rent payment history
Reports within seconds on most factors
No pricing online; must call for quote
Does not use some traditional metrics such as rent-to-income ratio, which could be confusing for a landlord to adjust to
Founded in 1998, RealPage has become an innovator in the industry with its predictive algorithm. Not only does it predict the ability to pay but also the applicant’s willingness to pay. RealPage took 20 years of data on 30 million leases then uploaded this data into its AI platform and ran an algorithm that found tenants that moved in and out without owing the property any money. What they found were tenant characteristics that were better predictors of good tenant behavior.
As a result, RealPage is able to screen for willingness to pay, identity verification, rental history, and criminal history. The process takes seconds and can be completed within the time an applicant is touring the property. By using artificial intelligence to help inform a tenant’s willingness to pay, RealPage created the most predictive model. Interestingly they found that high-income earners were not automatically the most reliable rent payers.
Since you must call to speak to a representative to discuss your goals and criteria, there are no pre-packaged plans to view online. Quotes are customized for each client.
Many times when an applicant is denied, a human staff member will verify the disqualifying issues before they send out a denial message. An applicant can call to initiate a dispute. If the landlord uses some of RealPage’s complimentary tenant management services, such as their renter portal, utility management, automated payments, and renter insurance, there are additional ways for the tenant to communicate and file a dispute.
What Are Tenant Screening Services?
Allowing an unqualified renter to move into your property can potentially result in expensive losses due to damage, failed payments, legal actions, and frequent turnover costs. Tenant screening is a process to verify an applicant’s financial and criminal background to try to predict if they are likely to be a tenant that doesn’t eat up your rental profits. The process ranges from completely digital, scouring online database records and feeding that research into a report for the landlord, to a mix of digital and human research efforts.
What Does a Tenant Screening Report Mean?
A screening report gives a landlord some insight into how the applicant will perform as a tenant based on their history. For example, a landlord can see if the applicant has a history of late rental payments and whether the applicant was ever evicted, and in many cases for what cause. They can also check to see if the prospective tenant makes enough money to comfortably meet their rent payment every month. In some reports, the landlord can see if the applicant has a lot of personal loans or student debt, for example, to see whether they earn enough to cover all of their debts and expenses.
How Long Does an Eviction Stay on a Tenant Screening Report?
To comply with the rules of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), evictions should not be on a tenant screening report after seven years. If an applicant finds out that their eviction older than seven years still appeared on their newly run report, they have the right to file a dispute.
Landlords want to know about the applicant’s eviction history because it may be a predictor of future behavior. It’s an opportunity for the landlord to look into the reasons why the eviction happened by reviewing the judgment, asking the applicant, or calling the evicting landlord to get the full story.
How Much Is a Tenant Screening Service?
Basic plans for tenant screening services cost between $16 to $20 per applicant screened. You can negotiate a bulk pricing discount with some companies and get that price cut in almost half. At the basic level, you’ll typically get a credit, address, and employment history, and a Social Security number verification. Criminal and sex offender research is usually added as an itemized upcharge, or they are bundled into the next higher-priced plan tier.
On the higher end, the premium plans cost around $40 per applicant screen. The third pricing model that many screening companies use is the custom quote process. In these cases the landlord or realtor speaks with a customer service agent to discuss the criteria they want to screen, and how many tenants they want to screen per month, to negotiate a price. Even the companies that do not publish their pricing online are still in the same range as the published pricing plans.
How We Chose the Best Tenant Screening Services
We reviewed 18 tenant screening companies before choosing our top seven recommendations.
The main factors we considered in our evaluation were FCRA compliance and staff training, company history and reputation, accreditations, pricing plans, what the plans included, and whether there were hidden fees. We considered how fast the screening is done balanced with whether the company solely relies on database algorithms or whether it supplemented technology with human research verification.
Every firm we recommended is compliant with the FCRA regulations. Laws change over the years, so an FCRA-compliant screening company stays abreast of the changes and supports the landlord with a properly worded denial letter that they can give to their applicant.
Companies that embraced technology for speed and efficiency, but also verified with human research efforts, also scored best in our review. Credit databases often contain mistakes, such as closed loan accounts showing that there is still a debt owed. Some have old information that can’t be considered any longer, such as bankruptcies older than seven years. There are criminal and other legal judgments, especially in county court records, that never make it to the national crime databases. Therefore, companies that made it to our shortlist did not solely rest on database algorithms.
National Multifamily Housing Council. "Rent Payment Tracker." Accessed June 28, 2020.
Businesswire. "AM Best Comments on Credit Ratings of First American Financial Corporation and Its Title Insurance Subsidiaries Following Alleged Data Security Incident." Accessed June 28, 2020.
TransUnion. "Newsroom: Forbes Names TransUnion to Best Regarded Companies of 2018 List." Accessed June 28, 2020.