When Can a Landlord Refuse to Rent to Someone? [11 Common Scenarios]

Figuring out when a landlord can refuse to rent to someone is a big issue for landlord and tenants alike.

If you’re a tenant, a landlord refusing your application can put you in a bind, especially if your options are limited.

On the flip side, if you are a landlord, you are definitely going to run across people you do not feel comfortable renting to and may not know when you are legally permitted to reject them.

In this article, I am going to answer the question of when a landlord can refuse to rent to someone and provide 11 common scenarios where this is possible. I will also cover when it is not and discuss the legal landscape around this question.

Like with all my article, I will incorporate helpful tips along the way to help you navigate this issue.

If you have don’t have the time to read through it all, here’s a short answer to the question:

Landlords must abide by fair housing laws when making rental decisions. These laws essentially prohibit discrimination against people in protected classes. As a general matter, a landlord may reject a tenant without violating fair housing laws for the following reasons: poor credit or rental history, insufficient income, high debt, relevant criminal background, false applications, pets, smoking, and poor references.

Ok, we’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get into it!

The information contained in this post is for informational purposes only.  It is not legal advice.  You should seek the advice of a qualified legal professional before making any decisions relating to the topics covered by this article.

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Fair Housing Laws and General Principles to Follow

The Fair Housing Act is the sweeping federal law that prohibits housing discrimination.

It prohibits discrimination in housing (which includes renting of property) because of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National Origin
  • Religion
  • Sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation)
  • Familial Status
  • Disability

So, obviously, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a potential tenant on any of these grounds. That includes not just refusing to rent to someone, but it also cover other discriminatory behavior, such as charging more rent, telling them that housing is unavailable, refusing to negotiate for housing, listing any preferences in their advertisements that are discriminatory, and so on.

If you want a good summary of the Fair Housing Act’s requirements, check out this short overview issued by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Practice Tip: Even if you have no intent to discriminate, you may inadvertently do this by not applying your qualification criteria consistently across all applicants. So be rigorous and fair in your screening process and don’t make exceptions for people due to a sob story when you did not for others.

Now it’s important to note that the Fair Housing Act is not the only law out there that may apply. There are other federal laws that have more limited application, such the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, as well as state and local housing laws. To gain a full understanding of what is at play in your situation, you will need to analyze the applicable laws carefully (or hire a lawyer to help you navigate them).

If you prefer to have a lawyer assist you, I would try JustAnswer. They boast access to thousands of highly-rated, verified real estate lawyers whom you can connect with via their unlimited chat service.

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Ok, now that we’ve got the introductory stuff out of the way, let’s turn to the most common reasons that a landlord may reject a tenant.

1. Poor Credit History

If a potential tenant has a poor credit score or credit history, a landlord generally has the right to refuse to rent to them.

This is because a bad credit score could indicate that the person is unreliable when it comes to paying bills or fulfilling rental obligations. It’s a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for rejecting an applicant and is one of the most common causes of tenant rejection.

2. Insufficient Income

A landlord can also refuse to rent to someone if they don’t make enough money to cover the rental payments.

Different landlords have different income requirements, but I use a 3 times multiplier to determine my cutoff. In other words, the tenant must make at least 3 times the monthly rental payment in a month. So if the rent is $1,000 a month, they must make at least $3,000 per month or $36,000 per year.

Landlords should apply whatever income requirements they have for the property uniformly across all applicants for the reasons I stated above.

I would also note that some states have specific rules around discriminating based on the source of income. For example, in Virginia, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to someone just because the source of their income is governmental assistance. Source.

3. Poor Rental History

Another common reason why a landlord may reject a tenant is due to their poor rental history. In most cases, this type of rejection is acceptable, although there may be some jurisdictions that limit this ability.

What is a poor rental history? Common examples include eviction, lawsuits against the tenant for nonpayment or damage to the property, and other indications from prior tenancies that the applicant is not a responsible tenant.

This is usually uncovered by landlords conducting standard background checks on the potential renter through sites like zillow.com or mysmartove.com. I use the latter and it seems pretty comprehensive and accurate.

Now, as I mentioned, some state and local governments may ban discrimination based on poor rental history. For example, Philadelphia prohibits landlords from including in their screening requirements certain types of evictions (ones that are more than 4 years old, did not result in judgment for the landlord, etc.). Source.

So it makes sense to double check your state and local laws to ensure you are following applicable requirements.

4. Criminal Background

This one is a bit tricky. While it is possible to reject a prospective renter due to their criminal background, it needs to be done on a case by case basis.

That’s because HUD has issued rules around blanket rejections for anyone who has a criminal record. Instead, landlords should ensure that their policy does not have a disparate impact on a protected class, and must show that the applicant may pose a danger to other residents or property. Source.

As with other areas, it also makes sense to check if your state and local rules have anything further to say on this matter because many expressly deal with this issue.

5. High Debt

If a tenant has a large amount of debt, this could impact their ability to make rental payments. As a general matter, this type of financial reason is legitimate cause to reject a tenant applicant.

However, as with other financial related criteria, if a landlord is going to reject tenants on this basis, they should have an objective formula or method to determine which levels of debt are acceptable and which are not and apply it consistently for all applicants.

6. Number of Occupants Exceeds Legal Limits

If the tenant is going to have too many people living in the rental, that could be grounds for rejection.

What is too many? Depends on state and local requirements around occupancy, so if you suspect that your tenants may be approaching that limit, you should research whether they can occupy the space.

Now I want to highlight that landlords should not use this as a way to discriminate against tenants with families or children. That’s against the law and protected under the Fair Housing Act.

7. Refusal to Verify Identity

If a tenant refuses to provide reasonable identification, a landlord may refuse to rent to them. This is just common sense. After all, a landlord cannot conduct their due diligence if they don’t know for certain who they are renting to.

8. False Information on Applications

Sometimes tenants lie to secure a property. If a landlord discovers this, they are allowed to reject an application on that basis.

If this weren’t the case, you would be creating a moral hazard, where tenants are encouraged to lie and may do so without consequence.

If you want to learn how to spot some of the deceptions that tenants often use to secure a rental, check out my full article on the topic here.

9. Pets

Many landlords have a no pets policy. This is common and permitted. So if a tenant would be violating this policy, landlords may reject that tenant’s application.

However, if an applicant has a support dog or emotional support animal, the rules are different. To learn more about this, check out my article below.

Article on Support Dogs

Article on Emotional Support Animals

10. Smoking

Many landlords also have a no smoking policy. Because smokers are not a protected class under the law, this type of policy is legal and landlord may reject a tenant who is a smoker.

11. Poor References

Landlords often require tenants to give references as part of their rental application. Usually these are job and prior landlord references. If a landlord gets negative feedback from these references during the course of conducting their due diligence, they may reject a tenant’s application on that basis.


So there you have it – 11 reasons why a landlord may reject someone for their rental property. Hope this has been helpful and happy landlording.

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