The Best Free Background Check in MA: Eviction Court Records

A screenshot of the landing page of MassCourts.org

A step-by-step guide to checking eviction court records, the best free background check in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts landlords in need of a free background check are in luck. There are publicly available eviction court records at MassCourts.org. This step-by-step guide will walk you through how to check Massachusetts eviction records for free and find the best tenant.

Philosophy of Background Checks

You should screen each applicant for your apartment. This will maximize your chances of finding a long-term tenant.  The goal is to find someone who will pay all the rent and cost you nothing in repairs. Their ability to pay rent (read: income) will be the most important thing to check. But their background check will provide additional information that may be critical. The three components of a background check are credit, criminal, and housing history. In Massachusetts, credit and criminal screens are protected information. Landlords must pay for these. But as of June 2017, eviction court records are public and can be accessed by any landlord for free.

In MA, a typical price for credit and criminal combined might be $50. Suppose ten tenants apply for your apartment. Does this mean you will spend $500 on background checks? No! You should narrow the field by first performing all the free checks, like income verification and housing records. Only pay for the criminal and credit reports if all other factors, including income verification and eviction court records, seem to qualify.

Step-by-step Procedure

Here is the procedure for how to take advantage of this free background check.

1.) Visit MassCourts.org. Read any notices at the top of the page. Scroll down until you see “Click here” to search public records. You may have to enter some letters or numbers to prove that you are not a robot.

2.) In the search box, choose your court department. Over time we may see more choices as more court departments participate. At time of writing, the choices are Boston Municipal Court (BMC), District Court, Housing Court, Land Court, Probate and Family Court, and The Superior Court. Landlords want to focus on Housing Court and District Court. You will want to run the search at least twice: once for District court and once for Housing court. Massachusetts eviction records may be created in either.

3.) After choosing either Housing Court or District Court, choose the location. There are fewer Housing Courts than District Courts. Do a little research to determine which Housing Court would have heard the case. When in doubt, check all adjacent Housing Courts.

4.) Choose whether to search by name or company. You should search by name to screen a residential tenant. You can search by company if you want to search by landlord, if the landlord is a company, and if you are worried you have only the tenant’s nickname.

5.) Search all case types, all dates. This should be the default setting.

6.) Click search. The search results window will say how many results were found. Some results may not be shown if there are more matches than the cut-off (for instance, 100 cases). Important: if not all results are shown, you will need to narrow your search range. For instance, search once for cases before 2015 and once for cases after 2015. Pick whatever range produces fewer results than the cut-off.

7.) Click the blue link for the case number to read details. Usually the “plaintiff” is the landlord and the “defendant” is the tenant.

8.) Verify that the parties listed match the name on your application. Verify that the address listed is a past address on the application you received. The court records do not use driver’s license or social security numbers. There may be more than one person with the name for which you are searching. Both the name and the address should match.

9.) Read the “docket information” for clues about what happened. For instance, you might see “non-payment of rent.” That would mean that the plaintiff was a landlord evicting for non-payment. You might also see “Agreement for Judgment.” This means they went through mediation and settled. You won’t know what was agreed to unless you can get a copy of the agreement. You might see “Motion for dismissal” which means the plaintiff asked to cancel the case. You might also see “Judgment” with a dollar amount, which is how much the defendant (or sometimes the plaintiff, read carefully!) has to pay the opposing party.

10.) Note all relevant details of the case in your tenant qualifier.

11.) Click “back to search results” to see other cases. Don’t use your browser back button.

12.) Repeat your search for other relevant courts and variations on the name. Make a list of all the related cases.

13.) Investigate each case! Do not assume that just because someone was listed, they are a bad tenant. Sometimes people are sued for no good reason. Sometimes people must sue because their landlord is doing a bad job. You want to talk to the landlord and the prospective tenant to understand each side’s story.

How to Talk to Prior Landlords

You will want to learn more about any eviction cases you find by talking to the current or previous landlord. How do you find out the truth without falling for a con or false praise? The best advice on this subject comes from Leigh Robinson’s Landlording. Question everything everyone tells you. Even question the landlord’s phone number as listed by the tenant on their application. The tenant might have written the number of a friend pretending to be their landlord. Try to find the number of the owner or manager another way, by googling the address or by searching WhitePages.com.

Call the landlord and start by telling them that so-and-so listed them as a reference. Ask if they would be willing to answer a few questions. If you are leaving a voicemail, say nothing else except your number and some times when the landlord can call you back.

When you talk to the landlord, ask how they knew your prospective tenant. If they are really a landlord, they should say, “I was their landlord.” If they are a friend pretending to be a landlord, they will probably forget and say, “Oh, I’ve known them for years” or “We met in school.” You are hoping to talk to a real landlord who knows the tenants.

If you are talking to their current landlord, be careful! They may downplay the court case you saw in order to convince you to take the tenant out of their apartment. Then the current landlord will be free of their awful tenant, and you will be stuck with them! The most reliable information comes from the previous landlord. The previous landlord doesn’t care whether you take the tenant or not.

Try to verify when the tenant lived there, how much money they owed when they left, and whether the previous landlord deducted from the security deposit. Stick to objective facts so that no one gets in trouble for slander. Try not to ask questions that produce subjective answers, like whether the tenant listened to loud music or had any disruptive pets. What’s loud or disruptive to you may not be to someone else. If you do ask about behavior, ask simply whether the tenant was ever notified of a lease violation, and ask what the tenant did to correct it.

Pro Tips

Remember that this “free background check” actually requires a little effort on your part.

When searching court records for past evictions, make sure to be thorough. Run the check for each possible court. Search for as little of the name as possible so that results are broad and spelling errors can be spotted. For instance, if the tenant is “Tina Tenant” search for “T” instead of “Tina” and “Ten” instead of “Tenant”. Search for nicknames and the names of others who will inhabit the unit, as well. For instance, search for “Christina” (if she listed her name as Tina) and search for her roommate’s name.

If you want more detail than appears online, you may be able to read the actual case by going to a Housing Court with the case number. Talk to the court staff.

Do not turn away everyone who appears in the court records. If you do, the tenant advocates will find you, write about your unfair practices, and get the legislature to turn off MassCourts.org for everyone. Or else they will succeed in obfuscating the data so that it cannot be used for anything other than aggregate statistics. Don’t abuse the data.

Conclusion

Massachusetts is a tough state to be a landlord, but the free background check at MassCourts.org is a huge benefit provided by the Commonwealth. Check court records for past eviction and you will be better off than most landlords. Successful screening!

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