An In-Depth DIY Guide to Third-Party Massachusetts Background Checks

background checksActing as a landlord, you can get access to all three sources of tenant background checks.
Checking the background of your prospective tenants in Massachusetts is business-critical. Our housing court study shows that the average eviction takes longer than a month, and the worst case can be over a year. You cannot afford to take a bad tenant!

Fortunately, background checking a tenant in Massachusetts is overall no more difficult than in any other state. This article covers the three primary elements of background checks provided by third parties. You also need to screen income, landlord references, and other factors, but those are best done yourself. In this article, we’re focusing only on third party aggregators: eviction, credit, and criminal. Acting as a landlord, you can get access to all these aggregators.

This is an in-depth article. The order below is the order you should use. Start with the information that’s free. If the eviction search is acceptable, then pay for credit and/or criminal. If an earlier check disqualifies the tenant, then save yourself time and money and don’t perform later checks.

Background Check Step One: MassCourts.org Eviction Search ($0)

Landlords in Massachusetts used to keep private records of evictions. But in early 2013 this public data was moved online to MassCourts.org. Now everyone can view whether a landlord or a tenant has been in court.

Using the site takes patience. You must fill out a “captcha” picture puzzle and then click “Click here” to search public records. Once inside, you need to search each court for each jurisdiction where a prospective tenant once lived.

For example, suppose your application from Tina Tenant states that she lived in Lexington for one year and Northbridge for two years. You need to search for her name in Concord District Court (which serves Lexington), Uxbridge District Court (which serves Northbridge), and Worcester Housing Court (which also serves Northbridge). These are the three courts in which she may have been evicted. Lexington does not have a housing court, or else there would be four courts.

Note that none of the courts are named for where she lived. Complicated, right? Google the city name and both “district court” and “housing court” to learn which district and housing court, if any, had jurisdiction over your tenant.

When you get to where it asks for the tenant’s name, you need to enter as little of each name as possible. Try three letters. Some people have difficult last names. There may be a typo in the official records. Just because her last name is “Tenant” doesn’t mean she wasn’t entered as “Tennant” with a double “n”. Searching for “Ten” helps you avoid this. Also check nicknames and full names. The tenant may go by “Tina Tenant” but actually her legal name in the court records may be “Christina Tenant”.

If you find a name match, remember that more than one person may be named “Tina Tenant”. You need to match the address in the court with the address stated on her application. If the address in the court records doesn’t match the residence history, you’ve probably found another “Tina Tenant” in the records.

One final thing to remember is that court records are vague. It is not automatically the case that a tenant who appears in court was being bad. Nor is it the case that a judgment entered for the landlord means the tenant still owes that money.  Always talk to both parties to get each side of the story and an update.

For example, court records never indicate that Tina Tenant was wrongfully discriminated against, or that the apartment was full of mice and the landlord didn’t exterminate. Nor do they indicate whether she ever paid back what she owed. You never know.

Do not abuse the court records! Tenant advocates are desperate to shut off this critical source of information or to obscure tenant names. They think we landlords automatically disqualify anyone whose name shows up in court. Do not prove them right! Otherwise they will change the law, and all we will learn from MassCourts is that a tenant named “Jane Doe” is apparently evicted 100 times a day. Decide each case individually, rather than setting a blanket policy, and we can protect this valuable source of background check data.

Background Check Step Two: Credit Check (~$25)

A credit score is a commercial estimate of someone’s likelihood to default on a loan. When you sign a 12-month lease with a tenant, it’s like loaning them an apartment that they’re paying off in installments. Their credit score can be a clue about their ability to pay off this apartment.

Not all credit checks are created equal. The best ones produce a real number that ranges from 300 to 850, like a real FICO score. The best sites also give real account details. (“Accounts” are sometimes called “trades.”)

The worst sites produce estimates or “red/yellow/green” indicators only. Do not pay for these sites!

You want credit data that shows each credit card and loan, and whether the tenant is paying as agreed, late by 30 days, or late by more.

Remember that life disasters can wreck the credit score of otherwise solid tenants. Medical bankruptcy and divorce are just two common ways someone can have bad credit. These events might be forgiven. Unpaid minor credit cards may easily be forgotten and could also have an outsized impact on credit. You may wish to forgive these if the person otherwise has their act together.

To see a comparison of credit screening services, check out our article, Which Tenant Screening Service is Best.

If you reject someone principally because of credit, federal law requires that your rejection letter have specific wording on it. This is called an “adverse action letter”. The letter gives the tenant legal notice of how they can correct errors on their report. It also protects you the landlord by telling the tenant that you didn’t make up the credit score. In a way, it says, “don’t shoot the messenger!”

Background Check Step Three: Criminal Check ($25)

Massachusetts criminal background check data is stored in the “Criminal Offender Record Information” or CORI, a service provided by the Commonwealth. Besides CORI, there is only one other way to get criminal data, and that is to read every newspaper in the Commonwealth every day and make your own database. Note that such efforts are inherently error-prone and less complete than CORI.

Many tenant background check companies claim to check eviction, credit, and criminal all for one fee. Always read the fine print! The Massachusetts CORI law changed in 2012, and at least a few major providers no longer provide criminal for Massachusetts. Or if they do, either 1.) they provide criminal records before 2012, or 2.) they provide less data post-2012 than you could get on your own as a registered landlord.

Since 2012, credit reporting agencies can only obtain what is called “open access” to CORI for $50. This means misdemeanors in the last year, felonies in the last two years, felonies punishable by five years of jail in the last ten years, murder, manslaughter, and sex offense.

Landlords who register directly with iCORI get access to a much wider range of information for only $25, including pending charges, misdemeanors in the last five years, felonies in the last ten years, murder, manslaughter, and sex offense. The “pending charges” piece is valuable, since housing changes may reasonably coincide with other tumultuous life events. In other words, they may have left their last home after being arrested, and trial will be happening soon.

If you want to check the record of Tina Tenant, you must get her to sign a specific CORI Authorization Form. It is not adequate to sign a standard release on a rental application.
Sex offense is one subset of criminal behavior that can be viewed for free, outside of CORI. Sites like Family Watchdog provide this information for free, as a “public service”. Remember that not all sex offenses are created equal. Some are very serious, others may be forgivable depending on your policy.

Note that recent HUD guidelinesAnchor require landlords to consider criminal records on a case-by-case basis. You cannot, for instance, deny everyone with a criminal conviction without regard to when it was, which crime was committed, or whether the person’s debt to society has been repaid.

Background Check Conclusion

Background checks are one piece of the tenant screening puzzle, alongside pay stubs, residence histories, and rental applications. But they are an important piece, and there are straightforward ways to get eviction, credit, and criminal data. Happy background checking!

Have a background checking tip or trick? Email comment@masslandlords.net.

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