Which Tenant Screening Service is Best?

Last updated August 19, 2016. There are many factors that go into a successful tenant screening.  One piece of the puzzle is a screening service that shows you credit risk and criminal history.  So which tenant screening service is best?

(Note: This article was first published July 2014. Since then we have affiliated with SmartScreen, which is one of the few services that we actually recommend. They now pay us a small commission. Our intent is to stop taking these commissions the moment they no longer become the best provider. Please use the comments and info@masslandlords.net to suggest corrections or new providers.)

Tenant Screening Service Qualifications

We believe that a screening service should offer the following:

  • Competitive price
  • Actual credit report information
  • A trusted credit score
  • Criminal history in relevant states

In Massachusetts, we specifically don’t care about sex offender searches or eviction history.  Why? Because these are freely available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Check for registered sex offenders in Massachusetts.

Check for evictions in Massachusetts.

Which credit scores are trusted scores?

To our knowledge, the gold standard is a FICO score (Fair Isaac Corporation). These are the scores that lenders use to determine whether you can get a loan. FICO scores range from 300 to 850.

Not all credit scores are FICO scores, the same way that not all tissues are Kleenex. It’s just the way we sometimes talk. What’s misleading is that Transunion, Experian, and Equifax sell credit data to landlords that looks like a FICO score but is not.

MassLandlords tested this in October 2015 by asking Transunion to confirm that they were reselling FICO scores. They said they were not. In fact, they showed us that a person who scores 742 on FICO scores 801 on TransUnion. They told us that their landlord product was scored on a range from 0 to 1000. That’s very different! You have to know which score you’re getting before you use it to make a decision.

Experian’s VantageScore has a range of 350 to 800, just like FICO, but don’t let that fool you! None of the “big three” releases an exact FICO score. That seems to be available only to financial institutions.

Why is it hard to find a good Screening Service?

Federal law requires that consumer information be protected from prying eyes.  You’re a consumer, too, so you also benefit from these safeguards.

The safeguards are codified in the Fair Credit Reporting Act.  Landlords are allowed to view credit reports only under Section 604(a)3F-1, because they are a person with a “legitimate business need … in connection with a business transaction that is initiated by the consumer.”

Section 607(e)2A requires that resellers of consumer information, like screening companies, take reasonable measures to ensure that only legitimate landlords see tenant reports, and only for legitimate screening.

This has resulted in many screening companies utilizing an “on site inspection.”  A contractor working for the screening company will visit your home and verify that you have a locked filing cabinet, a password-protected computer, and a shredder.

The law doesn’t call for these things, so we aren’t sure whether they’re a regulation or just a corporate “cya” practice.  Regardless, the on-site inspections are a reality for many screening companies.

We wanted to find a screening company that would work for small-time landlords who want to avoid an on-site inspection. This means, non-FICO. The best reports are therefore the ones that give real details, so that you can draw your own conclusion without getting stuck on a single questionable number.

Review of Tenant Screening Services

We spoke with or researched the following agencies:

The results are shown in the table below.  Please note that this data was first published July 21, 2014 and was last updated on August 19, 2016. The prices may need to be updated again by the time you read this.

Click columns to sort.

Tenant Screening Service Comparison

 Base Price / yrPrice / rptFull Report?Type of ScorePrice Includes non-MA Criminal?Immediate Access (no inspection)?
CBAN$90$11.50YesUnknownNoNo
NTN$60Question markYesTransUnion, Experian or EquifaxNoNo
ClearScreening$30$15YesTransUnionNoNo
SmartScreen$0$30 (members save)YesTransUnionYesYes
Equifax$0$10NoEquifaxNoYes
Transunion MySmartMove$0$35YesTransUnionYesYes
Experian$0$15YesExperianNoYes
Tenant Alert$0$25YesExperian or TransUnionNo($35, yes)Yes
MyRental.com Premium$0$30YesGenericNoYes
Cozy$0$0 (but tenant pays $25)YesExperianNo(Tenant pays $40, yes)Yes
Zumper$0$0 (tenant pays $30 unless you contact zumper)YesExperianYesYes
Screening Services.com$0$38YesNoneYesNo
AmerUSA$0$27YesTransUnionNoYes
RentApplication$0$0 (but tenant pays $20)YesTransUnionNoYes

And the Winner is…

If you’re a small landlord in a tight market, you should be looking at Zumper. This costs you nothing and the tenants presumably will be willing to pay the $25 in order to get your apartment. Zumper also includes some criminal for less money than Cozy. (Note: landlords should not require tenants to pay (e.g., via Zumper). This might be perceived as an unlawful application fee.)

If on the other hand you are not in a tight market, you should be looking at SmartScreen and paying for the report yourself. This service has been recommended since before Zumper came on the scene, since we first published this article July 1, 2014.

None of these services is a total winner. The reason we like SmartScreen can be seen by sorting by price, and then scanning down the “some criminal” column. Especially with our member discount (which we can’t make public), this is the biggest bang for your buck.

Remember, none of these services offer the same level of MA criminal data that you can get on your own directly from Massachusetts.

What’s the deal with Massachusetts Criminal Records?

The Massachusetts Criminal Offender Record Information system, or CORI, places access restrictions.  Until recently landlords weren’t even allowed to get a report.  Now you can, and you can get more access than a background check agency. Don’t take our word for it, it’s the law. Access to iCORI costs $25 and requires special authorization.

 

Who Should Pay for the On-Site Inspection?

If you have four units or more turning over in any given year, you’ll save money by going through an on-site inspection for a lower per-report cost.  The on-site inspections aren’t too bad and usually can take place within a week.  You’ll need to password protect your computer, have a locked filing cabinet, and a shredder.  You’ll also need a legitimate home office.  Depending on the inspector, you can’t use your kitchen table.

If you qualify, you want to be looking at ClearScreening or CBAN.  ClearScreening is good if you like computers.  CBAN is good if you don’t*.  ClearScreening charges only one $75 fee to start (not shown in the table above) but then you have to take a computer-based Fair Credit Reporting Act quiz once per year.  It takes about half an hour, so most landlords will play less at ClearScreening than at CBAN.  CBAN charges the most per year but doesn’t require the quiz, and offers better phone support.

 

Did we miss your provider of choice?  Let us know and we’ll review them! Email info@masslandlords.net

Errata and Updates:

2015 March 4: Since this article was published, we have received numerous calls and emails from screening providers who were left off of this list. We will add providers as long as the new providers are legitimately different and not just different labels of the same underlying service. We will correct prices etc. as information is presented to us.

We have also received a letter from CBAN, who disagree with our statement that “CBAN is good if you don’t [like computers].” According to CBAN, “CBAN does offer immediate access to consumer reports 24/7 with a simple to use web interface.” The last we spoke with them, this web interface was only for customers who first pass an on-site inspection. We have clarified that column in the above table accordingly (“immediate access (no inspection)”). Also, they do not have a marketing website, so you will have to sign up via phone before you can see their technology.

2015 August 6: We have updated the price of SmartScreen.

2016 August 19: Updated pricing for previously listed providers. Changed “Actual Score” column to show “Type of Score”. Added Cozy, Zumper, ScreeningServices.com, and AmerUSA.

20 Responses to Which Tenant Screening Service is Best?

  1. Douglas Quattrochi says:

    Update:

    On October 11, on the basis of some improvements SmartScreen made for us, we decided to start recommending SmartScreen as the “best value” for landlords who do not qualify to receive an on-site inspection.

    You can support MassLandlords.net by clicking the affiliate links for SmartScreen on our site.

  2. Gerry Alperus says:

    Hi all, I’ve had really good success with a company called Houserie.com. Their reports are really easy to navigate and read. Pricing is pretty competitive compared to other company’s I’ve used in the past. I have to say, their phone customer service is exceptional. Everytime I called someone would either pick up or call me back within a few hours.

  3. Megan Dimas says:

    MyScreeningReport.com offers an applicant initiated product that provides credit report with score, criminal and eviction records as well as sex offender and terrorist list database searches. One of the biggest ways that they stand out is that they also search AKA’s at not additional cost. Their comprehensive report even includes rental and employment history not something you see offered with these types of reports. The reports are not instant but instant doesn’t mean high quality. MyScreeningReport.com has trained investigators doing the necessary legwork to make sure that a complete and accurate report is returned. Great solutions for individual rental owners!

  4. Honest abe says:

    E-renter.com is a complete sham and scam. They are milking poor landlords and potential renters. Don’t waste your time or money on this sham service. There are better legitimate services out there for landlords.

  5. P. Christy says:

    Tenant Background Search will use what the tenant says is their income, not the real income. I have had 4 prospective tenant apps come through this way in 2015. The last 2 listed income at $12000.00 & $24000.00 per month. This is what Tenant Background Search included on their report. Turns out that tenants made a mistake with zero’s. $1200.00 & $2400.00 So how is this an accurate report if they are just recording tenant information & not searching?

    • Troy says:

      Hello P. Christy
      you can use First advantage screening that can help you with that.

      if you need help just email me thank you

  6. D says:

    Most of the tenant screening companies use the information provided by the applicant. They call the person the applicant puts as the landlord (often a friend) and if they give good info…. Always check the address on their ID and check the tax assessed owner of the address. If the address they have on their ID is not the same as the application?

    Finding evictions in OR can be more difficult as there is no central location and you must call several court houses asking.

    I keep hoping some Oregon landlord group will keep lists of evictions!

  7. Anonymous says:

    My office uses myrental.com which I do not recommend. I have never written a negative online review and I went out of my way to warn anyone thinking of using myrental just don’t!

    • Troy says:

      you can email me so I can help you switch to a better company that you can use going forward for all your resident screening

  8. Page says:

    To be fair about the onsite inspection, that rule comes from the credit bureau. Each bureau has their own criteria that has to be followed. The onsite inspection is required if you wish to have a credit report. And if the inspector decides that the kitchen table is sufficient they are not doing their job as required. As far as the criminal reports go, not all states and counties in the US allow the criminal data to be gathered for what people refer to as instant searches. If you are choosing a company, you should choose one that will explain how the criminal reports work and what they cover. Some states and counties require a specific search for their data. And as far as looking for evictions in a free data base, that all fine and well as long as you are certain that you know where that person has lived and understand that the public record information you find does not contain any link to the applicants ss# as they are name only matches.

    • Dave says:

      I’ve used e-renter for several years. I set the screening criteria & they check against that. Meets non-discrimination rqmts by using standard criteria. There are real people reachable by phone if needed. Had one applicant dispute that just missed the screening criteria, and e-renter was able to respond with exact details. Was well worth the cost. They have the tenant make a $1.99 charge on their credit card as proof that the person’s info you are submitting actually matches the credit card. Only improvement I would like, but would slow the process dramatically, is employment verification.

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