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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Which credit scores are trusted scores?
Common knowledge says the gold standard in tenant screening is a FICO score (Fair Isaac Corporation). Unfortunately, common knowledge is not quite right. FICO scores are used by lenders to determine whether you can get a loan. FICO scores range from 350 to 850, just like the credit bureau scores, but FICO is not a credit bureau score.
The “big three” credit bureaus — Transunion, Experian, and Equifax — sell credit data to landlords that looks like a FICO score but is not. It has the same range of possible values, 350 to 850. Arguably this reduces confusion: everyone knows that a 350 is “bad”. But if you don’t know where your data are coming from, having the same number doesn’t help you know whether it applies to rentals. A 350 FICO means you are a risk for loans but may not be relevant to rentals.
In October 2015, MassLandlords asked Transunion to confirm what they were basing their data off of. They said they were not reselling FICO data. In fact, they showed us that a person who scores 742 on FICO scores 801 on TransUnion. They told us at that time that their landlord product was scored on a range from 0 to 1000. Since then, they reduce the range of possible scores from 1000 back down to 850. But it’s still not FICO data.
The three major bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and Transuion) all license a “VantageScore,” which has a range of 350 to 850. Or you can get a proprietary score from either of the three using data from just their separate records.
TransUnion is the leader in the rental space. Their “ResidentScore” (also 350 to 850) aims to take into account eviction history and other metrics related to screening directly.
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 have read the websites of, spoken with, or tested screening service companies in the table below. Please note that this data is updated as frequently as the date shown above, but individual pieces of data may become out of date. If you see an error, please email us at email@example.com.
How to use the table below
Click columns to sort or type in the search box to filter rows containing that text.
- Rec: One of our shortlist recommendations, see below the table.
- $/yr: Annual membership/fee.
- $/rpt: Price per report. We do not identify services that require separate socials on separate reports for additional cost; some services (discussed in the recommendations) allow up to two social per “report.”
- Ten Opt: whether you have the option of charging the tenant. Be careful, see footnote.
- Full? whether you receive actual trade histories or just a number
- Source: the source of the credit data
- US Crim: whether nationwide criminal included is included in the given price.
- MA Crim: whether MA county criminal are included in the given price. Note that CORI is never included.
- Sex: whether any kind of sex offender registry check is included in the given price.
- Instant: whether you can get access online instantly or you need to pass an office site inspection.
Tenant Screening Service Comparison
|Rec||$/yr||$/rpt||Ten Opt*||Full?||Source||US Crim||MA Crim||Sex||Instant|
|National Tenant Network (NTN)||$35||$20||Experian, Fair Isaac||UNK|
|SmartScreen||$0||$30||TransUnion||(except Wyoming, Delaware, South Dakota, MA)|
|Transunion MySmartMove||$0||$25 Basic|
|Experian||$0||$14.95||Experian, Vintage Score|
|Tenant Alert||$0||$25||Experian, TransUnion or Equifax||($35, yes)|
|Cozy||$0||$0||Experian||(Tenant pays $40, yes)|
|RentApplication||$0||$0||Fico or Vantage||(Tenant pays $10, yes)|
|TransUnion, Experian or Equifax|
|TransUnion or Experian||UNK||UNK|
|depends on the package||FICO Score||Yes for above pro package||UNK|
|Listing 2 Leasing||$0*||$0*||"one of the big three" =(|
|Tenant Turner||per month, per residential unit (minimum $50)||$0||Yes, except credit score||None|
|First Advantage||Monthly fee||$0||Equifax, Experian, Transunion||UNK|
|Background Examine||$0||$25 basic, $35 premium||FICO|
|E-Renter||$0||$19.95||(commercial account, yes)||FICO||`||UNK|
|Capitol City Background Reporting||$0||$13.95||TransUnion||(23.50, yes)|
|Rentec Direct||$180||$15 (one free ea mo)||TransUnion|
* Danger: Under MA law, lessors cannot require the renter to pay. Only require a tenant to pay if you are a licensed broker renting a premises for which you are not the lessor. Read more information here.
Some landlords still talk about services they used to use, or they may still use because they are grandfathered in. Please note that the following services have been removed from the table above because they are no longer taking new landlord customers. They may offer other background screening services (e.g., employment, private investigation).
- Kroll Factual Data
- Worcester Record Search
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
2018 September 24: Updated pricing for previously listed providers.