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 email@example.com 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?
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:
- Credit Bureau Associates Northeast (no website, 978-682-2199)
- ClearScreening SmartScreen
- National Tenant Network
- TransUnion MySmartMove
- MyRental Premium
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 / yr||Price / rpt||Full Report?||Type of Score||Price Includes non-MA Criminal?||Immediate Access (no inspection)?|
|NTN||$60||TransUnion, Experian or Equifax|
|SmartScreen||$0||$30 (members save)||TransUnion|
|Tenant Alert||$0||$25||Experian or TransUnion||($35, yes)|
|Cozy||$0||$0 (but tenant pays $25)||Experian||(Tenant pays $40, yes)|
|Zumper||$0||$0 (tenant pays $30 unless you contact zumper)||Experian|
|RentApplication||$0||$0 (but tenant pays $20)||TransUnion|
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.