When Can a Landlord Legally Turn Down an Applicant?

Written by Ashley Sutphin Posted On Wednesday, 31 January 2024 00:00

A landlord has some leeway and flexibility regarding setting conditions for what they want in tenants. Still, at the same time, they have to ensure their requirements are based on a legitimate business need and don’t violate any discrimination laws.  

The Federal Fair Housing Act doesn’t allow discrimination based on a range of factors like race, color, religion, gender, familial status, or disability.

Many cities and states also have laws and regulations to prevent discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

As long as it’s not based on discrimination, a landlord can essentially choose whichever tenants they want. For example, a landlord can turn you down if you have a pet or are a smoker because antidiscrimination laws protect neither of these groups.

Filling out a Rental Application

Typically, a landlord will ask you to fill out a rental application. This application will want you to provide information on your employment and income, your financial information, your history with rentals if you have any, and criminal convictions if you have any.

A landlord can legally ask for your Social Security number and driver’s license number except in California and New York, and they can also ask for proof of your U.S. residency.

If a landlord feels like you can’t afford to pay your rent, based on your debt level and income, they don’t have to rent to you. It’s relatively common for landlords to use a rent-to-income ratio of one-to-three, which means your rent can’t be more than one-third of your income.

Everyone Has To Be Asked the Same Questions

While landlords have a fair amount of latitude in the questions they ask on a rental application or when they’re interviewing you, they have to make sure they’re asking all applicants the same questions. If a landlord seems to be asking people from one group different questions, then that can become a problem.

As an example, if a landlord asks about immigration history, every tenant has to be asked this question.

Same-Sex Couples

In the majority of states, a landlord can legally get away with not renting, perhaps to gay or unmarried couples, for example. Antidiscrimination laws in a few states only protect unmarried straight and gay couples. That could mean a possible landlord could legally ask you and someone you would live with about your relationship.

Sexual orientation isn’t explicitly described in the Fair Housing Act, and the law hasn’t been updated to provide direct protection to LGBTQ people at the federal level. If you feel like you’ve been discriminated against because of something related to sexual orientation or identity, there may be state or local laws that protect you, so it’s worth looking into.

The Most Common (Legal) Reasons a Landlord Can Deny Your Application

The following are some reasons a landlord can decide not to rent to you, which would be reasons that are well within the law.

  • You don’t make enough money to cover the rent.
  • As mentioned, if you smoke, a landlord could deny your rental application. Some legitimate reasons a landlord might decide to do this include the fact that it can be a health hazard to other tenants and a fire hazard.
  • Your income isn’t verified.
  • You’ve been convicted of a crime—although it gets tricky. You can’t deny a tenant with an arrest record because there are situations where innocent people are arrested. In many cases, a tenant with a criminal conviction can be rejected, but only if the landlord has standardized policies prohibiting renting to people with certain convictions that could put tenants or the property at risk.
  • You don’t have a rental history. If you haven’t been a renter before, a landlord may not feel secure renting to you.
  • You can be denied if you have a history of damaging property or not paying rent on time.
  • Landlords can deny applicants if they lie on their applications and provide false information.
  • If you refuse to authorize a credit report and background check, a landlord might not rent to you.
  • You’ve filed for bankruptcy in the past.
  • A reference you listed on your application gave you a negative review.
  • You have a low credit score.
  • You have a past eviction on your rental history record.


Reasons you can’t be denied under Fair Housing Laws include:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National Origin
  • Religion
  • Gender or gender identity
  • Marital or familial status
  • Age
  • Handicap
  • Participation in subsidy programs like Section 8 programs


Finally, you can’t be denied for arbitrary discrimination, meaning a landlord doesn’t want to rent to a certain group of tenants based on their appearance or dress.

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