Tenant Management

The Best Tenant Screening Service for Small Landlords

wallet full of credit cards

Reviewing screening reports for each applicant is one of several important tools landlords and property managers have in deciding who to accept as tenants.  (Checking references is another, which we’ve written about here.) In this article we’re evaluating online property management products to help landlords choose the best tenant screening service for their needs.

We considered the following five factors in scoring each service:

  1. Credit data and scoring
  2. Criminal background records
  3. Identity, employment, and address history
  4. Evictions and judgements
  5. Costs, and who pays
  6. Extra Credit: Flexibility

Which Property Management Software Offers the Best Tenant Screening Service

Best Overall Screening Service
Best Screening Service: Simplicity
Best Screening: Evictions
Click here to view complete scores

Our Contenders:

ClearNow:

ClearNow rent collection logo

ClearNow is an easy-to-use and reliable service focusing on tenant screening and online rent collection. They have automated rent payment since 2000, and serve landlords and property managers of all sizes (1+ units). For additional information please read our ClearNow Rent Collection Software Overview

Rentec Direct:

RentecDirect property management software logo

Rentec Direct offers property management software and tenant screening solutions for landlords and real estate professionals to manage properties, tenants, and accounts online. Subscribers can collect rent payments, post vacancies, screen applicants, collect rent, and more. For additional information please read our Rentec Direct Rental Property Management Software Overview

Buildium:

Buildium property management software logo

Buildium property management software supports the larger DIY landlord and property managers. The software includes tools to help with accounting and bookkeeping, lease & document management, maintenance tracking, applications and screening, and more. For additional information please read our Buildium Overview

SparkRental:

SparkRental landlord app logo

With SparkRental’s landlord app, you can easily take care of everything from advertising your space to handling payments and sending notices. For additional information please read our SparkRental Property Management Software Overview

RentPrep

RentPrep focuses solely on tenant screening. They offer a variety of products, allowing landlords to customize the information they want. For additional information please read our article on RentPrep Tenant Screening.

Apply Connect:

Apply Connect focuses ONLY on screening reports for landlords. Using their service is simple, affordable, and paid for by prospective tenants meaning it’s free to landlords. We believe this is a great service for those landlords and property managers looking specifically for credit and background reports.


Evaluation Criteria: Scoring the best online tenant screening services

We graded each of the software providers on 5 key tenant screening factors, on a 10 point scale, plus a bonus feature. Read on for more details, here’s how they stack up:

SoftwareSpark
Rental
Rentec
Direct
Clear
Now
BuildiumRent
Prep
Apply
Connect
Credit and
Financial
8.588.58109.5
Criminal
Background
988.58.5910
Identity87.5998.59.5
Evictions8.58108.59.58.5
Costs87.59.57.59.59
Bonus: Flexibility+2+1+2
TOTAL (out of 50)444045.541.548.546.5

Credit data and scoring

Our scoring of the best tenant screening service for financial background reporting was based on the following criteria:

  1. Thorough credit information, including a summary of debt and detailed payment history. All companies offered reports that filled this requirement.  We prefer more detail when we can get it, as-opposed to having a service tell us “accept/deny”.
  2. Flexibility to access only information you deem important.  Some landlords prefer to base their decisions on certain factors and we believe choice is an advantage. 
  3. Value-add analysis, such as the SmartMove “ResidentScore” and “Income Insights”.
  4. Ability to access reports without requiring the landlord to go through a site inspection or vetting process.
  5. Records of any judgments and liens.
  6. Percentage of populace scored.
  7. Simplicity

All of the products we’re ranking use either Experian or TransUnion to pull credit and background information on rental applicants.  Reports from the two sources have many similarities, typically including the following:

  • debt summary 
  • payment history
  • bankruptcies 
  • accounts that have gone to collection
  • tax liens
  • civil judgments
  • Social Security number verification
  • name verification and alias history
  • past addresses
  • past and current employers (though these never often don’t seem comprehensive)
  • credit score on a scale from 300-850 points.  TransUnion gives applicants a “FICO” score, while Experian gives a “Vantage 3.0” score
  • national criminal background check, including results from the sex offender registry and the terrorist (OFAC) watch list
  • nationwide eviction search

TransUnion tailors their “SmartMove” to the needs of landlords and property managers.   In addition to the full Tenant Credit Report, including a FICO score, they offer a “ResidentScore”.  ResidentScore evaluates applicants on factors TransUnion believes to be most relevant to landlords as they choose new tenants.  The formula for computing this score is not divulged however evictions, lease “skips”, and late rent payments seem to be factored-in.  It appears that certain types of debt and payment behavior are deemed to more-accurately predict reliable rent payment. It looks like recent late or missed payments on auto loans or phone bills are factored in as more worrisome than problematic student loan history, for example.  A SmartMove feature offered by ClearNow is the “Income Insights” report. By analyzing an applicant’s spending, payment, and balance history, the Income Insights report suggests whether the claimed income level is plausible or needs further verification.

Experian credit and background reports thoroughly cover the range of information listed above, but seem not to offer landlord-specific products in the way TransUnion does.  All the Experian screening products we review give a Vantage 3.0 instead of the FICO score.  A significant difference between these two, pointed-out by Apply Connect, is the fact that up to 30 million more people can be scored using the Vantage model. The Vantage accomplished this by considering current economic conditions, and also delivering a score fewer overall records. This allows credit ratings for younger applicants and others who may have short or limited credit history. Another advantage 

Also Read: The Best Online Rent Payment Service For Small Landlords

Our competitors differ on whether they claim to include information on judgments and liens.  RentPrep offers a specific report on judgments and liens and states that their results include information excluded from typical credit reports since 2017.  SparkRental and Apply Connect use Experian reports and do state that judgments and liens are included.

Another factor to consider when it comes to credit information is who orders and who pays for reports.  Because the information is so sensitive and private, laws dictate that any entity that orders detailed credit reports must go through a vetting process – usually involving a site inspection and identity verification, and sometimes documentation of property ownership.  When ordered by an applicant this step is not necessary.

SparkRental – score 8.5/10:  SparkRental provides a full Experian credit report including Vantage 3.0 score, a debt summary, payment history, and records of any bankruptcies or judgments against an applicant.

Rentec Direct – score 8/10:  A full TransUnion Credit report with FICO score is available with the Premium Screening Package.  This report includes a debt summary, payment history, and any bankruptcy records.

ClearNow – score 8.5/10: ClearNow focuses only on tenant screening and rent collection, and also uses TransUnion’s SmartMove products to provide credit and background reports, as well as a ResidentScore.  A feature unique to ClearNow is the “Income Insights” report, also from SmartMove.  By analyzing an applicant’s spending, payment, and balance history, the Income Insights report suggests whether the claimed income level is plausible or needs further verification.

Buildium – score 8/10: Two levels of reports are available – “Basic” and “Premium”.  Like ClearNow and Rentec Direct, Buildium uses TransUnion’s SmartMove product to deliver their Basic report.  This report includes a full credit report (see above).  TransUnion’s “exclusive rental recommendation” is also provided.  We assume this is similar-to or the same as the ResidentScore offered by ClearNow – ie, some crunching of numbers that delivers a judgment about whether an applicant will be a good tenant.  Landlords can run the Premium Tenant Screening on applicants without having to document their approval, once they’ve gone through a vetting process.  The information delivered in a Premium report is similar to that in a Basic report except that it’s possible to set property-specific criteria for the “rental recommendation” feature. 

RentPrep – score 10/10: RentPrep also does tenant screening exclusively, offering two forms of credit report. Their proprietary Credit Decision Report allows landlords to set a FICO threshold for applicant acceptance. If a threshold of 600 is set, for example, anyone below that score would back as “denied”. This is a “red light/green light” approach, where no credit detail or specific FICO score is provided.  The second report uses comes via TransUnion’s SmartMove.  This is a full credit check.  A feature unique to RentPrep is their report detailing judgments and liens, which is included as part of their proprietary Background Check. This product is also available as an add-on ($4.95) to the Full Credit Report. According to RentPrep this information has been eliminated from credit reports since 2017 and consequently is not included with screening reports from competitors.

Apply Connect – score 9.5/10:  Apply Connect ONLY does tenant screening, and uses Experian to provide a full credit report, including a “Vantage 3.0” score.  Apply Connect states that the Experian report includes civil judgments and liens.


Criminal background records

The thought of accepting tenants who will engage in criminal activity is enough to strike panic in the heart of most landlords, and it’s natural to want a report that assures us that this applicant is NOT a criminal before we proceed.  Many landlords are motivated to find the best tenant screening service based just so they can check criminal background. There are, however, a few factors to consider. 

First, not all reports search exactly the same records or are equally thorough.  Whether city or county records are effectively searched is difficult to determine.  One factor appears to be that some states do not deliver instant results to criminal records inquiries.  We note, for example, that TransUnion reports typically do not include all 50 states. We’ve seen claims of anywhere from 43-46 states.  Some services state that they’ll tell you whether an applicant appears on the Terrorist Watch List (OFAC) or in the Most Wanted Database, while others do not. “Nationwide Criminal Search” can means different things.  We suspect there is much overlap between competitor’s offerings.

Also Read: Navigating New Rental Laws Using Property Management Software

Rules around the use of criminal records when considering a rental applicant are also changing quickly. Cities such as Seattle and Oakland have passed legislation making it illegal to consider criminal background when evaluating a potential tenant.  We highly recommend consulting a lawyer or local rental association for guidance on using this type of information.

In ranking the best online tenant screening service for criminal background reporting, we considered the following factors:

  1. Will reports cover all states?
  2. Does the report local court records?
  3. Are national registries (terrorism, most wanted, etc) searched?
  4. Is jail, arrest, and warrant information included?
  5. Is it possible to customize the type of information returned?

SparkRental – score 9/10: National, State, and local criminal records are searched so that a landlord has thorough knowledge of any criminal background an applicant might have.  Sex offender records are included.

Rentec Direct – score 8/10:  All screening packages include nationwide criminal and sex offender records. Inmate records are also provided.

ClearNow – score 8.5/10: SmartMove reporting claims 43-state criminal background checks, and searches of the Most Wanted Database and National Sex-Offender Registry.  It is unclear whether local records are searched, however ClearNow claims to search 370 million records.

Buildium – score 8.5/10: Because Buildium uses TransUnion’s SmartMove service, we anticipate that criminal reporting will be thorough and nationally comprehensive.

RentPrep – score 9/10: Their proprietary Tenant Background Check does not include a criminal background check, however a 50-state search is available for an additional charge of $4.  The SmartMove Full Credit Report does include a “Nationwide Criminal & Sex Offender Search”, covering 44 states.  Not covered are DE, CO, MA, WY, NC, and SC. 

Apply Connect – score 10/10:  Criminal searches covering “local courts” from all 50 states plus Washington DC, as well as the National Sex-Offender Registry.   Jail and prison records, warrants & arrests, and the terrorist (OFAC) watch list are included.


Identity, employment, and address history

When meeting prospective tenants we have only the basic information they’re giving us about who they are and what their history is.  Screening reports help verify this information and add some context.  It’s important to know whether an applicant has lived and worked where they have claimed to.  Confirming that the Social Security Number (SSN) they’ve provided is connected to addresses and employers – and that it shows the same birth date as the applicant has – goes a long way to verifying the identity of the person being screened.  Note: It is imperative to make an in-person verification of identity.  ALWAYS ask for a valid government-issued ID that shows that the person and the data you’re reviewing match-up.

Also Read: Choosing the best questions to ask rental references

When evaluating the best tenant screening service to provide identity, employment, and address information we considered the following questions:

  1. Are aliases included?
  2. Is employment history included?
  3. Is there value-add analysis (such as SmartMove’s “Income Insights” report).

SparkRental – score 8/10: SparkRental offers a “Rental History & ID Trace” report, which provides “current & past addresses, all known aliases, and SSN (Social Security Number) verification”.  It is unclear whether this report includes employment information.

Rentec Direct – score 7.5/10:  The “Basic” package includes SSN and prior address verification, while the middle-tier “Enhanced” report package adds nationwide eviction records.  As far as we can see, no employment history is listed.

ClearNow – score 9/10: TransUnion is one of the three main credit rating bureaus in the nation, meaning it’s their business to collect identity, employment, and address information to go along with debt and payment data.  ClearNow offers reports via TransUnion’s SmartMove product – designed for landlords – which present all this information clearly in one place.

Buildium – score 9/10: While Buildium delivers TransUnion results, they make no mention of any feature similar to the “Income Insights” report included in ClearNow reports.   They do provide SSN verification along with employment and address history.

RentPrep – score 8.5/10: Both available reports deliver address history and SSN verification.  The SmartMove report includes available employment history, while the RentPrep Tenant Background Check does not.

Apply Connect – score 9.5/10: SSN verification, past names, past addresses, and employment history are included.


Evictions and judgments

Many landlords see a record of prior evictions as the most relevant predictor of whether an applicant will violate the terms of a lease, or skip-out entirely.

Also Read: Rental Criteria Checklist for Screening Tenants

With all these services it is difficult to determine whether late payments reported could be for rent, or are limited to traditional credit-reporting debt types such as auto, credit card, education, and mortgage loans.  We believe that rent payment records are likely to be incomplete as many landlords – especially owners of small portfolios – do not report late rent payments to the credit bureaus.

In choosing the best tenant screening service to provide information on evictions, we asked:

  1. Are court judgments included?
  2. Are records of a tenant’s failure to pay included?
  3. Does the report provide data on writs of eviction and warrants?

SparkRental – score 8.5/10: Consistent with SparkRental’s a-la-carte approach to screening reports, they offer a stand-alone “Nationwide Eviction Report” showing any history an applicant may have of breaching leases leading to eviction.

Rentec Direct – score 8/10:  Both the “Enhanced” and “Premium” screening packages include a nationwide eviction search, while the “Basic” level does not.

ClearNow – score 10/10: As we’ve mentioned, ClearNow has created a portal to access TransUnion’s “SmartMove” landlord tools.  TransUnion leverages its’ huge database and access to public court records to offer landlords data on evictions, judgments, unlawful detainers, and failure to pay rent.  SmartMove claims to be able to tell landlords whether an applicant is a “late payer” or has skipped out on leases.  

Buildium – score 8.5/10: Reports include eviction history but do not claim to provide information on late rent payments, unlawful detainers, and judgments in the way ClearNow does.  We believe Buildium offers similar information but does not use as much descriptive detail in their marketing materials.

RentPrep – score 9.5/10: Both products offered include eviction records.  Their in-house offering includes data on eviction orders that have not ultimately finalized. RentPrep claims to be unique in providing data on judgments and liens.  They include this information in their own Tenant Background Check, and offer it as an-add on ($4.95) with the SmartMove report.

Apply Connect – score 8.5/10: Apply Connect states that it does a “civil court search, scanning the nation’s largest eviction database with 36+ million unique records (no duplicates) including judgments and filings”.


Costs, and who pays

Our evaluation of cost for this article is specific to screening reports.  When investigating the overall expense of a property management software product – including many features beyond screening – the calculus is more complex.  For this article we are using a hypothetical landlord who has 5 units.

We considered these cost-related questions when choosing the best tenant screening service:

  1. Cost to a landlord.  We favor services that require applicants to pay directly.  
  2. Overall cost of reports, no matter who pays.
  3. Whether a subscription is required.  While we think it’s reasonable to have an account (profile) with a service, we believe a monthly paid subscription requirement is a negative.
  4. Flexibility. While we prefer applicant-pay models, some landlords will prefer to pay so that applying for an apartment is free to prospective tenants.  Being able to order some reports but not others is also a choice that some landlords will value.
  5. Integration with a free online application and additional tenant management features.

SparkRental – score 8/10: At a glance SparkRental is the most expensive of the screening services we’ve evaluated.  With a free plan the cost would be $15 for each of the four reports, which can only be paid-for by the applicant.  Depending on a landlord’s objectives and market, this could be a good thing or bad.  In markets where applicants are scared-off by up-front fees the costs of these reports may be a deterrent.  With paid subscriptions – Premium: $159/year, Ultimate $299/year – the cost per report goes down to $12 each and $9 each, respectively.  With an Ultimate subscription landlords can pay for reports themselves if they choose to.  In that case their office space would need to go through an inspection.

Rentec Direct – score 7.5/10:  We have to admit we had some trouble figuring out Rentec’s pricing.  We believe their strength is that the cost-per-report is quite low.  The basic membership level costs $15 and includes one Premium Screening Package ($15 value) per month. This offering is quite affordable if you’re receiving an average of one application per month. Landlords with fewer than ten units (where there’s a price break) who see two or more applicants a month may want to purchase Rentec Pro for $35/month. Subscription pricing increases based on a landlord’s number of units, while the price per report stays the same.  Once a member, Basic reports cost $7ea, Enhanced $10/ea, and Premium $15ea.   

Note:  Rentec directs owners with very few units to Apply Connect, which we discuss separately in this article. 

Note: Because ordering reports through Rentec Direct is not “consumer-initiated” (ie ordered by the applicant), a landlord must pay and their office must be inspected before credit information can be delivered.  The cost of screening reports can be passed-along to applicants in the form of application fees.

ClearNow – score 9.5/10: Applicants pay directly for all screening reports, and the results are delivered instantly to you.  Packages are thorough, competitively priced, and tailored to the types of information a landlord might want.  The SmartCheck Premium package costs $40/applicant and includes full credit, criminal, eviction, Income Insights, and ResidentScore reports.  SmartCheck Plus costs $38 and offers all but the Income Insights report.  SmartCheck Basic costs $25 and delivers ResidentScore (see discussion above, under “Credit, Bankruptcies, and Liabilities”) and criminal reports.

Buildium – score 7.5/10: Buildium is designed for property owners and managers with medium-to-large portfolios, so is not terribly cost competitive for small landlords who aren’t also looking for full-service property management features.   While screening report costs are low – $15 for Basic and $18 for Premium – landlords with 1-20 units pay a $47/mo subscription fees.  Subscription prices go up as the number of units increases.   We estimate that a landlord with 5 units would need two screening reports per year, which would equate to $49.50/Basic report.  That’s either a good value as a package for full-featured software, or expensive for screening alone – especially if your preference is to have applicants pay directly, which Buildium allows.

RentPrep – score 9.5/10: Since RentPrep only provides screening reports and does not use any kind of subscription model, pricing is fairly simple.  Their Tenant Background Check costs $18.95, with available add-ons of criminal & sex offender report ($4.00), and Credit Decision Report ($9.95).  We believe it’s advisable to order both addition reports, so the overall cost would be $32.90.  This report can only be paid-for by the landlord, who goes through a one-time credentialing process.  The SmartMove Full Credit Report costs $38.00 and can be paid-for directly by the applicant.

Apply Connect – score 9/10: Pricing is simple.  Applicants pay $28.50.  Unless a landlord wants to pay for reports – which is possible – this is a no-cost service.


Extra credit – Flexibility

Many landlords value the flexibility to review only information they value.  In some cases there are also legal constraints – some localities limit the type of information that can be used in choosing tenants. Up to an additional 2 points are added for products who give customers the ability to customize reports.

We believe the best tenant screening services provide flexibility. Factors we’ve used in evaluating landlord’s ability to customize their approach include:

  1. Can landlords choose which reports to receive?
  2. Is it possible to set acceptance criteria and receive a simple “approve/decline” response?
  3. Is it possible to choose who pays?
  4. Are there pricing options?

SparkRental +2: Landlords have great flexibility with SparkRental because they can choose which of the reports offered they want to require – one report, or all four.   Applicants pay for the reports, however if a landlord wants to order instant credit reports without applicant permission a one-time office inspection is required to ensure security of the sensitive personal information that’ll be stored there.

Rentec Direct +1: Reports can be ordered a-la-carte, or at “wholesale” package pricing, giving landlords extensive flexibility. Rentec also provides some pricing flexibility as landlords can calculate which subscription level makes the most sense, based on their average number of applications.  Report prices go down as the subscription level is increased.  Only landlords may pay.

ClearNow:  Available report offerings are simple, but very comprehensive.  Applicants always pay.  While there are few options offered by ClearNow we believe that what they offer is high-quality and well suited to the needs of small-medium scale landlords.

Buildium: Allows landlords to choose to pay for reports, or have the applicant do-so directly.  Two levels of reports are available.  Basic requires no site inspection, while Premium does.

RentPrep +2: RentPrep provides flexible a-la-carte pricing, allowing landlords to order the information they value most. Two reports are available – their in-house Background Check and a SmartMove Full Credit Report.  Ordering the Background Check requires a landlord to go through a vetting process, whereas the Full Credit Report can be ordered and paid-for directly by the applicant.  “Judgments and liens” can be added to the SmartMove Report for $4.95. The “Nationwide Criminal & Sex-Offender Search” ($4.00) and “Credit Decision Report” ($9.95) can be added to the RentPrep Background Check. The Credit Decision Report provides a “approve/deny” result, with criteria set by the landlord – detailed financial information and scoring omitted.  Some may value the ease and clarity of getting a yes/no answer.

Apply Connect: There are no choices involved when using Apply Connect.  We love the simplicity of using a service that provides a good report that’s affordable and paid-for by applicants, however we acknowledge that some landlords will want more options than offered by Apply Connect.


Best Overall Tenant Screening Service

RentPrep ONLY provides tenant screening services, and really delivers for landlords by offering both custom-designed in-house products as well as TransUnion SmartMove reporting. RentPrep gives customers great flexibility to order the information and format they want most. In each category – credit, criminal, identity, and eviction – RentPrep digs deep for in-depth information on rental applicants. We believe they are the easy choice if accessing affordable background information is your main concern.


Best Tenant Screening Service: Simplicity

Apply Connect is the easy winner if you want to screen tenants in the simplest, fastest way possible. They ONLY do screening, and getting reports is a simple as sending an invitation to your applicants. They pay $28.50 directly and you have their comprehensive background in seconds.


Best Tenant Screening Service: Eviction Reporting

In our research ClearNow emerged as the leader when it comes to eviction records. Partnering with TransUnion’s SmartMove, ClearNow accesses expansive public court records to deliver data on evictions, judgments, unlawful detainers, and failure to pay rent.  SmartMove claims to be able to tell landlords whether an applicant is a “late payer” or has skipped out on leases.


Takeaway

Each landlord – or property manager – has a different approach to choosing the best tenants for their properties. Now more than ever landlords have a variety of tools to help them make this important choice. We believe finding the best tenant screening service is crucial to easily, quickly, and affordably accessing background information on rental applicants. We hope this evaluation helps you find the service that’s the best fit for you!

Also Read: Rental Property Management Software Overview

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links and Landlord Gurus may earn a commission. Our mission remains to provide valuable resources and information that helps landlords manage their rental properties efficiently and profitably. We link to these companies and their products because of their quality, not because of the commission.

Photo Credit: Two Paddles Axe & Leather

Tagged ,

About Eli Secor

Eli comes from a family of real estate investors, dating back several generations. He currently manages his own multifamily property, apartment buildings for clients, and commercial spaces. He has particular expertise in the construction and maintenance arena, having spent almost 20 years in the construction fields.
View all posts by Eli Secor →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *