Q: My wife and I are looking for an apartment in a cool area of town, and fortunately there’s a lot to choose from. Many of the listings are handled by apartment-finding companies. Some of them charge the tenants if they find a rental through the company, and some of them say it’s free — that the landlord pays the rental fee. Should we avoid the ones that will charge us? Why should we pay when there are many listings that we can rent without the fee? –Joe and Alisha F.

A: In a soft market, as you describe, it’s unusual for apartment-finding agencies to ask tenants to pay the fee if they find a rental through the agency. Most landlords who use these services understand the workings of the market, and know that the pool of applicants will be smaller if the prospect has to tack on a finder’s fee to the regular costs of renting an apartment. As you say, it makes no sense to pay a fee when there are plenty of places you could rent without one.

But before you categorically scratch off every listing that requires the tenant to pay a fee, consider a few things. First, is the rent set right at market rates? Landlords who are competing for scarce tenants might set the rent a bit below market, hoping to attract a larger pool of applicants, but make up the difference by charging a fee.

By spreading the finder’s fee across, say, 12 months on a lease, and adding that money to the monthly rent, the landlord ends up with a fair market rent.

If you’re dealing with a landlord who is following this plan, it would be a mistake to conclude either that the rental is a real steal or that the landlord is trying to rip off prospective tenants. Instead, you should do just what the landlord has done: Add the fee to the stated rent for the term of the rental to figure out the real price of renting the unit. It may still be a good deal, despite the fee and the soft market.

Now suppose the rent is already at market rates, and you’re still being asked to pay a finder’s fee. If you really want that particular rental, there’s no law against asking the agency to lower the fee. If they know you are an interested — and qualified — tenant, they would be foolish to lose you and risk another rent-less month.

To make your case, find out how long the unit has been empty. Ask if you can talk directly to the owner. Don’t be afraid to flex your market muscle: You can be sure that when the market is hot, landlords will do the same and expect renters to foot the bill.

Q: I lost out on a rental because the landlord told me that the screening report he got listed an eviction. That’s simply not true — I’ve never had an eviction lawsuit filed against me. What can I do to make sure the report is accurate? I faxed my complaint to the screening company, but they said I’d have to send in a written complaint on their form (which they have not sent). –Jay B.

A: Errors in credit and screening reports are all too common these days. Collectors of credit information, striving to gather ever more information at faster speeds, make mistakes. And ironically, as the desire to prevent identity theft grows, the people furnishing credit and other information to the agencies are less and less willing to provide a person’s unique, identifying information (such as date of birth and Social Security number). …CONTINUED

These providers, including landlords, are afraid of putting individual information into reports that may be accessed by those who have no legitimate reason to see them. The result is much more confusion, as those with the same or similar names are mistaken for each other.

Federal law, however, gives consumers a way to fight back when erroneous information pops up in a credit report or screening report (screening agencies are subject to the same rules as credit agencies). According to Sections 609(a)(1) and 610(a) of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, consumers may demand, in writing, that the agency investigate the alleged error, and do so promptly (usually within 30 days).

There’s no requirement that the demand be by mail rather than fax, let alone that it be done on the screening agency’s form.

In fact, one of the largest tenant screening agencies, FirstAdvantage SafeRent Inc., was recently fined for doing just what you describe. After the U.S. Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging that SafeRent rejected faxed reinvestigation requests, SafeRent settled (for a paltry $100,000), and promised never to do it again.

Readers may recognize this company as the same one that, a few years ago, was the target of a class-action lawsuit in New York charging that the company failed to note on its reports how an eviction filing turned out. Tenants who won the evictions — even those whose landlords dismissed the eviction lawsuits — allegedly got screening reports that said, very confusingly, "Eviction, case filed."

This notation, with a comma that suggests that the eviction in fact happened, was a virtual blacklisting, because many landlords would assume that the tenant was at fault.

SafeRent also agreed to make its database more complete and up-to-date, and to implement procedures to review and, if appropriate and reasonable, address any potential problems that may arise. It looks like they needed to be reminded of their promise.

Your next step should be to write to the screening agency and tell them about the error. Also contact the landlord who supposedly furnished this error. Check out the FTC’s tips for consumers on how to contest erroneous information in a credit or screening report, "How to Dispute Credit Report Errors," which includes a sample letter.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

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