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Nosy rental agents: When background checks go too far

·2-min read
People at a rental inspection
Some real estate companies are collecting unnecessary information about prospective tenants. (Source: Getty)

Employers are being asked how hard their employees work among other questions as part of increasingly intrusive rental applications.

Luke Hilakari, secretary at the Victorian Trades Hall Council, was recently asked to provide a reference for an employee by a real estate agent.

He was asked to provide several data points he said were unnecessarily invasive, including if they came to work on time and if they were hard working.

“These [questions] are none of the agent's business and no boss should have the power to spike where [you] live,” he wrote on Twitter.

Joel Dignam from Better Renting agreed it was “absolutely problematic” that agents were probing into the personal lives of renters.

“While it's reasonable that agents get some information to assess a tenancy application, what we are increasingly seeing is agents abusing their market position to extract volumes of irrelevant and private information in a way that is just belittling.”

Dignam said the practice of harvesting seemingly irrelevant data was becoming more prevalent.

“What seems to be happening is that real estate agencies are in competition with each other to try to be as invasive as possible,” he said.

“It's unnecessary and so often just irrelevant.”

He said the only question employer referees should be asked was whether or not the tenant could pay the rent.

“That should be enough,” Dignam said.

In Victoria, where the incident voiced by Hilakari took place, new rental legislation came into force in March 2021 that has partially restricted what can be asked during rental applications.

However, Dignam said the rules dictating off-limit questions were still quite limited, focusing on forbidding questions about a person’s ethnicity or gender, rental disputes that occurred in the past, and bank or credit card statements.

“There's lots of things that landlords can still ask about,” Dignam said.

Outside Victoria, the regulatory landscape is even weaker.

“Basically, anything goes,” Dignam said.

To stop the practice, he recommended requiring agents to accept the first application that met a set of specified criteria.

“This would really level the playing field for people and reduce the invasive breadth of the questions that are being asked,” he said.

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