Choosing good tenants is a crucial decision for residential landlords. The wrong tenant can cause myriad headaches and serious financial loss. As well, all professional landlords know that getting rid of a bad tenant can be a long, painful, expensive process.

Therefore, landlords often use a “the-more-information-the-better” approach when vetting potential tenants. Credit checks are de rigeur for many residential landlords in Vancouver, and some ask for more. Landlords are warned, however, that some such practices are on the wrong side of the law, and that the government might soon be cracking down on them.

In August, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner announced that it is investigating whether landlords in British Columbia are requesting too much personal information from prospective tenants.

The OIPC reports that in today’s increasingly tight rental market, prospective tenants feel pressured to provide whatever information a landlord requests. According to the OIPC, there has been at least one instance in which a landlord has actually demanded an applicant’s medical data.

More commonly, some landlords request information such as credit card details or social insurance numbers for the sake of running credit checks to determine whether a tenant is financially capable of supporting the rent. This is no doubt a way of taking some of the guesswork out of screening potential tenants. However, landlords need to be aware that they may be falling afoul of privacy legislation in the process.

Under the Personal Information Protection Act, landlords may only collect and use personal information as is reasonably necessary to decide whether to rent to a prospective tenant. For example, the OIPC advises that landlords should not be requesting that applicants provide social insurance numbers, credit card information, T4 slips or banking records.

Although landlords may, on occasion, request to see an applicant’s credit score, this is only permissible when the landlord has reasonable grounds to request it. Indeed, the OIPC maintains that this cannot be a routine request. Instead, tenants can obtain and provide a copy of their credit report rather than allowing landlords to run credit checks themselves.

Landlords have additional obligations under the PIPA regarding the retention and safekeeping of personal information collected from prospective and current tenants, including ensuring that no one has unauthorized access to completed applications, and keeping all tenancy applications for at least a year.

If the OIPC makes a finding of systemic privacy violations by landlords, it may take further steps to ensure privacy compliance.

Landlords are advised to keep a close watch on the OIPC investigation and, in the meantime, ensure that their policies are compliant with best practices to avoid complaints and penalties.