An Insider’s Guide to Legally Removing a Criminal or Eviction Record From a Tenant Background Check

If you want to rent an apartment or a house, the landlord will likely conduct a tenant background check. Even the most basic tenant screening includes eviction and criminal records. If you have either on your report, it will be hard to get a lease for rental.

  • Monday, March 9, 2020

  Matt Angerer

  Legal   Criminal & Eviction Checks   

If you want to rent an apartment or a house, the landlord will likely conduct a tenant background check. Even the most basic tenant screening includes eviction and criminal records. If you have either on your report, it will be hard to get a lease for rental.

First, understand that you are hardly alone when it comes to this problem. It’s estimated that landlords filed 2.3 million evictions in the United States in 2016 alone (Gross, 2018). The number was so high that it created a housing crisis. Based on the hysteria and economic impact of the Coronavirus, we expect landlords to file a record high number of evictions in 2020. In fact, the ripple effect of the Coronavirus may impact your ability to pay the rent on-time. If the pandemic continues at this pace, you may become unemployed and rely on state-issued unemployment wages. As you know, unemployment wages in many states (e.g., Florida) are meager -- barely providing you with the ability to meet basic household needs. When you face the choice of putting food on the table or paying the rent -- you put food on the table. 

You should prepare yourself to pay rent online with a credit card until you get back on your feet if the unthinkable happens and your employer cuts your job. VerticalRent provides online rent collection services for both landlords and renters -- making it easy for you to not only pay your rent, but also build your credit. But what if eviction records are the least of your concern and you had a run in with the law a few years back that continually haunts you with every job and rental application? 

Well, the crisis is even worse when you consider criminal records. In 2015, 70 million people had criminal records on the Interstate Identification Index (Friedman, 2015). This number is steadily growing and by 2020 -- it would undoubtedly exceed 100 million people. Nearly 25% of the American population has a felony record according to some studies. So yes, if you have an eviction or criminal record, you are far from being unique. Millions of people suffer from this problem each day. 

Fortunately, there are some options for legally removing criminal and eviction records from your tenant background check. If you’re looking for a ‘magic wand’ or an unscrupulous way of concealing your background from a potential employer or landlord, you’ve come to the wrong place. VerticalRent’s 2020 Insider’s Guide to Legally Removing a Criminal or Eviction Record from a Tenant Background Check is an ethical handbook to cleaning up your past and moving on with your life. The process you need to follow really depends on your situation. 

Let’s take a look. 

First – Why Do Landlords Care About These Records?

If you have an eviction or criminal record, you might wonder why landlords care. Why do they have to run a tenant background check in the first place? You know you’re a trustworthy person, so can’t they just rent you the apartment without running the investigation? It’s important to understand that landlords run these checks to mitigate their risks and liabilities. 

Landlords want to find the best tenants to fill their properties so that they won’t have any problems during the lease. They want people who are financially responsible and are good neighbors. If you have an eviction record, the landlord will fear that you won’t pay your rent. This is a huge red flag for landlords. They don’t want to enter into a contract with someone who has an eviction history since they fear they will have to file for eviction as well. It’s an expensive and stressful process, and if they are stuck evicting someone, they won’t be able to collect rent on the property. They would much instead choose someone who has a clean record since that person appears to be a lower risk tenant. 

Second, landlords are afraid that people with criminal histories are less likely to be good neighbors and take care of the property. They picture late-night parties, fights, and destruction, so they would prefer choosing someone who has a clean record. Unfortunately, landlords rarely consider what the crime was. Even if you’ve been convicted of a misdemeanor, it can prevent you from getting a lease. You could have a basic violation and still be unable to secure a contract. Don’t be like Jane Doe. 

As stressful as this can be, there is hope. Let’s go over your options for removing your eviction or criminal history from a tenant background check. There are lots of different options, so you have a good chance of clearing your record. Then you won’t just get a lease on a rental. You will also have a new lease on life since you’ll be free of that record. 

Sealing Vs. Expungement

You have two options for removing items from your record. You can seal or expunge criminal and eviction records (Justia, n.d.), and while both are viable options, there is a difference.

When an eviction or criminal record is expunged, it is gone completely. It is out of the public record and cannot be accessed by anyone at any time. It’s destroyed, so you don’t have to worry about anyone finding it under any circumstances. 

Record sealing is different. The records are not deleted, but they cannot be accessed without a court order. If a document is sealed, it won’t show up on a tenant background check, but it is still there. Fortunately, sealed records are rarely unsealed, so this should not be cause for concern. 

Either option will work for you if you want to pass a background check. Keep in mind that it might be easier to have your records sealed rather than expunged in some cases. 

Now that you know the difference, let’s dive in and look at ways you can legally remove a criminal or eviction record from your report. 

Were You Legally Evicted and Still Owe Money? Consider Settling the Debt 

Settling the debt is one of the easiest ways to remove an eviction record on your tenant background check, as long as your former landlord agrees to the process (Leggington, 2018). First, you need to contact your landlord and discuss paying off the remaining balance. Your landlord might be open to negotiating a settlement or payment plan. If you can’t pay the balance in full, this is your best way to move forward. 

There is one thing to consider, though. If you miss a payment on your plan, your landlord is less likely to agree to remove the eviction from your record. Only agree to an amount you can comfortably pay every month, even if that means it takes longer to get the eviction off your record. You can always pay extra when you have additional money, so don’t stretch yourself too thin. Get receipts for each rent payment you make so you will have proof. 

Then you need to negotiate to remove the eviction from your credit profile and tenant background check. Your landlord will need to contact the three credit bureaus and the tenant screening company to remove the eviction after the amount is paid.

Be careful when doing this. Some landlords will tell you they will contact the appropriate companies so you will pass a tenant background check, only to renege once the balance is paid in full. Get it in writing first. Then pay the landlord and follow up to make sure he or she removed the record. If your landlord fails to hold up his or her end of the bargain, use the agreement to file for a record expungement. This is proof that a deal was in place, and your landlord failed to follow through. 

Conviction Record? Check Your State’s Second Chance Laws

What if a criminal conviction is holding you back from renting an apartment? You have recourse as well. 

Did you know that 40 states and the District of Columbia have some version of second chance laws (EWING, 2017)? Second chance laws are on the books to help people who have been convicted of crimes seal or delete the records, so they have equal access to housing and employment. Some states have sweeping second chance laws, while others aren’t nearly as comprehensive. 

Indiana’s second chance law is among the most progressive in the union. The state allows people to remove misdemeanor convictions and arrests, and in some cases, people can have more serious records sealed (Westervelt, 2019). Since being enacted, this law has already changed lives, including that of Latosha Poston. She had a file full of misdemeanors that prevented her from finding gainful employment. Expunging her record improved her situation, and it could help yours as well. 

Even if your state’s second chance law isn’t as comprehensive as the one in Indiana, you still might get the relief you need. Some states issue certificates of relief to offenders. Also called certificates of rehabilitation, these certifications show landlords that the applicant has done his or her time and has been successfully rehabilitated. If you have such a document, you can show your landlord that the state believes you’ve been rehabilitated. This isn’t the same as removing your conviction, but it can still help you secure a lease for a rental property (Legal Action Center, n.d.). 

Right now, six states offer certificates of rehabilitation (Legal Action Center, n.d.). You can apply for a certificate if you live in:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Illinois
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New York

Keep in mind that each state has different rules and guidelines for applying and obtaining a certificate. You must meet the criteria to receive your certificate. 

What happens if you can’t get your eviction record sealed or expunged by settling with the landlord or using a second chance law? Then you will need to choose the grounds to file for record sealing or expungement. Once you select your grounds, you can begin the legal process to have the record sealed or removed. 

Choose Your Grounds

States have different protocols in place for requesting records to be sealed or expunged. While the rules are different, you need to choose grounds before you file. Proving your case is critical if you’re going to get a judge on your side. 

Let’s go over some common arguments you can use to have your records sealed or expunged. These grounds have worked for others in your shoes and might help you as well. 


Were You Evicted Because Your Landlord Went Through Foreclosure?

If your landlord went through foreclosure and you were evicted in the process, you can get it legally removed from your record. You cannot be lawfully evicted unless the landlord or the courts follow protocol and evicting you because your landlord was foreclosed upon is against the law.  

Let’s use Connecticut as an example of the eviction process after a foreclosure (CTLawHelp, 2018). While each state has its guidelines, Connecticut’s protocol is relatively standard.

If your landlord is going through foreclosure proceedings and you have a written lease, you cannot be legally evicted during the proceedings. The landlord has two options and must choose the longer of the two. The landlord is required to honor your existing lease or give you a minimum of 90 days to vacate the property.  

While it seems like all landlords and banks would follow the protocol, it’s not always the case. Sometimes, the landlord tries to boot the tenant out due to the foreclosure, while other times, the bank that foreclosed on the property tries. Both instances are against the law.

You do need to keep something in mind if your landlord is being foreclosed upon. You might get a summons as part of the court proceedings. Don’t ignore the subpoena, even though you don’t own the property. The judge will explain your rights during the court proceedings. Then you will find out exactly how long you can stay in the property before you have to vacate. Following through the summons can protect you during the proceedings. 

Are You a Veteran? 

If you have served in the military, this can be grounds for getting your criminal or eviction record expunged or sealed. States across the country have programs to make expunging criminal and eviction records easier for veterans. The plan you choose depends on where you are in the legal process.

For instance, if you’re a California citizen who has been charged but not yet convicted, you might qualify for the state’s military diversion program (County of San Mateo Probation, n.d.). Once you complete the treatment program, your charges will be dismissed, so you won’t have to worry about them being on your record.

What if you’ve already been convicted? Some law firms across the country offer their services free of charge. They will fight to erase your records for you, or you can file for an expungement yourself, using your service as the grounds. Many judges are sensitive to the plight of veterans. They understand that there is a veteran homeless crisis, partly due to eviction and criminal records that make it impossible for them to get housing. Your judge will likely be understanding. 

Just remember that you need to show proof of military service. Also, it is helpful if you served at least two years and were honorably discharged. Finally, if you were injured or suffer from PTSD due to your service, include that when petitioning the courts. PTSD and other conditions make it difficult to adjust to society and could be the cause for the criminal record or eviction. Don’t be afraid to include medical records or a note from your doctor to prove your case. This might be slightly uncomfortable, but clearing your record is well worth it. 

Consider Joining the Armed Forces 

If you have an eviction or criminal record, joining the military could be grounds to have it removed. Of course, your record will make it harder to join the armed forces.

If you have a record, you will need a military criminal history moral waiver to enlist (POWERS, 2018). First, you must talk to a recruiter. Don’t be discouraged if the first recruiter you speak to refuses to initiate a moral waiver request. Many people have to talk to several recruiters before moving forward with the request. You will likely find one that you click with and who is willing to help you with your case. 

Once you find a recruiter willing to initiate the process, you will need to wait for the approval. The more serious the offense, the higher up the chain the approval goes. If your request is approved, you can join the military. However, if your request is denied, you cannot appeal it. All decisions are final. 

You can increase your odds of approval by applying for the right branch of the military. It’s typically easiest to get into the Army and hardest to get into the Coast Guard or Air Force on moral waivers. The Navy and Marine Corp offer a moderate level of approvals. You can also boost your chances by gathering letters from community leaders and showcasing yourself as a good recruit. For example, having college credits will make you more attractive to recruiters, as well as scoring high on the entrance exam. Finally, your odds will go way up when there is a recruitment need. If a military branch needs more recruits, it will loosen the requirements and push more people through, on moral waivers. 

Once you enter the military on moral waivers, you will have a good claim to have your record expunged. You can make your case even more attractive by serving with honor. You might want to wait a year or two and then apply to have the conviction expunged. Your service record will help you win the judge’s favor. 

Were You Evicted While Serving in the Military?

You might be able to clear your record if you were evicted when you were serving in the armed forces due to the Service Members Civil Relief Act (SCRA) (SFGate, n.d.). Let’s say you are in a lease, and you are deployed or transferred for a minimum of 90 days. You have the right to break your contract without any repercussions. If your landlord filed eviction proceedings when you tried to break the lease, you could have it expunged from your record.

Now, let’s say that you’re an active duty member of the military, and you choose to keep your lease. Unfortunately, you cannot keep up with your payments. This is likely due to your military service and no fault of your own. The court can stay your eviction for up to 90 days. Unfortunately, though, some landlords try to skirt around this and speed up the eviction proceedings. If you think you were unfairly evicted due to your active duty status, you can file to have your record expunged. You should not have to deal with an eviction on your tenant background check because you were out serving your country. Most judges would agree with this, and because you are protected under the SCRA, the law is on your side. You should not face many obstacles in getting your eviction expunged. 

Not Guilty? Have the Record Expunged

Were you ever accused of a crime and went to court, but weren’t convicted? Maybe you never even made it to court, and the charges were dismissed. You weren’t convicted, so you think your record is clear. It might come as a surprise to find out that you still have a record, and it can prevent you from getting a lease.

To see what a big problem this is, let’s look at General Sessions Courts in Davidson County, Tennessee. In 2015, it was discovered that 128,000 citizens had criminal records in the system even though they weren’t prosecuted (III, 2015). If you are one of the many with this problem, getting a landlord to grant you a lease can seem impossible. Landlords usually don’t check to see if you’ve been convicted. A record is a record to them, and it can hold you back from finding a place to live. 

The only way to get rid of those records is to petition for an expungement. Fortunately, this is easy to do, and many states don’t even charge for the process if you weren’t convicted. You just need to fill out the paperwork, and your records will be expunged – not sealed. That’s why it’s so vital to run a tenant background check before renting. You might have records you don’t even know about, and those records can hold you back from renting an apartment or house. 

Did a Landlord Falsely Take Eviction Action Against You? You Can Expunge It

The case of Rachelle Fields made headlines after she discovered she had an eviction record on her tenant background report even though she’d never been evicted (STAFF, 2015). Fields rented a place in Virginia, and always paid her rent on time. Then she moved to Olympia and tried to rent another place, only to get denied because she had an eviction on her record. 

She traced it back to an issue she had in Virginia. Her son damaged the apartment the family was living in, breaking a window and putting holes in the walls. She approached the landlord, offering to pay for the damages, but she never got a bill. Instead, she received a summons for court. This is the first step in the eviction process, and the landlord could have avoided it by having Fields pay him directly.

Fields went to the court and got the bill for the damages to the unit. She made payments and cleared the bill within two months, but the eviction was still on her record, even though it never moved forward. If this has happened to you, you have grounds to get it erased. You weren’t evicted, and you probably didn’t even know you had it on your record. Most judges will be understanding and remove it from your history as long as you file the appropriate paperwork. 

Did You Move Before the Eviction Was Served?

Let’s say that you realized that eviction was coming, and you decided to leave the property beforehand. This can help your case to get the eviction expunged. Some states require mandatory removal of eviction records when the tenant moves before the paperwork was filed. You will need proof that you vacated the premises before the eviction was filed. This usually is pretty easy. You likely had your mail forwarded, and you moved to a new address. If you didn’t sign a new lease and moved in with friends and family instead, have them fill out an affidavit supporting your claim. 

Were You a Holdover Instead of a Non Payer? 

Some landlords evict tenants due to what’s called “holdover.” This occurs when the tenant stays in the property longer than the lease allows but still pays the rent. You can still end up with an eviction on your record if this happens to you, but you have grounds for removal. Some states consider this “mandatory expungement,” meaning the judge has no option but to remove the eviction from your file as long as you can prove you paid the rent (Education for Justice, n.d.). That’s why it’s wise to keep a record of all your rent payments. In the past, you had to write checks to do that, but now you can pay your rent online. Then you just need to log in to see your payment records. You can show those records to the court to prove that you always paid your rent on time. 

Does Your Record Cause Undue Harm?

You might not realize this, but you have grounds for eviction if your record harms you more than it protects the public. For example, if having the eviction or conviction on your record prevents you from leasing a property, that is a great deal of harm. You have rehabilitated yourself and will stay out of trouble and pay your rent on time, so the expungement does not harm the public. This is an excellent argument for expunging your record. You might need additional proof to show that you aren’t a harm to the general public, though. That could include obtaining letters from your employer and members of the community. The more proof you have, the easier it is to get your record expunged. 

Were You the Victim of a Self-help Eviction?

As a tenant, you have certain laws you need to follow. For example, you are expected to pay your rent on time and take care of the property. Your landlord has specific rules he or she must follow as well. That includes following the proper eviction protocol.

Unfortunately, some landlords take matters into their own hands by engaging in self-help evictions. Self-help evictions refer to the process where landlords circumvent the courts and try to evict tenants on their own (O’Connell, n.d.).

For example, the landlord might change the locks so you can’t get back inside the apartment or remove the front door, making it impossible for you to live in the rental. Other actions can include taking your belongings or turning off the power. Your landlord hopes that by engaging in these behaviors, you will leave the rental without the landlord filing eviction proceedings. 

Each of these instances is illegal, and you can take recourse. Along with getting the eviction expunged from your record, you can sue the landlord for damages. You can even include expunging the eviction from your record in your lawsuit, so you don’t have to go through two separate processes.

Again, you need proof to back up your claim. If you had communicated with your landlord about the self-help eviction, use the messages as part of your claim. You can also use any photos you took. Also, if you filed a police report, add it to the evidence. 

Were You Evicted Due to Discrimination?

Your landlord cannot legally evict you on discriminatory grounds (EBERLIN, 2019). The Federal Fair Housing Act has seven protected classes. These classes are:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Familial status
  • Disability

Also, some states have additional protected classes as well. If you have been evicted due to discrimination, you can petition the judge and get your eviction record expunged. Then it will no longer follow you. You also might be able to file a lawsuit against the landlord. 

Are you unsure if your landlord discriminated when evicting you? Let’s look at some examples.

Assume that you move into an apartment with your significant other and become pregnant. Your landlord is worried that a screaming baby will annoy your neighbors, so you are evicted. This is discrimination based on familial status.

Next, let’s assume that you are Jewish, and you put a menorah in your window. Your landlord promptly evicts you because he or she views this as anti-Christian. This is religious discrimination.

Now, let’s say that you are in a car accident, and you end up with a severe physical disability as a result.  You’ve always paid your rent on time and never had a problem with your landlord. When your landlord sees medical equipment being delivered to your apartment, he starts the eviction process. This is an eviction due to disability discrimination. 

Each of these actions is illegal. If you think you’ve been discriminated against, you can have the record expunged. 

Was It a Retaliatory Eviction? 

States have retaliation laws in place to prevent landlords from retaliating against tenants when they assert their legal rights (Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors, n.d.). For example, if you report a landlord for engaging in illegal practices, he or she cannot retaliate by evicting you. If your landlord does, you can get the eviction expunged and take it a step further by suing the landlord. 

You need to prove that the eviction was a result of you exercising your legal rights. If you can show cause and effect, you should not have any problem getting your record expunged. Then you can begin looking for rentals, knowing you’ll pass your tenant background check. 

Were You in Danger?

You might have grounds to have your eviction expunged if your health or safety were at risk. For example, assume that your landlord was responsible for paying your electric bill, but one month, he or she fails to do so. You have to pay the bill, or you could freeze in the rental. You pay the bill for health and safety reasons and deduct that amount from your monthly rent. Your landlord gets angry that you didn’t pay the rent in full and evicts you. Because your landlord put your health and safety at risk, you can have the eviction record expunged. This is an unlawful eviction. 

The Expungement Process

States and cities have their own rules regarding sealing or expunging eviction and criminal records. For example, Cleveland, Ohio, passed a law in 2018 that makes it easier to seal eviction records (The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, n.d.). Referred to as Local Rule 6.13, people can ask the court to seal their eviction records, as long as the Cleveland Housing Court handled the case. However, the process differs depending on the outcome of the eviction case.

If the tenant wins the eviction case, the judge issues an order to seal the records immediately, so they don’t show up on a tenant background check or credit report. However, if the court rules in favor of the landlord, the tenant cannot have the records sealed for five years. The petitioner also must prove that extenuating circumstances led to the eviction.

This is just one example of the different state laws. It’s essential to know the rules that govern your state. 

Regardless of the state that you live in, you’ll likely have to follow specific guidelines when filing to have your records removed from your tenant background check. 

If you were convicted, you would need to complete probation and pay your fines before filing to seal or expunge your records. Most states also have a waiting period before you can file. Depending on the state and the severity of the crime, your waiting period might be as little as a month or two or as long as five to 10 years. However, if you were not convicted, you will not have to go through a waiting period. You can take immediate action to delete your records. 

If you meet the criteria, you will need to file a motion to seal or expunge your records. You will likely need to complete an affidavit and submit evidence to support the sealing or expungement of the records. This is where you need to show your grounds for filing. Whether you are a veteran, were wrongfully evicted, or were never convicted, use that information to support your case. Provide as much evidence as possible so you’ll have an ironclad case. 

While there are laws and guidelines, judges typically have some discretion when choosing to expunge or seal records. The more evidence you provide, the more likely you’ll be to get the result you want.

Remember, This Is a One-time Fix!

Getting your eviction or criminal record sealed will help you find a rental. However, keep in mind that most states only expunge records one time (Portman, n.d.). If you have another brush with the law or get evicted again, you’ll likely be stuck with that on your permanent record, and you won’t have recourse. If you get your record sealed or expunged, you must follow the law to the letter. 

What If You Can’t Get Your Eviction Record Expunged?

If you try everything and still can’t get your eviction record expunged, you likely feel pretty frustrated. You need it off your record so that you will have a clear tenant background check. Fortunately, all hope isn’t lost. You might not have legal resources on your side, but you have something else – time. Your eviction record should disappear from your tenant background check after seven years. That might seem like an eternity, but once the time passes, you can rent with ease. 

Do You Need Additional Help? 

Do you need help seeing if you qualify for expungement? There are tools that can help you understand your eligibility and can even connect you with lawyers (THOMPSON, 2015). For instance, Maryland residents can use for help, while Louisiana residents can use Clean Jacket as a resource. You can also use this 50-state comparison tool to see what laws govern your state.

Also, remember that if you are a veteran, you might qualify for free legal services to help you clear your record. Several states even hold workshops to help veterans deal with criminal and eviction records. You can meet people who will become valuable resources during these workshops, so attend one if you find one in your area. 

Are You Sure You Have an Eviction or Criminal Record?

You might think that you have an eviction or criminal record when you don’t. On the other hand, you might think you don’t have one when you do. Before you try to rent an apartment or go through the process of clearing your record, it’s wise to run a tenant background check on yourself. Then you can see what potential landlords see. If you find a record, you can work to expunge it before you apply to rent an apartment. 

Use VerticalRent to run a background check on yourself.. If anything comes up, you can take steps to clean your record. Start the process by using the tool today. Then formulate a plan to clean your record if necessary. Once your record is clear, you can begin looking for rentals. 


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About the author

Matt Angerer is the Founder and President of VerticalRent. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics that help Landlords, Property Managers, and Renters across America. He is particularly interested in helping renters understand their local marketplace, pick the best places to live, and find an awesome roommate. Since 2011, VerticalRent has grown to service over 100,000 landlords and renters across America. 

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