‘They’re held over a barrel’: in the overheated rental

What is your marital status? Can you provide a police check? Do you own a lawnmower? These are some of the questions prospective tenants are being asked as they try to secure housing in the midst of Australia’s rental crisis.

Guardian Australia has seen several examples of rental application forms requesting police and credit checks – which can require applicants to spend at least $65 – merely to be considered eligible to apply for a property.

While applicants are not required by law to divulge such information to secure a lease, agencies often state they will not accept applications without these details.

The rental crisis is particularly bad in Tasmania. In April, the market was running at a tight 0.4% vacancy rate in Hobart and 1% in Launceston, according to SQM Research.

Proerty for lease in Sydney. Photograph: April Fonti/AAP

Among the details required on tenant application forms seen by Guardian Australia for properties in Launceston are whether a boat, trailer, caravan, campervan or motorcycle will be kept at the property; whether you have birds, what breed and how many cages; whether you have fish and how many tanks; and the names of any pets and their veterinarian’s details.

Bushby Property’s website says it requires a police check. For non-Australian residents, the company requires a copy of an applicant’s passport, visa documentation, travel itinerary, and airline tickets to and from Australia. The company’s rental application form also asks applicants: “Do you own a lawnmower?”

Living Here Launceston requires a credit check and asks whether applicants will require assistance to pay the bond.

Bushby and Living Here Launceston were contacted for comment.

“Tenants are being held over a barrel,” says Ben Bartl from the Tenants’ Union of Tasmania.

“Just because [real estate agents] are asking for it, doesn’t make it OK. Providing three months’ worth of bank statements might help them work out whether you have any vices, but it’s just not relevant to whether or not you can pay your rent. Tenants shouldn’t have to provide full disclosure just to get a rental.”

Similar reports have emerged from other parts of the country. Ray White Unlimited in Sydney’s Bondi Beach up until recently asked university students for details of their course subject, its length, their year of study and their parents’ names and address, regardless of the student’s age.

In addition to asking for previous employment details, the company also asked for the reason why the prospective tenant left their previous employer.

A spokesperson from Ray White Unlimited said they no longer use this form, as most of their applications are submitted through online application portals.

Asked why they previously included those questions, the spokesperson said: “We have a lot of university students as our tenants and they have always been welcomed by us but it’s important we ascertain the ‘genuineness’ of the tenant (for example not a backpacker simply advising they are a student).”

While many real estate agencies suggest applicants provide bank statements as evidence of identity, others insist upon them, along with tax returns and accountants’ details if the applicant is self-employed.

Some ask tenants to divulge whether they have ever taken legal action against a former landlord or been to a tribunal. One form seen by Guardian Australia asks tenants if they are married.

Jemima Mowbray from the NSW Tenants’ Union says the amount of personal information being requested by real estate agents was “overkill”.

“From the industry’s perspective, they may feel this is a valid way of testing financial risk, but for everyone else it’s really intrusive and in many, if not most instances, absolutely unnecessary,” Mowbray said.

“It’s a way of cutting down the applicant list. But the more competition there is the more they start hiving out other things – they want to see references from your employer, your social media, information about your lifestyle. It starts getting really icky, really fast. This is something that people have been raising with us more and more.”

In most states and territories in Australia, there are no regulations on what personal information real estate agents or landlords can request from prospective tenants.

The exception is in Victoria, where reforms last year now prohibit asking if an applicant has ever taken legal action against a rental provider, asking about any deductions made from previous bonds, requesting bank or credit card statements showing transactions, or asking for any private information – like ethnicity, gender identity or disability – that is protected in the Equal Opportunity Act.

While applicants elsewhere are not required by law to provide all the information asked of them, in the context of an overheated market, tenants’ advocates around the country say renters are feeling compelled to hand over information in order to be competitive, increasing the potential for unlawful discrimination.

People with a disability often find the process unavoidably invasive, as accessible features of rental properties are rarely, if ever, listed in advertisements. That means people with disabilities or their carers often need to enquire directly about basic access requirements before inspection, forcing them to disclose personal details about their disability, whether they want to or not.

Alice Pennycott, a managing solicitor at Circle Green Community Legal in Perth, says that with the escalating rental crisis she is hearing accounts of people being asked for details or data “over and above what’s required of them as a tenant”.

“Bank statements, nationality or residency status, whether they’ve previously taken legal action, had a dispute with a lessor, relationships between co-tenants – these things aren’t really for the purposes of determining whether or not they can pay the rent,” Pennycott says.

“Because there are more people trying to find an affordable home, there’s more perceived discrimination because they’re being asked all these questions and then being rejected.”

Renters also express concerns about the security of their personal information once they’d applied.

“It’s not regulated or transparent,” Pennycott says. “Some of the larger agencies are bound by privacy laws, but with smaller real estate agents or self-managed properties, there are concerns that people are providing quite a lot of information and it’s not clear what’s happening to it.”

Hayden Groves, president of the Real Estate Institute of Australia, told Guardian Australia that questions on application forms were the result of the fiduciary responsibility real estate agents have to their clients to properly assess tenant suitability.

“I think there is sufficient accountability based on state frameworks that regulate the professional conduct of real estate agents,” Groves said, in response to concerns about tenant data storage and use. “The privacy legislation may not capture them, but they are certainly captured by other legislation that is sufficient to make sure that they are compliant with their responsibilities.”

Requesting bank statements was “quite reasonable” to ascertain a tenant’s ability to pay the rent, Groves said. However, he said tenants were justified in raising concerns about the extent of information some agencies and landlords required.

“I think some are legacy questions that get inserted into application forms due to the agent having a bad experience, and just remain there for all future applications.”

He called on agents to review their application forms and make sure they were asking questions that were directly pertinent to the requirements of state tenancy laws but also what is required for a tenant to retain a lease.

Tenants’ advocates around the country are calling for standardised application forms and tighter regulation of the information that can be requested of potential tenants, as well as what happens to it once the application process is complete.

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This article was amended on 31 May 2022 to remove a reference to Parry Property in Launceston, which advised Guardian Australia after publication that information published on its website no longer reflected its process for tenant applications.

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