9 Types of Questions Massachusetts Landlords Cannot Ask Rental Applicants

by | Apr 29, 2024 | Landlord Tenant Law |

Massachusetts landlords often wonder what questions they cannot legally ask on a rental application.

Selecting tenants for residential rentals can leave landlords feeling as if they are giving their fate to the luck of the draw.

But, asking good questions on a rental application, and knowing what you are legally not allowed to ask, helps smooth the process.


Federal law does not allow some questions, while state and local legislation prohibit others.

Landlords should not include specific types of questions on a rental application. Avoiding these queries assists landlords in staying within the letter of the law.

Keep in mind that this information applies to verbal interviews and written applications.

Even if the subjects come up in small talk, you should not proceed with the following lines of questioning.

What Can Landlords Not Ask on a Rental Application?

Rental applications are essential tools for screening tenants. However, landlords have a legal responsibility to avoid the following questions on their applications:

Questions About Race

The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits questions about race on a rental application. Established in 1968, the FHA prevents discrimination in all housing matters, including rentals and sales.

Questions About Nationality

Per FHA statutes, rental applications cannot include questions about where tenants were born or what country they came from.

As with race, questions about nationality violate anti-discrimination laws designed to protect ethnic minorities from being denied housing.

Questions about what language applicants speak, where their parents were born, or where their significant other or children were born are also illegal.

Questions About Religion

Religious questions are illegal on rental applications.

During a face-to-face or telephone interview, and in writing, landlords should refrain from asking applicants whether they are interested in local churches, mosques, or synagogues, regardless of the intent behind the question.

Landlords should also avoid displaying religious symbolism in rental units. If they do, they may violate the FHA if a court discovers a pattern of denying applicants of a specific religion.

Questions About Age

It is also illegal to discriminate based on age when selecting tenants for rental properties. However, landlords can decline applicants who cannot enter a legally binding lease agreement.


In most states, 18 years is the age of majority. But, it is 19 years in Alabama and Nebraska. In Mississippi, 21 years is when a person may enter a legally binding rental agreement.

Although landlords can rent to minors, they typically protect themselves by requiring a parent or guardian as a co-signer.

Landlords with properties that qualify for the federal 55 and older exemption may refuse to rent to people less than 55 years of age and with minor children.

Questions About Physical or Mental Disabilities

Any questions about physical or mental disabilities can also place landlords in legal hot water.

Peripheral questions, such as whether an applicant has a service animal, are not allowed during the tenant screening process.

However, suppose applicants have a service animal and a landlord chooses them for residency. In that case, the landlord must allow a reasonable accommodation for the service assistance animal as long as the tenants meet specific criteria.

Questions About Family Status

Although property owners have the legal right to limit the number of occupants in any unit to comply with health and safety regulations, they may not discriminate based on family status.

For instance, if a rental safely houses a maximum of four people, landlords can not discriminate based on the relationships between the potential household occupants.

However, it is legal to require a separate credit application for everyone older than 18.


Property owners also must avoid questions about whether or not an applicant is pregnant or plans to become pregnant. Additionally, landlords should not ask applicants who are visibly pregnant when their due date is.

Questions About Sexual Orientation

Although federal law does not explicitly prohibit questions regarding sexual orientation, many jurisdictions have enacted state statutes making these questions illegal.

The following are examples of states that have fair housing laws prohibiting discrimination against prospective tenants based on sexual orientation:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont 
  • Wisconsin 

Even in jurisdictions where it is currently not illegal to deny housing based on sexual orientation, many landlords choose to avoid these types of questions on their rental applications.

Property owners should avoid sexual orientation-based queries during the interview process as well.

Questions About Public Assistance

Property owners have the right to ascertain whether applicants meet income guidelines, but they cannot ask specific questions regarding an applicant’s acceptance of government services.

For instance, landlords do not have a right to that information if a potential tenant is employed but receives child care assistance or SNAP benefits.

Questions About Arrests

Most states allow rental applications to include questions about whether or not an applicant has been convicted of a crime.

However, asking about prior arrests is generally prohibited because arrest incidents do not necessarily mean that the person committed a crime.


Some jurisdictions, such as Seattle, Washington, have enacted ordinances prohibiting property owners from denying housing to individuals based on their criminal history.

Oregon landlords can not deny applicants convicted of an offense that is no longer illegal in the state.

In Oregon, a landlord can not deny a rental application solely because the applicant has a misdemeanor conviction that occurred more than three years before the date of application.

Additionally, Oregon law states that convictions for felony offenses that occurred more than seven years before the date of application – or convictions within the juvenile justice system – can not be the sole reason for rental application denial.

What Can a Landlord Ask for on a Rental Application?

Although the restrictions outlined by the FHA serve as the foundation for rental applications across the country, landlords need to be mindful that municipal, county, and state jurisdictions can have different laws.

One innocent mistake can result in thousands in legal fees and fines.

When you write a rental application or conduct an interview with a potential tenant over the phone, ask intelligent questions that help you determine an applicant’s financial situation and ability to pay rent.

Landlords may legally ask questions that help discern a tenant’s financial stability, such as:

  • Do you have a source of income?
  • How much money do you make per month?
  • Do you have money for a security deposit?

Property owners can not ask questions that violate federal or state discrimination laws. Federal law prohibits questions about national origin, race, sex, familial status, religion, and disabilities.

California landlords cannot ask about color, race, sex, religion, gender, gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, ancestry, national origin, familial status, genetic information, or disability.


Remember, if you ask the wrong questions on a rental application or during the verbal interview process, you may end up in court and lose money on your investment.

Should you be experiencing discrimination while applying for an apartment in Massachusetts, contact the Law Offices of Renee Lazar at 978-844-4095 to schedule a FREE consultation to discuss your concerns.

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