Questions You Should Never Ask

Yesterday I got a message from a potential tenant.  She said she was looking for a one bedroom apartment and that she had a companion animal.  When I returned her call, I gave her a description of the apartment that I have coming available.  Once I answered her questions about the unit, we started to talk about her companion animal.  I asked her if she had the documentation, such as a prescription from a doctor or a letter from a therapist, to show that her dog is a service animal.  She said she thought she could get one from her doctor.  I said that was great and let her know if by some chance her dog was not eligible as a service animal, I did still accept pets with an additional refundable deposit.  I explained that if she had the service animal documentation, no deposit would be required.

We chatted for a little longer about the apartment and then she paused and blurted out “I have cancer, but I am in remission, that’s why I have a companion animal.” It was my turn to pause, and then I just said something like “I am sorry to hear that you have cancer and I am really glad to hear you are in remission.” To which she responded “The other two potential landlords I talked to asked me why I have a companion animal.” And then it became clear to me why she was disclosing extremely personal and confidential information to me, a complete stranger.  The other landlords had asked her a question they never should have, so she expected that I would want that information, as well.

I pointed out to her that I had not asked her why she had a companion animal and explained that the other landlords were wrong to ask her that question.  She said, “Hmm, that is true, you didn’t ask me.”  I explained to her that documented service animals should be treated as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Most people recognize that in a professional context it is wrong (and illegal) to ask someone why they are in a wheelchair.  This situation is no different.

So although it is always a good idea to establish a personal connection with potential tenants, be sure to never ask questions about the type of disability they have or why they are requesting a reasonable accommodation.  Not only could you be setting yourself up for a discrimination complaint, it really is none of your business.  As long as a person has the proper documentation for a service animal, you are required to accept that animal, regardless of your pet policy. Service animals are not pets and you should not ask why they have the animal with them (the law does provide landlords with some protection in the event that the service animal is disruptive or dangerous).

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About Learn to Be a Landlord
I currently am a real estate investor in Spokane, WA. I own and manage 79 rental units. My background is not in business, but in social services and community organizing. I also had way too much liberal arts education. Somehow that all fits together to make me a landlord!

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