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Tenants' Privacy - Rental Properties

by hemlane

Privacy is a topic guarding lots of attention in the media and in business. With the onset of so many technologies, our private information is available more than ever to many different parties. Property management is certainly not excluded from this. With technology making the property management process more transparent and efficient, a tenant’s personal information is being exposed at a greater pace than any other time in the industry. This article provides insight into privacy and security within the rental property, as well as with personally identifiable information on the internet. It should serve as a standard followed by all managers and management companies.

Privacy With Personally Identifiable Information

Information submitted during the application process

Paper documents are not a safe way for tenants to apply to rental properties. When the tenant submits the document to the property manager or landlord, the tenant’s address, birthdate, social security number, and other information is exposed. If the tenant cannot track where the document eventually ends, it is a risk.

While we recommend online applications, not all rental application systems are built with the same security as Hemlane. Very large rental listing websites and property management platforms will expose your social security number and/or banking information. Our recommendation is to encrypt sensitive data with tokens, but renters and landlords are at the mercy of the system. If the system you are using for rental screening, rent collection, or any other activity does not have the security standards outlined by Hemlane here, then you may want to consider a different management system.

Banking information for rent collection

It is not safe for a landlord to provide their bank account or routing number to a tenant. Here is an article about direct deposit for rent collection. Tenants also can be exposed to risk with their account and routing number floating around on paper checks. We recommend that tenants pay via a secure, online system that encrypts data.

Privacy Within the Rental Property

Installing cameras in the rental

For landlords, there are many legitimate reasons for video surveillance in your rentals. Landlords typically install cameras to prevent and catch theft and vandalism. During vacancy, cameras may even be placed inside the rental property. But when a tenant moves into the property, the use of cameras should be taken cautiously. First of all, cameras cannot be inside or point inside a private area or living space. Cameras should only be installed in public areas, such as the common space of a large residential building. The reason to have cameras in this area is the same reason as outlined above, to prevent and catch theft and vandalism. And many state laws prohibit installing devices that may overhear sounds in private places:

“The laws of 13 states expressly prohibit the unauthorized installation or use of cameras in private places. In Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Utah, installation or use of any device for photographing, observing or overhearing events or sounds in a private place without the permission of the people photographed or observed is against the law. A private place is one where a person may reasonably expect to be safe from unauthorized surveillance.”

Landlords can still place cameras in public areas as a way to ensure safety. The best way to avoid any misunderstanding or conflict with such a setup is to be transparent with incoming tenants on the cameras in public areas.

For tenants, cameras are often used for safety and to prevent theft. With new technology on the market, tenants can achieve safety through wireless cameras and alarm systems that do not require professional installation that may damage the property. Similar to a home entertainment system, installing these devices in your residence does not require the landlord’s approval.

There are certain circumstances, such as professional alarm systems, where the tenant should get approval from their landlord. These hard-wired systems can damage the physical property, which can result in a reduction in the security deposit to bring the property back to its original condition. If a tenant is uncertain whether or not their alarm system will be approved, it is best to reach out the the landlord or management for clarity.

Inspection photos and videos

It’s always beneficial for landlords to take as many photos and videos during rental inspections. It provides evidence on the condition of the property before tenancy, during tenancy, and after tenancy. From the security deposit to repairs, photographs and videos serve as evidence to who is responsible for damages.

The move in and out inspection does not have the high privacy concerns of mid-tenancy inspections. During a mid-tenancy inspection, any photographs should have an intended purpose (support a lease violation or repair required). You can read more about inspections here.

Appraisal photos and videos

When refinancing a property, it is common to have an appraiser enter the rental to take some photographs. Before an appraisal is scheduled, tenants should be warned about the need for photos of both inside and outside the rental unit.

Proper notice of the purpose of any media

Taking photographs of a tenant’s rental unit is a collection of personal information. The purpose must be identified prior to the time of collection and tenant’s must be notified. Lastly, a reasonable effort must be made to ensure that the tenant understands how the information will be used. It is important that you do not use the pictures on websites, in marketing or anywhere else which is public without the the tenants consent.

Confidentiality for any photos taken

To prevent any objections from your tenants, you should ensure confidentially that any photos taken will only use by appropriate parties and that you’ll make your best effort to maintain their privacy.

Contract terms on the right to take photos, guaranteeing privacy

A proactive and smart step would be to have a term in the rental lease agreement related to photographs. The term would provide the landlord with the right to take photos and videos, within reason, for the purpose of coordinating repairs and documenting the condition of the property. Furthermore, it should put a guarantee the photos will only be used for their intended purposes and be confidential otherwise.

Photos using the tenant's personal belongings

A best practice is to focus your photos on the actual structure of the unit. Photographs with a tenant’s personal belongings should not be used for marketing purposes. Avoid taking photos of a tenant’s children, family photos, or jewelry. For example, a close up of the kitchen cabinets to document if there are scratches is appropriate whereas a family photo is not. Here is an example:

Can a tenant refuse photographs?

Tenants are guaranteed that the landlord, and his agents, will not cause or permit any interference with the tenant’s peace, comfort, and privacy. Landlords cannot break this term in the lease. A landlord should clearly communicate that the photographs are strictly for maintenance, repair, damage tracking, or appraisal purposes. If a tenant is still objecting, the last resort could be an agreement for the tenant to view the photographs before being submitted for appraisal or anything else. Remember, there is a big difference between a photograph of their general living room and a close up photo of their 3 year old child. Tenants should also be reasonable and understand this difference as well.

Rental management can be stressful if your tenant is excessively worried about privacy online and in the rental. We hope the above article serves as a guideline for how to handle each situation in a fair and communicative way.

Photo cred: Spencer Kaff