Need to know
- CHOICE research has shown that about half of the renter population in Australia is afraid of ending up on a tenant database, aka a 'blacklist'
- You can only be placed on a tenant database if you've breached your lease or owe more rent in arrears than your bond will cover
- Real estate agents must inform tenants if they intend to put them on a database and give them a chance to dispute it
In a rental market where most of the power lies with landlords and rental agents, finding a place to live can be a traumatic experience.
You can only hope that your application somehow makes it to the top of the pile, and that you're not rejected for reasons you'll probably never know.
One questionable resource used by real estate agents to screen potential tenants is what's known as a tenancy database, or 'blacklist'.
These databases store information about your tenancy history and are privately owned, and there are a number of them out there. Three of the biggest are the National Tenancy Database, Tica, and Trading Reference Australia.
All tenancy databases are covered by the Privacy Act, regardless of how much revenue they earn.
In most states and territories there are strict rules around the information that can be stored
"Most people aren't listed," Yaelle Caspi told us, speaking in her capacity as a policy officer at the Tenants Union of Victoria.
But for those who are, the consequences can be dire.
"It can pretty much lock people out of the private rental market," she says. "In some cases listings result in tenants having to move interstate, move into unsuitable accommodation like caravan parks, or even homelessness."
Caspi says some agents play on a tenant's lack of knowledge about blacklisting
In most states and territories there are strict rules around the information that can be stored on these databases.
Nevertheless, 50% of renters are fearful of being 'blacklisted' according to CHOICE research, though only 3% of the renters we surveyed had been put on such a list.
Caspi says some agents play on a tenant's lack of knowledge about blacklisting, and may threaten to list tenants for offences that shouldn't be recorded, such as asking for repairs.
Some tenants worry they will be blacklisted by agents and landlords for asking for repairs.
With the notable exception of the Northern Territory, which has minimal rules relating to tenancy databases, you can only be listed on a blacklist:
- for a maximum of three years
- once a lease has ended (rather than during it), and
- for one of the following two reasons:
- you owe more money than the bond will cover (for example, in rental arrears), or
- a tribunal has ruled to terminate the lease as a result of a breach.
What's a breach worthy of blacklisting?
The guidance varies slightly from state to state, but it needs to be a serious breach.
In Tasmania, for example, you can only be listed if there's substantial damage to the property, or if a tenant causes physical harm to another person.
If a real estate agent intends to list you on a database, they need to let you know so you have a chance to dispute it
Objectionable behaviour or repeated breaches of the lease (as ruled by a tribunal) can be listed in Queensland, while in Victoria breaches such as malicious damage to the property, endangering a neighbour's safety, failing to comply with a tribunal order, using the property for illegal purposes or sub-letting the property without the consent of the landlord or estate agent are sufficient reasons to get a tenant listed.
What are the real estate agent's responsibilities?
If a real estate agent:
- intends to list you on a tenant blacklist, they need to let you know so you have a chance to dispute it.
- finds you on a blacklist, they're required to notify you.
They also need to let you know which databases – if any – they intend to search when you apply for a property (except in NSW and the NT).
Real estate agents have to let you know if they intend to list you on a tenant database, and tell you if they find you on one.
Under the Australian Privacy Principles, you're entitled to access the information these databases hold on you – but not for free.
Tenancy databases usually charge a fee to access your tenancy file, although the fee can't be "excessive".
"For example, a fee may be charged to cover the costs of locating and delivering the information to the individual concerned," an OAIC spokesperson tells CHOICE.
We decided to check for ourselves how easy it is to access our own information, and what it will cost. Here's how we went with each of the three services.
National Tenancy Database (owned by Equifax)
An earlier version of its website said you can email the company for a free copy of your National Tenancy Database (residential) report, which was meant to arrive within 10 working days of your details being verified – it took a reminder email from us and 13 working days to receive our report in our 2017 investigation.
Alternatively, you can pay $38.50 to receive the file instantly through its partner, tenancycheck.com.au (which we also did).
An Equifax spokesperson told us in January 2023 that the report "provides individuals with an overview of any blacklisting information in our database", adding that the information "is generally used by property managers as part of the process of assessing a rental application". Reports can be accessed via a link on Equifax's website or by filling out a National Tenancy Database request form.
This service provides access to your online tenancy file for one year for $55 (or by mail for $19.80). The report included a search of the tenancy database and its "enquiries" database.
Trading Reference Australia
Its website says it'll provide a free copy of your file within 21 working days (after 28 days and a reminder email it still hadn't arrived), or you can obtain it instantly for $23.80 (which we also did).
The online report we received earlier only had information from the tenancy database. Its online application form also forced us to provide a phone number and employer details, which made the process feel more like an information gathering exercise on their part rather than the collecting of necessary information for the search.
Even if you're not on a blacklist, a real estate agent can still find information on you in a tenancy report. So what exactly is in these reports?
Publicly available information
In addition to the search of their tenancy database, some of the database services listed above also claim to provide information from a range of publicly available data sources such as:
- court judgments, writs and summonses
- the Australian Financial Security Authority bankruptcy register
- any available information on your visa status (if applicable)
- ASIC directorship databases.
An Equifax spokesperson told us that this information is used to "help landlords and real estate agents conduct real-time identity verification checks on potential tenants".
These checks of public data sources may include tenancy tribunal decisions that are published in searchable online databases.
If you end up on a tenant blacklist, you can only be listed for three years, and you have a right to be removed if the listing unjustified.
If you've discovered you're on a tenant blacklist, these are the basic principles that apply.
- All listings must be removed after three years. If you think you've been wrongly listed, or if the listing is 'out of date' or 'inaccurate', you can apply to have it removed or amended.
- A listing should be removed if you repay your debts to the landlord within three months.
- If it takes longer to repay, the listing may remain but it needs to be updated to reflect the repayments.
- If you think a listing is unjust, you should first ask the landlord or agent to change or remove it.
- If you can't resolve the issue with them, you can apply to your relevant state tribunal to have the listing changed or removed.
- In 2019, Western Australia established a process for tenants to be removed from tenancy databases if the listing was caused by family violence. NSW has similar protections. Wherever you live, you should make an appeal to your landlord or agent to be removed from a blacklist if family violence was involved. If necessary, contact your state or territory's tenancy rights organisation for help.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.