Whether you’re looking to fill a vacancy or rent a property, there’s a good chance you’ll experience a tenant screening at some point. Tenant screenings are a useful tool for landlords and property managers, helping to verify an applicant’s identity and maintain the safety of their rental community. 

Most tenant background checks involve some type of criminal records search, which usually pulls from one or more of these criminal databases: national, county, federal, and state. Since there is no one-size-fits-all background check, a landlord may choose to search one (or a combination) of these criminal databases.

For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on the two most common types of background checks: county and national. These criminal searches tend to be the most detailed and are often utilized together. So, what is the difference between each one? 

Let’s compare and go over them in more detail below. 

What is a County Search?

While a county search costs a bit more than other searches, it is among the most comprehensive sources for criminal records, showing data at the local county level where most records exist. County searches will typically show crimes such as felonies and misdemeanors, as they are usually tried at local jurisdictions. They also hold the most accurate information compared to other jurisdictions.

This type of search screens the applicant’s home county and often screens previous counties they have lived in, depending on how in-depth the screening service is. The information that shows up through a county search may include the following details:

  • Convictions and certain probations
  • Warrants that are active
  • Court cases that are currently pending
  • Criminal offenses
  • Sentences received

Keep in mind: 

A county search will not include non-criminal records such as traffic violations, dismissed cases, or minor offenses. However, these offenses are usually not necessary to determine a tenant’s eligibility for a rental property. Another important thing to consider is that county-level searches are limited to a certain geographic location, so they may not show records from other local jurisdictions. County searches may take slightly longer to return data compared to other background checks, so plan ahead if this type of search is part of your tenant screening process.

What is a National Search?

A national search is often the best place to start when screening a new applicant, as it casts the widest net compared to other search methods. National checks scour the thousands of jurisdictions across the United States, often catching anything missed by a local search. Many landlords rely on national searches to mitigate any potential risks, as this type of record search includes terrorist and sex offender registries.

A national search typically pulls data from several organizations, including (but not limited to):

  • Sex Offender Registries
  • National Warrants
  • Department of Public Safety
  • State Judiciary and Superior Courts
  • County Warrants and Mugshots
  • Department of Corrections
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation

Keep in mind:

While national databases are extensive, they may not have as detailed or up-to-date information compared to county records. Any results found in a national search can give you a general direction for further investigation.

County vs. National Search: Which is Best?

Now that you know the differences between the two, you may be wondering which one is the preferred choice. While national checks provide the ability to search more areas at once, they can also be less detailed. And while local county searches are more informative, they are limited to their geographic location.

Simply put, choosing between a county search and a national search is like trying to pick having steak or potatoes for dinner—they complement each other best when they’re used together.

With Their Powers Combined

Since both county and national searches have unique weaknesses and strengths, it makes sense to combine them to get the best of both worlds. When a landlord conducts a county and national search for a tenant, they can get the clearest picture of their overall background history.

How to Get National and County Background Checks

Working with a reputable consumer reporting agency (CRA) is the most efficient, reliable, and secure way to screen a tenant. Finding a qualified agency that adheres to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) will help you get the data you need while remaining compliant with all background check laws. 

If you use property management software, like TenantCloud, they often have built-in screening tools where you can obtain written permission from your applicant and order FCRA-compliant background checks all in one. (Pssst: TenantCloud is partnered with TazWorks and TransUnion, providing you with one of the most robust screening tools on the market! We also have a variety of criminal record checks to choose from, including county and national searches.) 

Another benefit of using a property management platform to run a background check is that you’ll have all your applicant’s information in one place. You can also include the background check fees as part of the initial application process, passing the financial responsibility onto the applicant.

How Much Do National and County Searches Cost?

The cost of a county and national background check will vary depending on the screening agency used, the total screening package, and where the report(s) are sourced. The average cost for national and county background checks runs anywhere from $25-$100 per report. 

(TenantCloud offers several affordable background check packages with additional add-ons. See this article for TenantCloud’s background check pricing.)

Tips on Getting Started with Online Screenings

  • Start screenings as soon as possible: Finding the right tenant takes time. Make sure to get started right away so you have plenty of time for the background checks to be completed. Most checks will return within a day or two; however, in some cases, they may take longer. 
  • Get written consent: In order to remain legally compliant, you’ll need to obtain written permission from your applicant before running their background history. (You can often do this automatically if you use a property management screening tool.)
  • Determine your rental criteria before you screen tenants: This will make the decision-making process easier when you receive the background reports. 


Now that you know the importance of county and national background checks, you have everything you need to ensure you’ve found the perfect candidate for your rental. By screening tenants with a reputable screening service, you can take a step in the right direction, keeping your rental community safe and securing a positive rental experience.

Try TenantCloud’s online screening tool to get a complete picture of your applicant’s criminal history in little time. You can even run screening reports directly from a rental application, ensuring your screening process is fast and efficient. With flexible background checks, credit checks, and income verification methods, you can feel confident about your next tenant.


The information provided here is for educational and informative purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice. Always consult a lawyer for legal advice and guidance related to your needs.