Objective To compare the reliability of three rating scales for assessing depressive symptoms in a community-based, non-clinically depressed older population. Methods The study sample comprised of 302 independently living subjects aged 65 years or older. Depressive symptoms were assessed using the centre for epidemiologic studies depression scale (CES-D), the geriatric depression scale (GDS-15) and the Montgomery and Åsberg depression rating scale (MADRS) at three time points: at baseline, after 13 weeks (except the GDS-15) and after 26 weeks. Three dimensions of reliability were compared: (i) internal consistency (Cronbach's alpha), (ii) reproducibility (Spearman correlations) and (iii) the intra- and inter-rater reliability (Spearman correlations to compare the differences between correlations of subjects tested by the same vs. different raters at three time points). Results Cronbach's alpha was high for the CES-D (0.84), good for the MADRS (0.72) and relatively low for the GDS-15 (0.55). Reproducibility was also higher for the CES-D (0.71) than for the MADRS (0.61) and the GDS-15 (0.52). The rater had little influence on CES-D scores (intra/inter-rater ratio = 0.99). The GDS-15 and the MADRS, however, performed better when administered by the same rater. Conclusions The CES-D was the most reliable scale for measuring depressive symptoms in a non-clinically depressed older population. © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.