The California rental application form is a document used to screen potential tenants by collecting information about their rental history, income, and other information that would help the landlord decide whether they would be an acceptable tenant.
- Application Fee – in California, the maximum application fee that can be charged varies based on the Consumer Price Index, which adjusts for inflation. As of 2020, this is $52.46 per applicant, but the fee should be charged relative to the cost of the screening process and the value of the agent or landlord’s time processing the application (with an itemized receipt).
- Discrimination Laws – federal and state law makes it illegal in California to ask about race, color, religion, nationality, gender, familial status, disabilities, age, ancestry, genetic information, primary language, citizenship, immigration status, sexual orientation, military status, public/rental assistance, medical conditions, source of income or gender identity on a rental application form (some exemptions apply).
- Consent for Credit Check – the Federal Credit Reporting Act requires a prospective tenant to give written consent to check their credit history.
California Rental Application Laws
The following laws apply to the application and tenant screening process in the state of California.
Collecting an Application Fee in California
The application fee, also known as a screening fee is a nonrefundable fee associated with applying for a rental. The fee is to be used to cover the cost of performing a background check on a prospective tenant, including the fee from the provider themselves and the “soft value” of the time spent processing the application. (CA Civ Code § 1950.6 (2019))
The maximum fee that can be charged began at $30 in 1998 and has been adjusted yearly for inflation according to the Consumer Price Index, and it currently sits at $52.46 per applicant. (CA Civ Code § 1950.6(b) (2019)).
The fee may not be charged if there is no rental unit available at the time, and if the fee is not used to obtain a consumer credit report (or according to the purposes authorized by the applicant), the fee must be returned.
When an application fee is paid, the applicant has a right to a copy of the report used to make the decision regarding tenancy. The fees charged must also be itemized and provided on a receipt for the applicant. (CA Civ Code § 1950.6(d) (2019))
Illegal Housing Discrimination in California
California falls under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), but also has its own state anti-discrimination laws to protect potential tenants during the application process.
Fair Housing Act
The Federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate against the following protected classes:
- National Origin (Nationality)
- Familial Status (having or not having children)
- Disability (Physical or Mental)
As a result, asking about any of these items on a rental application form (and/or using them to base an application decision on) is not allowed.
California Fair Housing Laws
Additionally, California state laws adds additional protections for the following classes:
- Primary Language
- Immigration Status
- Genetic Information
- Marital Status
- Income Source
- Sexual Orientation
- Veteran/Military Status
- Gender Identity
A rental application form may NOT ask about any of these personal details, nor may reported or observed personal information be used to make a determination.
Exemptions to Fair Housing Laws
In California, the following exemptions to Federal Fair Housing Act laws are allowed:
- Age – an applicant’s age can be requested in an application and used to make a decision regarding tenancy in the case that the dwelling is located in a senior housing development, where 100% of the units are occupied by at least one 55+ senior. (CA Civ Code § 51.3 (2019))
- Mrs Murphy Exemption” – a single family home where the owner lives that is renting to only one tenant is exempt from Fair Housing Laws, unless a real estate agent represents the landlord. Additionally, race cannot be a deciding factor as per the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and there cannot be any discriminatory advertisements to discourage applicants of a certain group. (CA Govt Code § 12927(2A) (2019))
- Sex – the sex of an applicant can be requested in the case of a shared living situation that exclusively houses a single sex or same-sex roommates only. (CA Govt Code § 12927(2B) (2019))
- Religious Organizations – landlords can use religion to give preferential consideration to certain applicants if the property is owned, operated, controlled, or supervised by a religious organization that does not rent it commercially. However, other discrimination may not be used to influence the decision. 42 U.S. Code § 3607
- Private Clubs – a private club that operates without public access or commercial intent and do not discriminate when it comes to accepting members may provide preferential consideration of applications for lodgings owned or operated by the club. 42 U.S. Code § 3607
Federally, race is a non-exemption criteria that cannot have an influence on any decisions, regardless of legal exemptions due to the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
Consent for Credit Checks
Before a landlord can run a credit check based on the prospective tenant’s information on the submitted rental application, the Federal Credit Reporting Act requires that written consent must be given by the applicant. This written consent can be given via a statement of such and signature on the rental application form itself, or via a separate consent form (example template).
California Security Deposit Law
If an applicant is approved, the following laws apply to the collection of security deposits in California:
- Standard Limit / Maximum Amount: 2 month’s rent for unfurnished dwellings, 3 month’s rent for furnished dwellings. Additionally, any fees outside of the application fee that are included must be refundable and will count against the legal cap for security deposit charges. This includes administrative fees, pet fees, or other upfront fees presented during a new lease.
- Receipt Requirements: providing a receipt or move-in checklist upon collecting a security deposit is not required in California.
- Financial Holdings: there are no requirements for how money is to be held upon collecting a security deposit.
Sending Rental Application Forms
Landlords can send rental application forms to tenants in one of two ways:
- Manually – using the PDF and Word templates available for free on our website (see the top right of this webpage), landlords can send a rental application form to tenants via a physical copy or email.
- With Software – most popular property management software services include an online rental application form that can automate the collection and screening process for landlords.
For reviews of popular property management software, click here.
Processing a Rental Application
The next step in the tenant screening process is to use the information on the rental application form to conduct a background check:
- Credit Check – subject to the tenant’s written consent, a credit check will either provide a simpler “pass/fail” report, or a full credit report including the tenant’s credit score and information about their income, employment, past addresses, credit inquiries and more.
- Eviction Check – an eviction check aims to show the tenant’s history of eviction filings or judgments against them at any point in the last 7 years.
- Criminal History Check – a criminal history check aims to show any records involving the tenant in state court criminal records or in databases such as the national sex offender public registry.
California Eviction Record Search
While tenant screening services can provide a comprehensive background check on potential renters, the cost can be inhibitive. The information being accessed is public record, which can be found by navigating to the appropriate superior court for the area of California.
To search for past eviction records in California of a prospective tenant for free:
- Go to the California Court Directory.
- Choose the superior court for your jurisdiction or the previous home location of your tenant (or check multiple if you are unsure about specific jurisdictions)
- Navigate to the “Civil” court division and find the “Portal” option, often located on the case information page.
- Conduct a search using the tenant’s name and other filtering criteria to help you find the appropriate records. Evictions are categorized as “Unlawful Detainer” for the purposes of finding eviction records.
Responding to Rental Applications
If an applicant meets all of your tenant screening criteria, then there’s nothing you need to do beyond notifying them and moving forward with the normal leasing process.
However, if you acquire a consumer report for an applicant (i.e. credit, eviction or criminal history) and you make an “adverse action” against them (EVEN IF the report’s information wasn’t the primary reason for doing so), you are required to provide the tenant with a notice letter that includes certain details, known as an “adverse action notice”.
An adverse action is defined as either rejecting the applicant or instituting additional/higher requirements than you have for another applicant (i.e. requiring a co-signer, larger security deposit, higher rent or an additional deposit).
In these cases, an adverse action notice is required to be sent to the applicant, and must include the following:
- The agency’s name, address and phone number that supplied the report.
- A statement explaining that the CRA didn’t make the decision for the adverse action themselves, and as a result, that they can’t explain why the decision was made.
- A statement explaining the applicant’s right to dispute such information and their right to a copy of the report in question within 60 days.
To learn more about requirements surrounding adverse action notices, see this article from the Federal Trade Commission. To get an idea of what an adverse action notice might look like, see this example letter.
Additionally, to protect against accusations of illegal discrimination, it is always recommended to include the exact reason why the application was not approved in the rejection letter.