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.
California Laws on Rental Application Fees
In California, there is a maximum fee that a landlord can charge a prospective tenant. The maximum fee is adjusted yearly for inflation according to the Consumer Price Index, and as of December 2021, the maximum application fee is $55.58 per applicant. (CA Civ Code § 1950.6(b) (2019). The application 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).
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 with a written receipt.
Additionally, security deposits have a maximum amount set by California state law: two month’s rent for unfurnished dwellings and three month’s rent for furnished dwellings.
What California Rental Application Forms Can’t Ask About
The Federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate against the following protected classes:
- National Origin (Nationality)
- Familial Status (Having or not having children)
- Disability (Physical or Mental)
Additionally, California state laws adds additional protections for the following classes:
- Primary Language
- Immigration Status
- Genetic Information
- Medical Condition
- Marital Status
- Income Source
- Sexual Orientation
- Veteran/Military Status
- Gender Identity/Gender Expression
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.
However, certain exceptions to the Federal Fair Housing Act laws do exist. In California, these include:
- 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
Consent for Background 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 (like in our free template), or via a separate consent form (such as this one).
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.
- Under California law, the prospective tenant may request a copy of their credit report and the landlord must provide a copy to them.
- 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.
- Additionally, cities can implement their own rules. For instance, Berkley and Oakland prohibit a landlord from inquiring about a prospective tenant’s criminal background information.
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))
California Eviction Record Search
California public records include eviction records, which means that anyone can access them. This can be done with a third-party screening program, or done manually.
To search for records on your own:
- 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.
Adverse Action Notices
If you acquire a consumer report for an applicant (i.e., credit, eviction or criminal history) and take an “adverse action” against them such as any of the following:
- Rejecting the applicant
- Requiring a co-signer (when they didn’t include one before)
- Requiring a larger security deposit
- Requiring higher rent
Then you are legally required to provide the tenant with a notice letter that includes certain details, known as an “adverse action notice”. This is required even if the consumer report’s information wasn’t the primary reason for the action.
The notice must include details about the consumer reporting agency, an explanation that they didn’t take the adverse action themselves (and can’t explain why it was made) and a statement on the applicant’s right to a copy of the report and to dispute its contents within 60 days. Additionally, when rejecting an applicant, it’s recommended to specify the reason (but not legally required).
For an example, see this tenant rejection letter template.