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Read further to learn more about rental applications in California such as what fields should be included, what information a landlord can’t ask for, and what other California-specific rental regulations apply to the rental application process.
What is a Rental Application?
A rental application is a form that allows landlords to screen potential tenants to determine if they are a good fit for a property by asking for a variety of personal information. Rental applications are a vital first step that a landlord must take prior to following through with a lease agreement. A well-designed, detailed form is a valuable tool that consolidates basic information about a potential tenant and streamlines the rental process for both parties. A rental application should be complete with a signature line to obtain consent for the landlord to run a credit check, background check or other verification processes on the applicant.
A valid rental application ensures equality in the screening process, provided that the same form is distributed to all prospective tenants. This is critical in adhering to the Federal Fair Housing Act. The Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on race, skin color, nationality, religious preference, gender, age, family status or disability. In the state of California, landlords are also restricted from asking questions regarding immigration or citizenship status on the rental application.
California Rental Application Form Elements
The sections that should appear in an all-encompassing rental application are described below. Applicants should be clearly instructed to complete all fields in the rental application. Blank spaces or incomplete information should be considered for investigation.
Description of the Rental Property
A complete description of the available unit is the first section of a rental application. This section ensures that all parties are clear regarding the location and features of the property to be rented. A detailed description may also answer some of a prospective tenant’s initial questions about the property and help them determine if it is a good fit for them prior to filling out the remainder of the application and proceeding with the rental process. This section should include a thorough description of the unit, including the following items:
- Type of unit (i.e. whether it is an apartment, multi-family home, single-family home, commercial space or other type of property).
- Address of the unit, including street number, street name, city, state and zip code.
- Number of bedrooms, if applicable.
- Number of bathrooms.
- Exterior features included in the rental, such as patio/balcony, yard space or shed, if applicable.
- Whether the unit is fully furnished, partially furnished or unfurnished.
In this section, the tenant provides all basic personal information that would be required to verify their identity. When designing this section of a rental application, the landlord must be careful to adhere to the Federal Fair Housing Act and state of California regulations pertaining to housing discrimination. The following pieces of personal information are legal to be requested of the prospective renter:
- First, middle and last name.
- Aliases or other names used in the last 10 years.
- Social security number.
- Contact phone numbers and best time to call.
- Email address.
- Driver’s license or state identification number, including state issued.
- Expiration date of driver’s license or state identification card.
While some rental applications ask for an applicant’s birthdate, it is advised to only request this information if it is directly needed in screening an individual, such as in a criminal background check, credit check, identity verification report, housing history report or eviction history report. Asking directly for an applicant’s age is a violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act.
Landlords are entitled to ask detailed questions about a potential tenant’s previous residences. The rental history portion of the rental application should request the following information:
- Current address, including street number, street name, city, state and zip code.
- Number of years residing at current address.
- Landlord, manager or owner’s name of current address, if applicable.
- Telephone number of current landlord, manager or owner of current address, if applicable.
This information should also be provided for previous residences. It is common for landlords to request a rental history that includes either the past three addresses or the past five years.
By obtaining this information, landlords can contact previous residences to determine if the applicant is a good fit for their rental. The landlord may:
- Confirm that the rental history provided on the application is accurate.
- Determine if the potential tenant regularly paid rent when due.
- Find out if the potential tenant abided by the residential lease agreement in place at that time.
- Ask if the applicant incurred significant damages to their unit.
- Find out if the potential tenant was the subject of frequent complaints.
- Ask about the applicant’s smoking status at that time.
- Ask if the applicant owned at pet at that time and if they abided by written pet policies.
- Ask if there would be any reason to deny residence to this applicant (remembering the guidelines of the Federal Fair Housing Act).
While it may seem intrusive to some applicants, this section of a rental application provides a landlord with important information to increase their confidence that the prospective tenant will be capable of paying monthly rent on time. A landlord will want to request the following financial information:
- Current income (monthly and yearly).
- Additional sources of income.
- Bank name(s).
- Bank account numbers (checking and savings).
- Current balances in checking and savings accounts.
- Credit card information (type, credit card numbers, creditor).
Employment history is sometimes included in the financial history section of a rental application. Some applications list employment history as a separate section. Employment history should encompass the past five years, beginning with the potential tenant’s present employer. The following information should be collected for each position held within the past five years:
- Company name.
- Position held.
- Duration of position.
- Supervisor’s name.
- Address of company, including street name, street number, city, state and zip code.
- Telephone number of company.
Financial and employment history is vital information to a landlord and it should be completed in its entirety. Financial and employment information that is incomplete without explanation, employment history that shows numerous job changes, gaps in the employment history or a gross monthly income less than three times the monthly rent amount are possible red flags to renting to a particular tenant.
At the time of application, the landlord is entitled to know who will be sharing the unit with the primary applicant. At a minimum, the rental application should ask for potential roommates’ names and relationships to the applicant. This information helps a landlord determine if occupancy regulations are being followed in the unit. In the state of California, the generally-accepted limits of occupancy are two people per bedroom, plus one additional tenant.
Depending on the situation or type of unit, roommates may be required to complete their own rental application. This is common in situations where each individual occupant of a unit is billed separately for their own portion of the monthly rent by the landlord.
If an applicant has children, they are not required to list their names in this section of the rental application. The Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against renters with children. Listing their names in this section could unwillingly introduce bias against the applicant and ultimately lead to a violation of federal law.
It is within a landlord’s rights to restrict pets, with the exception of service animals. Unruly pets can be a nuisance to neighbors, create a mess and cause significant damage to a unit. A landlord may choose to allow certain types or breeds of pets, enforce size restrictions, limit the number of pets in a unit or completely prohibit pets. If a landlord decides to allow pets in their rental unit, they may require the tenant to sign a written pet policy. They may also collect a pet deposit or charge monthly pet rent.
The rental application should ask the following questions regarding pets:
- Does the prospective tenant own a pet?
- What type of pet does the prospective tenant own?
- How old is the pet?
- What is the sex of the pet?
- How much does the pet weigh?
- What breed is the pet?
- Has the pet been spayed or neutered?
- In the case of dogs, is the pet licensed as required by California law?
- Has the pet received required vaccinations?
- Has the pet ever injured another person? If so, collect all pertinent details and documentation.
- Is the tenant is willing to sign a written pet policy and pay required deposits and fees associated with keeping the pet on the premises?
When a prospective tenant provides a short list of personal references, this information acts as an additional resource to the landlord in determining if the applicant is a good fit for their available unit. An applicant may choose to list a family member, friend, coworker, college professor, former landlord or anyone close to them whom they feel would portray them favorably. The rental application should provide space for the prospective tenant to list at least two personal references.
Some landlords feel that verifying personal references is not a useful step in the applicant screening process. In reality, a prospective tenant’s personal references can be valuable to a landlord. Personal references may be brutally honest, giving some insight on the applicant’s personality, character and habits. If the landlord keeps these references on file, they may also be able to help in the unfortunate event of an emergency or help the landlord locate the tenant if they vacate the premises or otherwise breach the lease agreement.
The following information should be included on the rental application for each reference:
- References’ name.
- References’ address, including street number, street name, city, state and zip code.
- References’ telephone number.
- The references’ relationship to the prospective tenant.
- Number of years that the reference and applicant have been acquainted.
- References’ occupation.
Personal History and Personal Statement
This section of the rental application will further assist the landlord in identifying red flags associated with an applicant. It is an excellent opportunity to prescreen an applicant before proceeding with the rental process. While unfavorable answers may not automatically mean that the potential tenant would create an issue for the landlord, they may warrant further questioning or investigation prior to leasing the unit to this person. This is a prime section to ask any questions that have not been addressed by the rest of the rental application, provided that the questions are compliant with the Federal Fair Housing Act. A landlord may want to include the following questions on their rental application:
- Does the potential tenant smoke or vape?
- Has the potential tenant ever been evicted from a residence?
- Has the potential tenant ever declared bankruptcy?
- Has the potential tenant ever been charged with a felony?
The rental application should leave space for the applicant to explain any “yes” responses in detail. The landlord should consider all explanations carefully before deciding to rent their unit to the applicant.
A personal statement may be included either in the personal history section or separately in a rental application. A personal statement gives potential tenants an opportunity to tell the landlord any additional information about themselves that may help them secure the unit or further explain unfavorable information that was required by the rental application. A close look at the personal statement may reveal unusual circumstances encountered by the potential tenant and make the landlord realize that the person would indeed be the right fit for their rental.
Some landlords choose to collect the following information from prospective tenants on a rental application:
- Vehicle information: A landlord may request an applicant’s vehicle information if there are assigned parking spaces or if there is limited parking available on-site. In the case of an overcrowded parking lot, the landlord can use this information on file to determine which cars belong in the lot and which do not. If a landlord requests an applicant’s vehicle information, they should obtain the make, model, year, license plate number and state for each vehicle that the prospective tenant owns. The landlord may also collect this information upon signing the residential lease agreement, if desired.
- Emergency contacts: A landlord may request between one and three emergency contacts on the rental application to keep on file if needed. The landlord may also obtain emergency contacts when the residential lease agreement is signed.
The rental application is a landlord’s introduction to a prospective tenant. While it may seem time-consuming to review all sections of the rental application and thoroughly screen each applicant, doing so is in the landlord’s best interest.
The applicant’s signature is one of the most vital sections in the rental application. Without the applicant’s signature, the information collected may only be of limited use. The rental application clearly state what the applicant’s signature represents. When a prospective tenant signs a rental application, it should be understood that they consent to the following;
- That all information provided on the rental application is truthful to the best of their knowledge.
- That they give permission to the landlord to verify the information provided on the rental application.
- That they consent to all reports needed to verify the information provided on the rental application including a credit report, a criminal background check, employment history report, tenant history report or any other means of collecting information.
In addition to a signature line, this section should include a space for the date. It should also include a space to indicate if an application fee was received, if applicable.
Regulations in California Governing Rental Applications
While many rental applications look similar from state to state, each state has its own set of tenant screening laws that may influence the details of an application. In California, there are several regulations that must be considered when a landlord devises a rental application for potential tenants. The regulations that are specific to the state of California are listed as follows:
- In California, a landlord may charge an application fee that does not exceed $49.50. This fee does not need to be refundable unless portions of the fee are not used in the screening process.
- The application fee is intended to cover a landlord’s out-of-pocket screening costs and their time spent during the screening process.
- The landlord must provide the tenant with an itemized receipt showing how the application fee was used in the screening process. Unused portions of the application fee must be refunded to the applicant.
- If a landlord in California runs a credit report on an applicant, the landlord must provide a copy of the report if requested by the applicant.
- If the applicant has a freeze on their credit report, the applicant must make arrangements to temporarily suspend the freeze or allow access to the landlord. If the applicant does not make the credit report accessible to the landlord, the landlord can refuse to accept the application.
- If a unit will not be available within a reasonable amount of time, the landlord may not charge an application fee unless the applicant agrees to a fee in writing.
- A landlord may not use immigration status as a reason to deny occupancy to an applicant.
- Landlords in California may inquire about smoking status on their rental application and are allowed to deny occupancy to an applicant based on this information.