The Massachusetts rental application form is a document that a landlord sends to a prospective tenant to fill out with information about them and their rental history. The information is used for screening purposes and to decide whether to rent or lease the property to the applicant.
- Application Fee – in Massachusetts, it is illegal for a landlord to charge ANY amount as a rental application fee. Only real estate agents or brokers are allowed to charge an application fee (no limit).
- Discrimination Laws – federal and state law makes it illegal in Massachusetts to ask about race, color, religion, nationality, sex, disabilities, age, genetic information, sexual orientation, military status, public/rental assistance or gender identity on a rental application form (some exemptions apply).
- Criminal History Disclosure – Massachusetts state law requires rental applications to include a statement notifying an applicant of their rights to withhold certain information about prior arrests or convictions.
- Consent for Credit Checks – the Federal Credit Reporting Act requires a prospective tenant to give written consent to check their credit history.
Massachusetts Rental Application Laws
The following laws apply to the application and tenant screening process in the state of Massachusetts.
Collecting an Application Fee in Massachusetts
While other states specify a maximum amount to collect as a rental application fee, Massachusetts is one of two states that does not allow a landlord to charge ANY amount (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 186, § 15(b) (2020)).
However, the same rule does not apply for real estate agents or brokers. They may charge a prospective tenant a fee. A maximum amount is not specified. However, a written notice must be provided to the prospective tenant outlining the amount of the fee, how it should be paid, when it is due, if any portion is refundable, the agent’s license number, the date and signatures of both parties (§ 254 CMR 7.00 (2017)).
Illegal Housing Discrimination in Massachusetts
Federal and state laws have been established to protect prospective renters from unfair discrimination 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.
Massachusetts Fair Housing Laws
Additionally, Massachusetts state laws adds additional protections for the following classes:
- Genetic Information
- Marital Status
- Public and/or Rental Assistance
- Sexual Orientation
- Veteran/Military Status
- Gender Identity
Asking about any of these items on a rental application form (and/or using them to base an application decision on) is not allowed.
Exemptions to Fair Housing Laws
Exemptions from Fair Housing laws do exist. In Massachusetts, the following exemptions are allowed:
- Age – acceptable to ask for and base an application decision on an applicant’s age in the case of senior housing.
- Familial Status – it is acceptable to ask about and base an application decision on if children will occupy the rented premises in any of the below cases:
- Two-family owner-occupied buildings.
- Dwellings with three units or less, and one unit is occupied by the landlord who is elderly or infirmed.
- A temporary rental (<1 year) of the owner’s principal place of residence.
Additionally, the following non-exemptions exist:
- Broker/Salesperson – no exemptions are allowed if licensee involved.
- Protected Classes – no exemptions are ever allowed for the following 3 classes in Massachusetts:
- Recipient of rental/public assistance
- Refusal to rent to a family with young children due to presence of lead paint (due to the landlord’s responsibility to remove or cover it).
Disclosure on Withholding Criminal Background Information
Massachusetts requires that rental applications contain certain language making the applicant aware of their rights to withhold information about prior arrests or convictions. The exact statement is required to be included somewhere on the application form (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 276 § 100A):
“An applicant for employment or for housing or an occupational or professional license with a sealed record on file with the commissioner of probation may answer ‘no record’ with respect to an inquiry herein relative to prior arrests, criminal court appearances or convictions. An applicant for employment or for housing or an occupational or professional license with a sealed record on file with the commissioner of probation may answer ‘no record’ to an inquiry herein relative to prior arrests or criminal court appearances. In addition, any applicant for employment or for housing or an occupational or professional license may answer ‘no record’ with respect to any inquiry relative to prior arrests, court appearances and adjudications in all cases of delinquency or as a child in need of services which did not result in a complaint transferred to the superior court for criminal prosecution.”
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).
Massachusetts Security Deposit Law
If an applicant is approved, the following laws apply to the collection of security deposits in Massachusetts:
- Standard Limit / Maximum Amount: 1 month’s rent
- Receipt Requirements: upon receiving the security deposit or within 10 days from the start of the tenancy, the landlord must provide the tenant with a statement of the condition of the unit.
- Financial Holdings: security deposit funds are required to be placed in a separate interest-bearing bank account in the state (although each tenant’s deposit does not need its own account).
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.
Massachusetts Eviction Record Search
While tenant screening services will charge a fee to run a check for past evictions via their own national databases, those details are collected from freely available court records. To search for past eviction records in Massachusetts of a prospective tenant for free:
- Go to the Massachusetts eAccess website.
- For the Department, select Housing Court.
- For the Court Division, each of the 6 must be searched separately.
- Conduct a search using the tenant’s name and date of birth listed on their application.
Read more about searching Massachusetts court dockets here.
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.