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.
Massachusetts Laws on Rental Application Fees
In Massachusetts, it is illegal for a landlord to charge ANY amount as a rental application fee. (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)).
If a prospective tenant’s application is approved, the landlord may charge up to one month’s rent for a security deposit. 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. Additionally, the security deposit funds must be placed in a separate interest-bearing bank account in the state.
What Massachusetts Rental Applications Can’t Ask
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)
Massachusetts state laws have additional protections for the following classes:
- Genetic Information
- Marital Status
- Public and/or Rental Assistance (Including Section 8, Unemployment, and government programs)
- 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 illegal.
Exemptions from Fair Housing laws do exist. In Massachusetts, the following exemptions are allowed:
- Age – landlords may ask for an applicant’s age in the case of age-specific communities, such as senior housing or 55+ communities, due to the Housing for Older Persons exemption.
- 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 is 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).
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, or via a separate consent form (such as this one).
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.”
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.
- Under the dropdown menu for Court Department, select “Housing Court”.
- Next, under the dropdown menu for the Court Division, select from six housing court divisions.
- Conduct a search using the tenant’s name and date of birth listed on their application.
Read more about searching Massachusetts court dockets here.
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.