A standard rental application form is a questionnaire or disclosure form wherein the landlord can ask prospective tenants for information relevant to picking a tenant. The usual information this form will ask for includes the applicant’s income (or combined income if more the application is for several people like a couple or a family), proof of such income, number of tenants, credit or background checks, and if there are references like previous landlords or a co-signee. Note, however, that while most people agree to filling out these forms, future tenants are not required to disclose any of this information.
Purpose of a Rental Application
Rental applications are designed to help landlords find the best tenants for their rental properties. They do this by asking questions related to a tenant’s financial stability, prior rental experiences, and sometimes criminal history.
Most rental application forms include data on the prospective tenant’s credit/income and employment history, along with prior rental history.
These questions are designed to help a landlord determine if a tenant will be able to afford the monthly rent, consistently pay their rent on time, and if they have had issues with landlords in the past.
Disclosing Criminal History
Some rental applications also include questions on criminal history and/or sex offender status, for the protection of the other residents. There are some protections for tenants, here, however, that we address in more detail later in the article.
Proof of Screening Process
Rental applications also show that the landlord has a screening process in place, and shows evidence of what the landlord is looking for in a tenant. This can offer protections to both the landlord and tenant in case there are questions of discrimination later on.
Who Needs to Fill One Out?
Anyone over the age of 18 who will be living in the rental unit should complete a rental application form.
While only a few states even address this issue (which we look at under Approving/Denying the Application), it’s a best practice to turn the application around as quickly as possible.
This way, tenants don’t move on to another rental unit because they are tired of waiting to hear back from the landlord.
Rental Application Form Elements
While rental applications may vary from state to state, there are a few elements that are fairly standard among forms. Surprisingly, landlords are not required to provide a copy of the completed rental application to tenants in most states.
We break down some common elements of rental application forms in more detail below, and explain why they might be included on a rental application.
|Rental Application Form Element||Why It Would Be Included|
|Rental Property Information||To be clear about who owns the rental property, which unit the application is for, who the manager/landlord is, and how to contact someone at the rental property.|
|Roommate Information||To ensure landlords are not violating state or federal occupancy guidelines. (Only a certain number of people are allowed per bedroom or square footage amount.)|
|Rental History||To alert landlords if any issues have come up with prior landlords or other tenants in the past.|
|Income/Employment History||To determine whether the prospective tenant is a good financial risk.|
|Prior/current bankruptcies/bankruptcy status||To determine whether the prospective tenant is a good financial risk.|
|Emergency Contacts||1) For a secondary contact if tenant is unavailable.
2) For contact in an emergency.
|Vehicle Information||For rental units with parking lots, to ensure that only authorized vehicles (tenants) are using the lots.|
|Pet Information||1) To assess the appropriate pet deposit
2) To enforce a “no pets” policy
Note: Landlords cannot refuse an ADA-approved service dog or emotional support dog, even if they have a “no pets” policy, and cannot charge a pet deposit.
|Prior Evictions||To determine if tenant would follow the landlord’s rules, pay rent on time, and/or create issues with other tenants.|
|Prior Convictions||Many landlords use this information to protect tenants/themselves; however, a blanket policy prohibiting anyone with a prior conviction from renting a unit is discriminatory.|
|Smoker/Non-smoker||Many landlords have “no smoking” policies, or designate certain units/areas of the rental property for smokers.|
|How Renter Learned About Vacancy/Why Renter is Looking for New Residence||Another way to find out about a tenant’s prior rental history/evictions and to determine the effectiveness of advertising for available units.|
|Potential Renter’s Social Security Number/Contact Information/Driver’s License||May be used for credit checks and background checks.
Note: Tenants are not required to give this information to potential landlords.
|Permission to Run Background/Credit Check||Landlords cannot run a credit or background check on a potential tenant without the tenant’s consent.
Note: Landlords must use the same credit score/financial criteria for all applicants.
|References||Another way to confirm tenant’s rental and employment history.
Note: Landlords cannot ask references any questions regarding an applicant’s race, color, sex, national origin, disabilities, religion, or familial status.
|Potential Renter’s Signature/Date||Applicants must sign the form in order for landlords to perform criminal background/credit checks or contact references.|
|Co-signer Social Security Number/Contact Information||Some landlords may require a co-signer, who would assume financial responsibility if the applicant is unable to pay rent/fees.|
|Landlord Contact Information||So applicants have a way of contacting the landlord, if necessary, and know whether the landlord is onsite or in another location.|
Information Landlords Can’t Ask For in Screening Process
Under the Federal Fair Housing Act, landlords are prohibited from discriminating against potential tenants. That means there are certain questions landlords cannot ask potential renters on a rental application form.
However, the Act does not apply to landlords who own three or fewer single-family rental homes, or to landlords who live in the rental property and rent the rest of the living areas within that property to four or fewer families.
For those landlords covered under the Act, they may not discriminate against someone for any of the following reasons:
- Familial status (having children under the age of 18, pregnancy, or being in the process of getting custody of a child under the age of 18, including adoption)
- National Origin
- Handicap* of the renter, or person who will be living with the renter, or any person associated with the renter
- Age (if the housing provider receives Federal financial assistance)
*Note: “handicap” as used in the Act means a “physical or mental impairment” that “substantially limits one or more” of that person’s “major life activities,” but does not include addiction to controlled substances.
That means a rental application cannot ask what race or color a prospective tenant is, what their religion is, their sex, whether or not they are pregnant, have children, or plan to have children, or what their nation of origin is.
Including questions about what a person is physically able to do would also be prohibited, along with any direct questions about whether a prospective tenant has any type of disability, if their family members have any disabilities, or if their friends/roommates have any disabilities.
If tenants see any of these questions on a rental application, they can leave them blank, complain to the landlord or rental agency, and/or file a Fair Housing complaint. Tenants may also simply choose not to rent from a landlord who would include discriminatory questions on their rental application forms.
Even if the landlord intends no harm by including such questions, it would be difficult to prove in a discrimination lawsuit, so it’s probably in everyone’s best interest to leave them off the rental application altogether.
Additional Protected Groups
Those with criminal histories. While landlords may believe that including criminal history questions on a rental application form protects themselves and other tenants, the way the question is asked or handled could open them up to a discrimination lawsuit.
If the rental policy is to exclude anyone with an arrest record or conviction, regardless of how long ago the incident occurred, or what the arrest/conviction was for, that is discriminatory under the Federal Fair Housing Act.
Landlords cannot have a “blanket policy” when it comes to arrests or convictions, since minorities tend to be over-represented in these two categories, and such a policy could be used as a way to screen out minorities.
The only exception to this rule is people who have been convicted of drug trafficking and/or manufacturing. People with those convictions may be lawfully excluded from rental units.
Otherwise, landlords need to look at each conviction or arrest on a case-by-case basis.
The national law is silent on people who are required to be on the National Registry of Sex Offenders, and it is currently legal to deny rental housing to registered sex offenders.
State-specific protected classes. In addition, state and local governments may add their own protected classes to the federal list above.
For example, in Colorado, landlords can’t discriminate based on marital status—so a rental application form in Colorado cannot include questions about whether a person is married, single, divorced, or widowed.
The chart below lists additional protections for tenants in each state (if there are any), which means landlords should avoid questions on a rental application related to the following in their state:
|State||ADDITIONAL Anti-Discrimination Protections|
|Alaska||Ancestry, marital status|
|California||Ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, source of income, genetic information, immigration/citizenship status|
|Colorado||Ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status|
|Connecticut||Age, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, source of income|
|Delaware||Age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, source of income|
|Hawaii||Age, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, HIV/AIDS|
|Illinois||Age, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, military status|
|Indiana||Crime victims who have a civil or criminal protection order against someone else|
|Iowa||Sexual orientation, gender identity, HIV/AIDS|
|Maine||Ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, source of income|
|Maryland||Sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status|
|Massachusetts||Age, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, military status, source of income, genetic information|
|Michigan||Age, ancestry, marital status|
|Minnesota||Ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, source of income|
|Montana||Age, marital status, ancestry|
|Nevada||Ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity|
|New Hampshire||Age, sexual orientation, marital status, HIV/AIDS|
|New Jersey||Ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, source of income, HIV/AIDS|
|New Mexico||Ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status|
|New York||Age, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, military status|
|North Dakota||Age, marital status, source of income|
|Ohio||Ancestry, military status|
|Oklahoma||Age, source of income|
|Oregon||Ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, source of income|
|Rhode Island||Age, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, military status, HIV/AIDS|
|Utah||Ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, source of income|
|Vermont||Age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, source of income|
|Washington||Ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, military status, source of income|
|Wisconsin||Age, ancestry, sexual orientation, marital status, source of income|
|Washington, D.C.||Age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, source of income|
Several states also include pregnancy in their laws, but since this is already covered by the Federal Fair Housing Act under “familial status,” pregnancy is not listed as an additional protection in our chart.
Now that you know what questions should be off-limits in your state, let’s look at getting a rental application and turning it in.
How to Get a Rental Application
Typically, rental applications are available at the rental unit or apartment complex, although some landlords may have applications available online, or may only mail out an application once the tenant has expressed interest in the unit.
If a tenant’s unsure how to get a rental application for a unit they’re interested in, they should ask the landlord.
Because there are no national or state-level laws that require landlords to ask specific questions or look at set criteria, there’s wide latitude when it comes to choosing a rental application to use.
If a landlord feels comfortable enough with the discrimination laws and any state or local laws regarding the collection of fees and personal data, they can create their own form, as long as they use the same form for all applicants.
Many landlords use online templates and just change a few things to fit their specific state or rental unit. These templates may be available through realtor or landlord associations, state or local agencies, or on the web. (Full disclosure: We have a great template available for FREE for landlords!)
And some landlords work with attorneys to create a rental application form.
It’s really up to each landlord and what they feel comfortable and confident in using.
How to Submit a Rental Application
Although it probably goes without saying, tenants should return their rental application as quickly as possible.
This doesn’t mean parts of the form should be left blank, however, or that information should be left out, since in some states, returning an incomplete application is a reason for denial.
If there will be a delay in returning the application through no fault of the tenant, it might be a good idea to alert the landlord and explain why there may be a delay in returning the form.
Tenants should also ask how the landlord wants the rental application to be returned. Some larger rental companies may have an online rental application that can be submitted online, while other landlords may want an application sent via certified mail or returned in person.
Getting a Rental Application Back
There are no national or state-level laws that require tenants to return a rental application within a certain amount of time, but that doesn’t mean landlords can’t put a time-frame somewhere on the rental application, i.e. “Return within three business days for rental application to be considered.”
Once a landlord does get the rental application form back from their prospective tenant, it’s important to begin the screening process right away, so landlords don’t lose prospective tenants because it took too long to get back to them with an approval.
Of course, this doesn’t mean landlords should rush through the screening process, either—a lot of important information gets uncovered during screening!
A few states do have specific laws on what landlords must disclose upon receiving a rental application, or how long they should be kept, which we examine in more detail below.
In Delaware, landlords are required to keep applications on file for six months, even if the application was denied.
In Washington, D.C., landlords are required to make several disclosures to prospective tenants once the rental application has been received, including:
- Rent amount
- Rent control status (or exempt status)
- Any housing code violations
- Application fee and security deposit amounts
- Whether there is a pending co-op/condo conversion
- Ownership/business license information
- 3-year history of “mold contamination” or proof of remediation
- A copy of the “D.C. Tenant Bill of Rights”
But that’s not all! Some states also have requirements related to fees, the screening process itself, and falsifying information on the application, all of which are discussed below.
We can’t leave a discussion of rental application forms without covering fees, the screening process, or additional regulations states have for rental applications.
Application fees typically cover the landlord’s costs for running credit and background checks on the prospective tenant, and confirming employment or rental history. Some states set a cap on how much this fee can be.
Landlords are not required to charge a rental application form fee, but most states allow them to collect a rental application fee, though this varies from state to state.
Interestingly, application fees are not refundable in at least 34 states, and this is not addressed at the state level in several others, so be sure to confirm whether fees are refundable in your area or not.
There are also few limits on what a landlord is allowed to charge for an application fee; however, no matter what amount is charged, it must be the same fee for ALL applicants, regardless of race, sex, national origin, disability, color, religion, or family status.
States or municipalities may have additional protected classes this applies to, as noted in the state-by-state anti-discrimination chart above.
Limitations on Rental Application Fees
Some states do place limits or restrictions on rental application fees, although this is rare.
In California, landlords may not charge more than $49.12 for application fees.
In Colorado, Minnesota, and Washington, landlords can only charge the actual amount spent on the screening process.
Massachusetts and Vermont do not allow landlords to charge application fees. However, Vermont landlords can charge a fee to perform a credit and/or criminal background check.
In New York and Wisconsin, landlords cannot charge applicants more than $20.
Furthermore, New York landlords must refund the application fee if tenants provide the landlord with a criminal background or credit report that was done within the past 30 days. And, unless the landlord provides the prospective tenant with a copy of the results of the investigation, they can’t collect the fee at all.
Delaware allows landlords to charge applicants $50 or ten percent of one month’s rent, whichever is greater. In addition, landlords must give a receipt for the application fee to the prospective tenant, and keep records of application fees for two years.
Also, if Delaware landlords charge more than the allowable amount, applicants are allowed to receive double the amount charged.
In Maryland, landlords are only allowed to keep application fees that are $25 or less. Otherwise, they must return whatever wasn’t directly used for screening costs within 15 days of notifying the tenant the application is denied, or within 15 days of the tenant’s move-in date.
Minnesota landlords must provide a receipt for the application fee, and landlords are prohibited from collecting a fee when they know there aren’t any rental units available.
In Texas, landlords may charge a non-refundable application fee to cover screening costs plus a refundable application deposit, which would be returned if the application is denied.
In Virginia, landlords must refund excess application fees within 10-20 days of rejecting the application. Excess fees are anything above and beyond the actual cost of screening the applicant, and may not be more than $50.
The Screening Process
This usually involves a thorough review of the rental application form, and the landlord typically performs the following steps:
- Contacting any references provided
- Contacting the current (or prior) landlord
- Verifying employment information
- Conducting criminal background or credit checks, or both
- Reviewing income information
Financial red flags for landlords typically include things like bankruptcies, financial judgments, accounts sent to collections, foreclosures, and repossessions.
Understand that states do not require landlords to obtain credit checks or criminal background checks on prospective tenants, so it’s up to each landlord on whether they want to do this or not.
A good landlord will make a rental decision only after reviewing all of the relevant facts and information uncovered through their screening process.
Discriminatory Screening Practices
The following are examples of screening practices that would be prohibited under the Federal Fair Housing Act:
- Creating different credit score requirements for different applicants
- Using different income or employment requirements for different applicants
- Using a different application form for different applicants
The screening process must be the same for all applicants, regardless of who they are. Otherwise, it may appear that the landlord is discriminating against certain tenants.
For example, asking black applicants to fill out a different rental application form than white applicants, requiring single applicants to have a higher credit score than married applicants, or placing stricter requirements on the employment history of non-white applicants are all forms of discrimination during the screening process.
State-Specific Screening Laws
In Colorado, landlords may not use rental or credit history that is more than seven years old to make a determination.
In addition, Colorado landlords are prohibited from using an applicant’s arrest history, or any criminal convictions more than five years old in making a determination on the applicant.
The exceptions to this are methamphetamine production convictions, sex offender registration, and the exceptions outlined in federal law regarding drug trafficking and production.
In Minnesota and Utah, landlords who accept application fees must tell tenants the criteria they use for the screening process.
In Texas, landlords must provide prospective tenants with a written explanation of the selection criteria when the rental application is given to the tenant.
In Washington, landlords must notify prospective tenants up front what types of information will be used for screening purposes, how that information will be obtained, and what would be the criteria for a denial.
In Wisconsin, landlords must allow tenants to provide their own credit or criminal background reports if they are less than 30 days old.
False/Misleading Information on Rental Applications
Tenants have a responsibility to be honest and truthful in completing a rental application. In some states, as shown below, this could mean losing the apartment or even serving jail time.
In Arizona, a tenant who puts false or misleading information on the rental application regarding:
- Number of occupants
- Tenant’s social security number
- Current employment
- Criminal record
- Eviction history
- Current criminal activity
has ten days to correct the information or face eviction. Landlords can still evict tenants over false information regarding criminal and eviction history, even if the tenant corrects the information within ten days.
In Alabama, tenants who have intentionally put false or misleading information on the rental application can be evicted by their landlords, even if they correct the information later.
In Kansas, tenants who falsify information on their rental application may owe fines or face jail time.
In Minnesota, tenants may be required to pay a $500 fine for falsifying or omitting information on the rental application.
In Texas, tenants could have their applications denied for providing false information.
Approving or Denying the Rental Application
Although typically not required, it’s considered best practice for landlords to put all rental application approvals or denials in writing to the prospective tenant.
Remember, if a landlord chooses to deny a rental application, it cannot be because of a person’s sex, race, color, national origin, religion, presence of a disability, or family status. And several states add other protections, such as sexual orientation.
Landlords and tenants should be aware of the state and local anti-discrimination laws where they live.
When can landlords deny an application? Here are a few reasons it could be acceptable to deny an application:
- Application form isn’t complete
- Poor credit score (must be the same standard for all applicants)
- Poor rental history/bad references
- Criminal record (as long as the landlord doesn’t use a “blanket policy”)
- Sex offender registry status
- Income is too low to pay for rent
- Too many occupants in the rental unit (violating state occupancy laws)
We take a look at denials based on credit reports in more detail below.
Denial based on Credit Report Information
According to the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, if a tenant’s rental application is denied because of information included on a credit report, landlords must provide the name and address of the credit reporting agency that provided the information.
In addition, tenants who have had their applications denied because of information in their credit report are entitled to a free copy of their credit report.
It’s important to note that there are no national or state-level standards when it comes to what’s an acceptable credit score. This is something each landlord will have to decide for themselves, but again, it must be the same criteria for all applicants.
State-Specific Approval/Denial Laws
In Colorado, landlords must put denials in writing stating why the application was denied within 20 days of making the decision to deny the application.
In Florida, landlords must inform active duty members of the military and Florida National Guard whether or not their rental application has been accepted within seven days.
In Minnesota, landlords must let prospective tenants know why their application was denied within 14 days of making the decision.
In New York, landlords may not deny an application just because a tenant has been party to a landlord/tenant lawsuit or dispute action.
In Washington, landlords must provide a written notice to anyone whose rental applications are denied or “approved with conditions,” explaining why the application was denied, or what conditions are required for the tenant to rent a unit, and why those conditions were added.
In Wisconsin, landlords must accept or deny an application within three days of receiving the application fee, unless a longer time is agreed to in writing, but not to exceed 21 days.
State-Specific Rental Application Templates
- LawDepot, “Rental Application (Residential) FAQ – United States.”
- United States Code, Title 42 – The Public Health and Welfare, Chapter 45 – Fair Housing.
- U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management, Age Discrimination Act of 1975.
- SparkRental, “The Landlord’s Guide to State and Federal Rental Application Laws.”
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, “Housing Discrimination Under the Fair Housing Act.”
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of the General Counsel, “Office of the General Counsel Guidance on Application of Fair Housing Act Standards to the Use of Criminal Records by Providers of Housing and Real Estate-Related Transactions.”
- LawAtlas, The Policy Surveillance Program, “State Fair Housing Protections.”
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, “Housing Discrimination and Persons Identifying as LGBTQ.”
- RentPrep, “Rental Application Fees (All 50 States).”
- National Association of Attorneys General, Training and Research Institute, “Protecting Veterans’ Access to Housing.”
- Washington State Legislature, Revised Code of Washington, Title 59 – Landlord and Tenant, Chapter 59.18 – Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, Section 257 – Screening of Prospective Tenants.
- Washington State Legislature, Revised Code of Washington, Title 59 – Landlord and Tenant, Chapter 59.18 – Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, Section 255 – Source of Income.
- Arizona Department of Housing, “Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.”
- The Florida Bar, “Consumer Pamphlet: Rights and Duties of Tenants and Landlords.”
- Idaho Office of the Attorney General, “Landlord and Tenant Manual.”
- Indiana General Assembly, Indiana Code, Title 32 – Property, Article 31 – Landlord-Tenant Relations.
- Alabama Association of Realtors, “A Note from the Legal Help Desk: A General Overview of Alabama’s Laws On Landlords and Tenants.”
- BlankRome, Widener Law Review, “Navigating Through Delaware’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Law.”
- California Department of Housing and Community Development, “California Tenants: A Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights and Responsibilities.”
- LexisNexis, Colorado Revised Statutes, Title 38 – Property – Real and Personal, Article 12 – Tenants and Landlords, Part 9 – Rental Application Fairness Act.
- Maryland Office of the Attorney General, “Landlords and Tenants: Tips on Avoiding Disputes.”
- Kansas Legal Services, “Kansas Tenants Handbook.”
- The Office of Minnesota Attorney General, “Landlords and Tenants: Rights and Responsibilities.”
- Newman Ferrara, LLP, “The 2019 Changes to New York’s Landlord Tenant Law, Part 1.”
- District of Columbia Office of the Tenant Advocate, “District of Columbia Tenant Bill of Rights.”
- State of Vermont, Agency of Commerce and Community Development, “Finding Common Ground: The Definitive Guide to Renting in Vermont.”
- Code of Virginia, Title 55.1 – Property and Conveyances, Chapter 12 – Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.
- Utah Apartment Association, “Landlord Guide.”
- The Landlord Protection Agency, “The Wisconsin Way: A Guide for Landlords and Tenants.”
- Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Information, “A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.”
- Realtor.com, “8 Reasons Why Your Rental Application Can Be Denied.”