Tenant Screening: A Legal Guide for California Landlords

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Each state has specific tenant screening laws, and California is no exception. Someone who looks like the ideal renter during the initial walkthrough may surprise a landlord or property manager in ways she didn't expect or want. Before renting a residence, tenant screening is a must for landlords wanting to avoid any costly issues with renters down the road.

Screening a Renter With an Application

When a landlord has a property that generates a lot of interest, she may feel pressured to find the right renter quickly. However, screening tenants is a process; it takes time to find the perfect person to occupy a residence and it's necessary to gather as much information on potential tenants as possible before they sign a lease. A screening can give landlords vital information they can use to make an informed decision about potential tenants.

When someone shows interest in a rental, a landlord or a property manager will set up a showing. Often, he will prescreen tenants by asking a few initial questions by phone or in person. The next step is to have that prospective tenant fill out a rental application. This will usually include his Social Security number, date of birth, driver's license number and additional information, such as:

  • Rental history:​ This should include contact information for current and previous landlords or property managers, such as addresses, phone numbers, the amount of rent paid and the reason the tenant vacated the premises. This information shows gaps in that tenant's rental history. 
  • Employment history:​ This includes contact information for current and previous employers of the prospective renter and indicates if the renter tends to stay in one place or if she has moved from job to job over the past few years.
  • Current income:​ This tells the landlord if the tenant earns enough money to cover monthly rent and living expenses.
  • Financial information:​ This includes bank account numbers and credit card information, specifically balances and minimum monthly payments. This information also shows the landlord if the applicant can afford monthly rent and living expenses. 
  • Lifestyle information:​ This tells the landlord if the renter has pets, how many and what kind, and the size of each. This information also covers additional possible occupants of the residence, such as children, spouses, other family members or roommates. 
  • Personal references:​ These are friends or acquaintances of the renter who can vouch for her character. 
  • Emergency contacts:​ A landlord may request one to three emergency contacts, but may also obtain them after the lease is signed. 

As of 2019, California regulations stipulate that the amount a tenant pays for an application screening fee cannot exceed the landlord's out-of-pocket expenses or be more than $50.94. This protects the applicant from being overcharged by a landlord who may pocket the extra money not used for the screening. The application fee is usually nonrefundable, but the landlord can return the fee if he chooses.

A landlord cannot charge a screening fee if there is no current vacancy and must accept the first prospective tenant who has filled out an application and passes the screening. If he is screening a married couple, he must charge the same fee he would charge a single person. He must also provide an itemized receipt showing everything that is included in the screening. If a landlord rejects a renter after collecting the screening fee, but hasn't completed the screening process itself, he must return the remainder of the money to the applicant. Many landlords collect application fees by cashier's check or money order.

Laws Regarding Running a Credit Check

A landlord will run a credit check to get a renter's credit score or information on any potential bankruptcies or late payments through a reporting agency such as Experian, TransUnion or Equifax. If a tenant requests a copy of the credit check, the landlord must provide it.

A landlord doesn't have to give a prospective tenant any reason for refusing an application. However, if a tenant does not get an apartment as the result of negative credit information, California law requires the landlord to give the tenant written notice with this information:

  • If the decision to refuse a tenant's rental application was in part or entirely due to the negative credit information.
  • The credit reporting agency's name, address and phone number.
  • A statement saying that the tenant has the right to obtain a free copy of the credit report from the agency and dispute its accuracy. 

If there is erroneous information in a credit report, the renter may wish to clear it up as it may affect the ability to rent in the future.

For most landlords, a good credit score, also known as a FICO score, can be the deciding factor in renting a unit. This numerical score ranges from 300 to over 800 points and tells a landlord how responsible a prospective tenant is when it comes to making rent payments. The higher a renter's credit score, the better the likelihood of his securing the residence he wants. Most landlords want tenants with scores of at least 620; anything lower may indicate a higher risk of default on rent payments.

Running a Background Check

A landlord may also run a background check, which can include the tenant's criminal, eviction and employment histories. This information ensures that the tenant can afford the monthly rent and that he is not likely to engage in any criminal activity on the property or cause damage to the residence.

When using criminal record information in deciding who will rent from him, the landlord must not make someone's criminal past the sole reason for refusal, as doing so can be discriminatory and violate California's fair housing laws. A landlord should keep his focus narrow when it comes to criminal records informing his decision. For example, he may choose to refuse tenants who have violent felony convictions.

No law in California requires a landlord to obtain a tenant's criminal background information. A landlord mostly bases his decision on a tenant's ability to make the rental payments consistently and whether she's had any prior evictions. If he does choose to run a criminal background check, he can do so, but only with the applicant's written consent.

Tenant Screening and Unlawful Discrimination

A landlord cannot discriminate or refuse to rent to a tenant due to his views on that tenant's personal characteristics or beliefs. Any refusal to rent must be the result of information that is closely related to the needs of the landlord's or property manager's business. California law states that it is a civil right to seek and obtain housing, and it is unlawful to discriminate against a potential tenant for these reasons:

  • Race.
  • Religion.
  • Color.
  • Sex. 
  • Sexual orientation.
  • Marital or familial status.
  • National origin, ancestry or ethnicity.
  • Source of income.
  • Mental or physical disabilities.
  • Immigration or citizenship status.

If a landlord refuses tenancy due to discrimination, the victim can seek legal remedies, including:

  • An injunction prohibiting the discriminatory practice.
  • Access to the residence denied to the tenant by the landlord.
  • A recoup of expenses from the application process.
  • Compensation for emotional distress.
  • Civil penalties.
  • Attorney fees.

If a renter thinks discrimination has taken place during the tenant screening process, he can consult with fair housing organizations, also known as fair housing councils; state rental association chapters; government agencies, including city or county offices; and the offices of elected officials like city council representatives or county supervisors. The tenant can also consult with private attorneys or legal aid organizations that offer free advice regarding tenants' rights.

If the tenant believes that a landlord used discrimination against him in renting a residence, he must act quickly to file his complaint. California follows the Unruh Civil Rights Act and the Fair Employment and Housing Act in regard to discrimination suits, and both have time limits in which a tenant can file. Under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the tenant must file within one year and under the FEHA within two years.

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