California has a number of laws on the books that regulate the rental application process. These laws give renters more control over their background and credit report history and protect them from paying too much to apply for an apartment. And don't forget: federal tenant screening laws also apply.
The maximum rental application fee in California is $50
When California Civil Code §1950.6 was passed in 1997, the cap on rental application fees was $30. But that limit is not fixed—the law allows landlords to increase the amount annually based on the Consumer Price Index.1 As of 2018, the application fee cap had risen to $50.94.2
In addition, the application screening fee cannot exceed the prospective landlord’s actual costs of gathering information. These costs can include both the price of a tenant screening service and the “soft costs” of the landlord’s time.3
Landlords must provide receipts and refund any unused money
The landlord must provide each applicant with a written receipt after they pay the application screening fee. This receipt must itemize all costs, including the landlord’s time or the price of any screening services used.4
If the landlord ends up not running a background or credit check on the applicant, the portion of the fee intended for that purpose must be returned.5
Any payments other than the application fee are part of the security deposit
According to state law, any payments besides the application fee are considered part of the security deposit. Even if these costs are labeled something different—for instance, a "pet fee" or "administrative fee"—the total cost can't exceed California's legal cap on the security deposit (which is either two months' rent for an unfurnished rental, or three months' rent for a furnished one). And, since these fees are part of the security deposit, they also must be refundable.10
It's illegal to charge an application fee for an unavailable unit
If there are no rental units currently available or “available within a reasonable period of time,” then a landlord is prevented from charging an application fee for putting someone on a waiting list. It’s allowed only if the applicant agrees to it in writing.6
Applicants have a right to see their consumer credit report
If the applicant paid an application fee, then they have a right to see a copy of the consumer credit report used by the landlord to screen them. Landlords must provide a copy of the report if requested.7
It's legal to deny an applicant if their credit reports are frozen
California consumers can legally place a “security freeze” on their credit reports, which prevents the consumer credit reporting agency from releasing their information to outside parties without consent. Consumers can, however, allow certain parties—such as a prospective landlord or management company—access to their report, or can suspend the freeze for a set period of time.8
If such an applicant fails to take these measures, then their rental application will be considered incomplete. That is grounds for a legal rejection by a landlord.9
Applicants are protected from discrimination by California's fair housing laws
All tenants in the U.S. are covered by the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal for landlords or brokers to treat people differently based on race, national origin, religion, gender, disability, or family status. But California has some of the strongest state fair housing laws in the country, which stop landlords from rejecting applicants because of their sexual orientation, source of income, citizenship status, and more.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
Can’t find your question?
Have a specific question that's not answered in one of our Learn articles? Submit it here and we might be able to create a new article.