The Big Picture On Rental Applications In California

    • Screen tenants thoroughly with rental applications that follow laws to avoid issues with problematic renters down the road.
    • California law permits landlords to charge $62 max for a screening fee and pass other app charges directly to renter applicants.
    • Check credit history, criminal records, eviction reports, ID, and housing verification when reviewing renter applications.

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California landlord-tenant law summary

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years as a landlord, it’s that good returns follow good tenants.

So, what do California landlords need to know about collecting rental applications and screening applicants to lease only to high-ROI tenants?

Too many landlords feel they don’t have time to screen tenants thoroughly and lose money every day the rental sits vacant. However, screening tenants is the landlords’ most important task. With a good tenant, you can sleep easy at night as a landlord, knowing the rent will get paid and the rental unit will be well cared for. With a bad tenant, on the other hand, you’re left to wonder about the state of your investment while fielding calls from angry neighbors.

One of the first things to remember is to find renters who will make your life easier as a landlord, not harder. Any prospective tenant can act like the best tenant in the world during the initial walk-through. But if you want to ensure you’re getting the best renter, it’s important to thoroughly screen every prospective tenant before signing a lease agreement, starting with the rental application process.


Why Do Landlords Need to Collect Rental Applications?

Successful property management begins with good documentation – if for no other reason than to avoid discrimination lawsuits.

When you decline one applicant and accept a lease agreement with another, the rejected applicant can sue you. Being a landlord is an occupational hazard. However, keeping your tenant screening reports and rental application forms gives you documentation to show the judge that you rented to a more qualified applicant.

The rental application in California requires applicants to legally declare, on penalty of perjury, that the information is correct. If they claim they have no pets or that only one adult will live on the property, then sneak in pets or extra occupants, they perjure themselves into the rental application.

Rental applications also contain asset information that’s useful later if you have to pursue a deficiency judgment. For example, California rental applications include vehicle information, so you can attach a lien to tenants’ vehicles if they fail to pay.

The rental application in California, together with a reliable real estate lease, reduces your liability risk and helps protect your invalids with a strong foundation for the ongoing relationship between you and your tenant; you will both be able to proceed with confidence in your mutual respect and trust and start the rental off on the right foot.

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Requirements For California Rental Application

California landlords should know the law requirements for rental applications. Below are some of the basic ones needed for rental applications in California.

Requirement Description
Applicant Contact Info Include full name, SSN (if secure), license number, phone, and email.
Current & Prior Residence Info  Collect previous landlords’ contact info for insight into renter reliability.
Employment History & Proof of Income Gather job history and pay stubs to assess ability to pay rent; include cosigners if applicable.
Authorization Signature Obtain signed permission to contact references and run background checks.


California Rental Application Fee Regulations

California Civil Code 1950.6(a) states, in the relevant part, “When a landlord or their agent receives a request to rent a residential property from an applicant, the landlord or their agent may charge that applicant an application screening fee to cover the costs of obtaining information about the applicant.”

In California, landlords can charge a maximum application fee of $62.02, effective December 2023. California regulates this annual adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index increase. Landlords can also have the applicant pay any tenant screening fees directly (which is how our tenant screening service works—you can select that the applicants be charged directly).


4 Tenant Screening Reports Landlords Must Include On A California Rental Application

Tenant screening reports are essential, especially for a California rental application. Below are the ones landlords must include.


1. Check Credit Information

The applicant’s income tells you whether they can pay. An applicant’s credit report tells you whether they will pay. 

Since you can’t always judge a book by its cover, tenant credit reports allow you to dig deeper into the prospective tenant’s financial habits. If they have a good credit history and pay their bills on time, they will pay their rent on time.

To give you a better picture, rental applicants with 650 credit scores, on average, got approved, while those below 538 were rejected.

We provide complete credit reports on all applicants that you can optionally include with your California rental application.


2. Criminal Background Check

Besides pulling credit reports, you need to screen renters’ backgrounds. You should check state and federal criminal records to determine whether the prospective tenant has a criminal history. Look out for recent fraud and violent offenders and avoid them as high-risk tenants.

Sex offender registries and terrorist watchlists are typically included in criminal background checks and are important to consider. Landlords can visit the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website to check.


3. Eviction History Report free rental application

This gets to the crux of the matter: has the applicant violated other landlords’ lease agreements and had to be evicted?

Avoid signing a lease with applicants who have been evicted in the last five or ten years.


4. Housing History & Identity Verification

A fourth report to consider is verifying the applicant’s identity and housing history. If it doesn’t align with their California rental application information, landlords, beware!

Nearly 90% of landlords reported checking previous evictions, income, job and rental history, credit scores, and criminal backgrounds when making tenant decisions—so you should, too. Start the process with a free tenant background check, and you can use our landlord app to run any or all of the tenant screening reports above.


Why Landlords Should Interview Prospects Before Collecting a Rental Application in California?

The rental application, including tenant screening, takes around 24 to 72 hours (1 to 3 days). It surely is a lot of work, but if you use pre-screening to your advantage, you can save time by not proceeding with tenants who are not a good match.

Pre-screening helps you eliminate any candidate who doesn’t fit your surface-level criteria. These criteria can be easily determined during an initial conversation. For example, you should determine if a prospective tenant has a pet or smokes.

You will waste your time if you don’t ask the right questions during pre-screening. The later stages of tenant screening, including the rental application, reaching out to references, and analyzing a credit and background check, should be reserved for tenant leads with a high chance of being qualified.

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Questions You Can Ask To Potential Tenants

Pre-screening enhances your overall screening process. It’s your opportunity to set expectations for your rental process, which will help you attract quality tenants. Here are some potential questions to ask.

  • Why are you moving?
  • What is your current living situation?
  • When are you looking to move in?
  • What is your monthly income?
  • Can I ask for references from your former landlords and employer?
  • Will you submit a California rental application and authorize a background check?
  • The security deposit is $X. Are you comfortable with that deposit amount? (most landlords require 1 to 2 month’s rent)
  • Do you have pets?
  • Do you smoke?
  • Will you have roommates?

This can be a lot of questions to ask all up front, but it will give you the best sense of how qualified a tenant lead is from the start. 


Which Occupants Need to Fill Out a California Rental Application Form?

The question of who needs to fill out a rental application in California often arises when more than one person will live in the rental property or co-signers will be part of the deal.

Here’s what you need to remember:

  • Anyone over 18 years old who will live in the property for any time should complete a rental application.
  • Anyone not living in the home but co-signing the lease should complete a rental application.
  • Anyone who moves in or comes later should complete a rental application in California.

All those groups need to fill out a rental application to let you know who will live in your property. You need to have contact information if problems should arise with the property. After all, one of the requirements for renting a house in California is a completed application form per adult

If interested renters walk away because of your policy, you’re probably better off. About 25% of rental applications are rejected because they don’t meet the landlord’s criteria. Those are usually the applicants who don’t want to fill out an application, aren’t ready to commit, or don’t think they would pass your screening requirements.

Standard Housing Laws on Tenant Screening

The Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the rental, sale, or financing of housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, and disability. Tenant screening is an aspect of rental housing where every fair housing legislation will apply.

Requiring different information from different protected classes of applicants violates landlord Fair Housing laws. For instance, you cannot require a white applicant to provide a copy of a tax return and a Hispanic applicant a copy of his employer-provided W-2 form. You cannot inquire about religion or national origin. Also, in California, you cannot ask about immigration status or citizenship.

70% of renters in California have pets, but only 30% of rentals accept them. You can prohibit pets generally and state this on an application. However, suppose a prospective tenant has a letter from a doctor saying he requires a companion dog due to a mental health condition. In that case, you cannot deny tenancy or prohibit the dog.

In summary, you cannot base any action or decision in the screening process on any aspect of an applicant’s membership in one of the protected classes.


What is the average income-to-rent ratio required by California landlords?

California landlords generally require an income-to-rent ratio of 30% or more, though some may accept a lower ratio for otherwise qualified tenants.

How do I become a tenant in California?

Guests become tenants in California by staying 14 days within six months or seven nights consecutively.

Do you need a permit to rent a house in California?

No permit is required to rent a house in California, though local regulations may vary.

The Bottom Line

A rental application is an important part of tenant screening. In a perfect world, a landlord would be able to trust all people who wish to rent from them. However, the world is imperfect, and not all tenants are equal.

Collect a California rental application from all interested parties, run thorough tenant screening reports, and remember that your returns are directly tied to the quality of your tenants.


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