When using a rental application, the end goal is to help make an accurate assessment of a prospective tenant. While a certified standard rental application doesn’t exist, you can still get a vetted one that follows federal guidelines. Knowing this, we have put together an article that can help keep you out of legal trouble.
Standard Rental Application Basics
A rental application is an information gathering document and the information it requests should reflect the applicant’s potential to rent out property. So it is important that the information requested is lawful and specific.
The typical rental application has five main sections: personal information, residence history, employment/income, references, and miscellaneous. Depending on the application you’re using, the order and questions can vary. Regardless, the main idea is the same; you want to learn as much as you (legally) can about the applicant.
In this section, an applicant is expected to give personal details. Information such as a full name and contact information can be used to confirm the applicant’s identity. To successfully confirm an applicant’s identity, it is not uncommon to ask for government-issued identification. Government ID can come in the form of a driver’s license, a visa, a passport, and more.
Why ask for personal information? You need to make sure the applicant is who they claim to be. So by requesting for a full name, contact information, and government documents you can check for an applicant’s identity.
Most if not all standard rental applications will have applicants provide a residence history. In this section, you will receive an applicant’s addresses, landlord information, and monthly rent. The information here can be used to learn about an applicant’s living situation and type of residence.
What is the importance of this section? Knowing the residence history of an applicant will give you a good idea of what to expect from them. Everything from how long they lived in each rental property to how much they paid on rent in the past is included in this section.
Employment and Income
How much money does an applicant make? At some point in a standard rental application, you will probably need an applicant’s financial information. The employment and income section is where applicants are expected to provide that information. This can include income made and the employer's contact information.
While there is a huge emphasis on employer information, there are a few other things you mustn’t forget. It is possible for applicants to have income outside of an employer. Because of this, it is twice as important to gather proof and all relevant income information. Collecting W-2 forms, 1099 forms, and any other financial documents can help keep you out of trouble.
Knowing an applicant’s financial capability can help keep you out of a sticky situation. When an applicant misses rent, that is time and money lost on the property owner’s part. So, it is imperative to collect the necessary applicant information and do the right checks. A common way to avoid an unfavorable situation is to use the income to rent ratio. The ratio requires that for however much the cost of rent is, an applicant is expected to make a specified amount over it.
For example, using the three-to-one ratio: If the rent price of the apartment is $3,000/mo., then you should be expected that an applicant is making $9,000/mo., or more.
What is the purpose of references on a standard rental application? From professional to personal, references can serve as a way to learn more about an applicant. During the review process, contacting references can be a way to learn about an applicant’s renting habits. However, be on the lookout for illegitimate references. These days, people can pay for false references or have someone pretend to be one. Be vigilant and always thoroughly check something that looks out of place.
This section will have items that don’t belong in other major categories found on a standard rental application. Supplemental information such as pets and vehicles that the applicant might have will likely be in this section.
When gathering information on a standard rental application, you’re usually better off knowing more about the applicant than not knowing anything about them at all.
Discrimination on a Rental Application
There is no certified standard for rental applications, but there is a lawful standard to uphold. When looking for the perfect standard rental application, you can help keep yourself out of trouble with a vetted one. Most vetted applications are made under attorney supervision and follow Fair Housing Act guidelines. Discriminating against an applicant is possible and is something to watch out for when going through applications.
It can be classified as discrimination by the Fair Housing Act if an application asks:
- The birthplace of the applicant
- The sexual orientation of the applicant
- Any disabilities that the applicant has
- About the applicant’s children
- The religion of the applicant
Even outside of the standard rental application, it is possible to discriminate against an applicant. When you do meet face-to-face with an applicant, choose your words wisely. Whether it’s questioning or light conversation, do not use wording that can get you in legal trouble.
In California, there are additional non-discrimination laws to look out for. Enforced and protected by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (CDFEH), some of the protected classes are as follows:
- The ancestry and the genetic history of any applicant.
- The marital and familial status of an applicant.
- The age and the source of income of an applicant.
- The gender identity and the gender expression of an applicant
Whenever an applicant feels that they are discriminated against, they can file a complaint with the CDFEH against you. From the time of the alleged discriminatory act, the complaint must be filed within one year. If the complaint is found to not be FHA by nature, it must then be filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) instead.
If a case of discrimination is confirmed, the affected applicant can claim a remedy against you, such as:
- Recovery of out-of-pocket losses.
- An Injunction that prohibits the unlawful practice
- Access to housing that the landlord has denied
- Damages for emotional distress
- Civil penalties or punitive damages
- Attorney fees
Knowledge is power, and in this case, it will help keep you out of trouble. Learning about the legality of what can and cannot be asked on a standard rental application can help protect you in the future against any legal conflicts with applicants.