Although the rental application is a useful tool for screening potentially troublesome tenants, multiple regulations exist governing the data that may be collected, how it may be used, and how it should be stored and disposed of when no longer needed.
One of the most important purposes of a rental application is to discover potential grounds for rejecting a tenant without running afoul of federal and state fair housing laws.
Under the Federal Fair Housing Act, it is illegal to discriminate against a tenant for race, color, national heritage, religion, gender, disability, and familial status.
Therefore, it's important to avoid asking about any of these characteristics in your rental application.
Especially tricky is the familial status category: asking a tenant whether he or she is married or has children is not permitted under federal law, so landlords should make sure to form their questions (and even their ads) very carefully.
However, prudent landlords will want to still collect enough information at the application stage to have grounds for rejecting tenants that they don't feel will make a good fit.
That's why it's a good idea to lots of other information about the tenant if you can.
Asking the client in writing whether they have ever been evicted, sued, convicted of a felony, filed for bankruptcy, or other such information creates a useful record that can help you prove your reasons for rejecting applicants or evicting troublesome tenants down the line.
Another important part of the rental application is ensuring that you obtain the tenant's express permission to run credit and background checks as part of the application process, and to keep these records for enough time to satisfy legal rules.
California law requires landlords who reject applicants on this basis to make the records they collect available to the tenant for at least 60 days after the rejection is given.
An additional important aspect of processing rental applications is adopting the proper procedures for maintaining and disposing of records.
Tenants are able to bring discrimination suits for up to two years after the alleged infraction and sometimes even longer.
Therefore, its a good idea to keep these files for the proper amount of time, until you can be confident that they will not be needed.
On the other hand, California law requries landlords to dispose of confidential records in a timely and safe fashion, so proper file management is a delicate balancing act between protecting oneself legally, maintaining an expeditious record system, and staying in compliance with legal rules.