California Law on Tenant Application Screening Fees and Credit Reports

The maximum a California landlord can charge for a tenant application fee changes annually and depends on the Consumer Price Index.

By , Attorney · Santa Clara University School of Law
Updated by Ann O’Connell, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

California state law limits how much landlords can charge applicants for credit check or rental application screening fees. California law also specifies what landlords must do when accepting these types of fees.

California's Rental Screening Fees and Rules

When a California landlord charges a rental application or screening fee, they must adhere to the following rules:

  • Landlords may charge a maximum screening fee of around $59 per applicant (as of December 2022, according to the California Apartment Association). The maximum fee increases or decreases annually in accordance with changes in the Consumer Price Index for the nearest metropolitan area.
  • This screening fee may be used for the "actual out-of-pocket costs" of obtaining a credit report, plus "the reasonable value of time spent" by a landlord in obtaining a consumer credit report or checking personal references and background information on a rental applicant.
  • Landlords who use the screening fee to obtain an applicant's credit report must give the applicant a copy of the report upon request.
  • Landlords who spend less (for the credit report and their time) than the screening fee the collected must refund the difference. A landlord who never gets a credit report or checks references on an applicant must refund the entire screening fee.
  • Unless the applicant agrees in writing, a landlord may not charge a screening fee if no rental unit is available. However, if a unit will be available within a reasonable period of time, a landlord may charge the fee without obtaining the applicant's written permission.
  • Landlords must provide an itemized receipt when collecting an application screening fee. (For a sample receipt and more details on screening tenants in California, see The California Landlord's Law Book, Rights and Responsibilities, by Janet Portman and Nils Rosenquest.)

(Cal. Civ. Code § 1950.6 (2023).)

Landlords in California should also be aware that consumers may place a "freeze" on their credit reports, preventing anyone but specified parties (such as law enforcement) from getting their credit report. (Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1785.11.2 (2023) and following.) However, consumers can arrange for certain persons—such as a landlord or management company—to access their report; or the freeze itself can be suspended for a specified period of time. When a credit report is frozen, the landlord will have to request access to receive a copy of the report. An applicant who fails to lift a freeze will have an incomplete application, which is grounds for rejecting that application. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1785.11.2(h) (2023).)

Reusable Tenant Screening Reports in California

Given the tight rental market in California, many applicants end up submitting multiple rental applications before having one accepted. The cost of these rental applications can add up to hundreds of dollars. To avoid having to pay these fees, some tenants might attempt to submit their own reusable screening or credit report with an application.

Although California landlords aren't required to accept reusable tenant screening reports, California law provides for what should be included in a reusable report, should a landlord agree to accept one. The report should have been prepared within the previous 30 days by a consumer reporting agency and shouldn't cost the landlord anything to access or use. The report should include the applicant's:

  • name
  • contact information
  • verification of employment
  • last known address, and
  • eviction history.

The report must also prominently state the date through which the information contained in the report is current.

If a landlord chooses to accept a reusable tenant screening report, the landlord cannot charge an application fee. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1950.1 (2023).)

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