Knowing tenants’ rights: Be aware of screening fees

Bonnie Kim/Staff

We all know that looking for housing off campus is stressful, time-consuming and costly. From searching in a very competitive market and paying high rent, to finding roommates and moving and unpacking, the last thing on your mind is the fees that you pay just to fill out an application for an apartment.

Many landlords charge tenants a screening fee when they apply for an apartment, sometimes called an application fee. The fee can only be used to cover the out-of-pocket costs to obtain and process credit and other information about someone who applies for an apartment. This is done so that the landlord can decide who to rent to.

With students often applying to more than one apartment, those fees can quickly add up! Unfortunately, there have been cases where landlords have kept the difference, charged more than they are legally allowed or collected fees for an apartment after they have already selected a tenant as a way to generate revenue.

As many students are moving into new apartments, some do not know that they have rights when it comes to the fees they paid to apply for their apartment.

Not only does state law set limits on screening fees and how the fees can be used (California Civil Code Section 1950.6), but earlier this year the city of Berkeley passed a new ordinance to require disclosure about tenant screening fee protections at the time someone applies for an apartment (Berkeley Municipal Code Chapter 13.78).

We students shell out enough money as tuition and fees are constantly hiked, required text books become more and more expensive and rising rent prices outpace inflation. That’s why this year, the Berkeley City Council and the Rent Stabilization Board are working together to encourage students to learn of their rights as renters so we can protect ourselves and keep some much needed money in our pockets.

Information is powerful and the key to ensuring that our rights are respected. Here’s a summary of screening fee rights you should be aware of:

— The maximum allowable screening fee that can be charged by state law is currently $42.41.

— The fee can only cover the direct cost of the screening. The landlord must provide you with a receipt of those costs, in addition to a refund of any and all unused portions of the fee.

— You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report if one is obtained during the screening.

— A landlord must provide a disclosure of your screening fee rights either in the rental application or by separate disclosure prior to receiving a screening fee.

Additionally, by following these few, easy tips, you can further protect yourself when you apply for an apartment:

— Demand a receipt when you pay your screening fee, especially if you pay with cash. Having a  record of what you actually paid is important should a cost dispute arise.

— Request a copy of your credit report if one was purportedly used during the screening to ensure that a screening was in fact conducted.

— Look over the required itemized receipt of how the screening fee was spent — be suspicious of any staff time or labor costs. The burden is on the landlord to provide proof of the exact staff time spent conducting the screening, and the time spent and cost has to be reasonable.

If you think that a landlord has violated your screening fee rights, please contact the Rent Stabilization Board at 981-RENT (7368) or Councilmember Jesse Arreguin’s office at 510-981-7140.

Ancy Dow is a Berkeley tenant, sophomore at UC Berkeley and was a policy intern this summer in Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin’s office.