Fact Sheet 38:
A Renter’s Guide to Privacy:
What to Know Before You Sign the Lease, While You Rent, and When You Move Out


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Copyright © 2013 - 2014
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Posted July 2013
Revised February 2014

  1. Introduction
  2. General tips for renters
  3. Laws that affect renters
    1. Federal laws
    2. State and local laws
  4. Applying for a rental
    1. Rental applications
    2. Credit reports
    3. Tenant reports
    4. Tenant "scores"
    5. Tenant blacklists
  5. When a landlord denies you a rental
  6. Your rights to privacy while you rent
    1. A landlord's right to enter
    2. The right to "quiet enjoyment"
  7. When things go wrong
    1. A landlord denies you a rental because of your credit history or a tenant screening report
    2. Your landlord terminates your tenancy
    3. Eviction or unlawful detainer lawsuits
    4. Your rental is in foreclosures
  8. Resources: find help or file a complaint

 

1. Introduction

Homeownership is not for everyone. Whether by necessity or choice, millions of Americans live in a space that someone else owns. Recent graduates, individuals saving for a down payment, and empty nesters looking to downsize are just some of the people who make up the rental population. As a renter, you may simply choose to spend your money on things other than property taxes and upkeep.

No single description applies to all renters, and the same is true of rental properties. You may be looking to rent a room, an apartment, a mobile home, a house, or a mansion. No matter why you rent or what type of property you occupy, you are likely to have privacy concerns, such as a landlord’s degree of control over your rented space and your personal information.

This guide provides basic information about your privacy rights as a tenant.

2. General tips for renters

Regardless of whether you are a first-time or seasoned renter, a little planning and understanding can go a long way in avoiding or solving problems.

  • Order your credit report before you apply for a rental. Credit checks are a core element of the rental process, and the prospective landlord will almost certainly order your credit report. Before you apply for a rental, you should order your own report to confirm that all information is accurate and up to date. Order your credit reports free once every 12 months from each of the three national credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.

    To learn more, see the Federal Trade Commission’s information on Free Annual Credit Reports.

  • Learn about residential and tenant reports. Many landlords use tenant reports to screen rental applicants. These reports often include both credit history and non-credit information such as criminal history; landlord-tenant court cases; identity verification; past rent payments; references from former landlords; history of bad checks; treatment of premises of former rentals; and information from local, state and national databases (such as sex offender registries).

    For more information on how to receive a copy of your past tenant screening report, see PRC Fact Sheet 6b: How Private is My Credit Report, Part 6.

    For more about credit checks, tenant reports, tenant “scores,” and “tenant blacklists” see Section 4 of this guide.
  • Understand basic tenant rights and obligations. A good place to start is the website for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). There you will find information about your rights under federal law as well as links to all states for further information.

    For more on laws that affect you as a renter, see Section 3 of this guide.
  • Carefully review any lease or rental agreement before you sign. Be sure that agreements incorporate any verbal conversations you have with the landlord or property management company. In addition to basic terms regarding rent payments, utilities, and time period covered, a rental agreement should cover any understanding about such things as pets, visitors, roommates, or sublets. State laws may also require that certain information about the owner and manager of a property be included in a rental or lease agreement. (See e.g. Cal. Civ. Code § 1961 ̵ 2)

    Do not hesitate to question any wording that limits your existing rights under state or federal law (such as your right to notice when the landlord wants to enter your space).
  • If you are in the military, learn about the Service Members Civil Relief Act. It gives active duty members the right to terminate a lease when they are ordered to a new permanent location or any change of location that amounts to more than 90 days.
  • Keep a file that contains your signed lease or rental agreement and any other important documents. The file should include notes of any conversations you have with your landlord or apartment manager regarding repairs, disturbances, disputes, or any other event or incident that may affect your rights as a tenant. It should also include any correspondence, emails, repair orders, and even notes left on your door. Keep and maintain a separate file for each rental property you occupy.
  • Avoid rental scams by recognizing warning signs. Online resources such as Craigslist are a popular way to search for available rentals. However, scammers also use these sites to place phony rental listings or to hijack a valid listing to attempt to steal your money or identity. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the surest sign of a rental scam is when you are asked to wire money. If you are asked to pay a security deposit and advance on rent before signing a rental agreement, you should consider it a red flag.

    You should also be aware of foreclosure scams targeting unsuspecting renters and distressed homeowners. In one online variation, the property may have been foreclosed, owned by Freddie Mac and up for sale. Freddie Mac, established by Congress to encourage the flow of mortgage money, offers some suggestions on how renters can spot and avoid foreclosure scams. Extra caution is warranted since operators of this particular scam aim to steal your money as well as your identity.
  • Review all notices you receive from your landlord or rental agency. Small problems may become big problems if you ignore them. A landlord’s notice to evict you may give you only a certain number of days to respond. By not responding within the given time, the landlord may seek a court order to evict. Notice of court actions give only a certain number of days to respond.

    For further information about notices of eviction and court actions, see Section 7 of this guide.
  • Know where to complain or seek help if problems arise. Understand that no single law covers all situations. Nor does a single federal, state, or local government agency have authority to investigate every type of problem you might encounter.

    To learn more about where to seek help or file a complaint with the proper government agency, see Section 8 of this guide.

3. Laws that affect renters

There are laws at every level of government that create rights and responsibilities for tenants and landlords. This includes federal, state, county, and city government.

a. Federal laws

i. The Fair Housing Act

Federal law protects renters against certain forms of discrimination. The Fair Housing Act (FHA), part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability. (42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3619) The FHA and Presidential Executive Orders have been amended over the years to include protections such as one against age discrimination.

For more on your rights under the FHA, see Section 5 of this guide.

ii. The Fair Credit Reporting Act

Federal law offers rights and protections when the landlord collects and uses your personal information through a credit check or more extensive tenant report, sometimes called a “background check.” The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) gives you the right to notice if you are turned down for a rental based upon information in a credit or tenant report. (15 U.S.C. §1681 et seq.) In addition, you have the right to receive a copy of your report and to dispute inaccurate information. A landlord who uses a credit or tenant screening report must take steps to properly dispose of the report.

For more about your rights under the FCRA, see Section 4 of this guide.

b. State and local laws

i. State law may give a tenant the right to receive notice when the landlord wants to enter the space or send someone to make repairs.

As a renter, you probably don't want your landlord to have unlimited access to your space. For instance, your landlord will most likely try to rent to someone else when you decide to move out. However, you will not want either the landlord or potential renters knocking on your door at all hours of the day or night.

ii. State or local laws typically recognize the covenant, or promise, of “quiet enjoyment” of your unit.

This promise is often incorporated into rental and lease agreements, and gives you the right to live undisturbed by intrusions from the outside world. Anything that penetrates your space, such as loud noise or cigarette smoke, may violate your right to “quiet enjoyment.”

For more on your rights to privacy and “quiet enjoyment,” see Section 6 of this guide.

iii. State and local laws will govern most problems that arise between you and your landlord or you and a neighbor.

Your problems may be resolved in local counseling facilities, local small claims courts, or in the lowest level court civil court (called Superior Court in California).

iv. State and local law will govern most evictions.

If the landlord wants to evict you, your state likely has established procedures for doing so, with even more rules set out at the county or city level. Generally, the landlord must provide you written notice and give you a specified number of days to respond. The number of days may vary depending on the circumstances.

State and local laws set standards for the court case a landlord files prior to evicting a tenant. These are known as “unlawful detainer” cases, meaning that a person occupies a property without a legal right to do so.

v. State law (in conjunction with federal law) may give you rights if the property goes through foreclosure.

Since 2007's economic freefall, renters, just like homeowners, have felt the sting of foreclosure. Often renters receive no notice that the property has changed ownership. Many states have passed laws to preserve a renter’s rights during the foreclosure process. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states introduced legislation in 2013 to help troubled homeowners and preserve certain tenant rights. In addition, the federal Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2009 gives tenants rights when the rental property is in foreclosure (Pub. L. No. 111-22 (2009)).

For more on evictions, landlord-tenant courts, and foreclosures, see Section 7 of this guide.

vi. Often states have specific laws that apply to mobile home residents.

In California, that law is the Mobile Home Residency Law. For more information contact the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

To learn more about the laws in your state, contact your state, county, or local consumer protection agency and see Section 8 of this guide.

4. Applying for a rental

There are many ways to find a rental property. Newspapers, realtors, online services such as Craigslist.org, and prepaid rental services are just some of the resources you may turn to when looking for a place to rent.

If you are considering using a service where you pay a fee for a list of available rental properties, keep in mind that these may be regulated under state law. For example, in California prepaid rental services must be licensed by the California Department of Real Estate. State law addresses such things as the fees for services and conditions under which you are entitled to a refund. (Cal. Bus. § Prof. Code § 10167)

a. Rental applications

Once you find a place that suits your needs, the landlord will probably ask you to fill out a written rental application. The rental application allows the prospective landlord to learn more about you and to make an initial decision about whether you are a suitable candidate for the property and can afford the rent.

i. What information does a rental application require?

A rental application may require you to provide any of the following information:

  • Current and past addresses of you, your employers, your personal references, and your landlords.

  • Your Social Security number and driver’s license number.

  • Bank and credit account numbers. Information about the source and level of your income will almost certainly be included on the rental application.

  • You may be asked about your source of income. In California, all “verifiable” sources of income must be considered the same. (Cal. Gov't Code §12955(p)(2)). For example, your Social Security disability income should carry no less weight in accounting for your income than income from an office job.

  • Landlords may also want to know about the number of people expected to live in the unit.

ii. Is there anything a landlord can’t ask?

A potential landlord may not ask any questions that violate federal or state discrimination laws. These include questions about race, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability prohibited by federal law. In California, a prospective landlord cannot ask about race, color, religion, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, disability, or genetic information. See Cal. Gov't Code § 12955.

To learn more about rental applications in California, see the California Department of Consumer Affairs Handbook, California Tenants: A Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights and Responsibilities pp.6-8. (July 2012) (California Tenants’ Guide).

To learn more about laws in other states, see the HUD website.

b. Credit reports

i. Can a prospective landlord order your credit report?

Yes. Most landlords want to check your credit report to make decisions about whether you will be a reliable tenant. If you are looking for a rental, it is best to check your credit reports before the landlord does. You can order free credit reports from the three national credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. If there’s an error, you can file a dispute with the bureau rather than try to explain it at the last minute.

ii. What can a landlord learn from a credit report that isn't already in the rental application?

Rental applications reveal information that allows a landlord to make preliminary judgments about your suitability as a tenant. A potential landlord may verify application information regarding your current employer, income, and living situation (including opinions of your current landlord). A credit check, on the other hand, provides the landlord with information that is only available from a credit history report, with negative information dating back seven years or ten years in the case of a bankruptcy.

A credit report includes the following:

  • history of paying bills and loans on time or record of late payments;
  • open accounts and level of indebtedness;
  • collection actions;
  • bankruptcies or tax liens; and
  • civil court judgments, including “housing” court actions filed by a previous landlord that may have led to eviction.

A sample credit report is available from Experian, one of the three national credit bureaus.

iii. Can a landlord find out about late rent payments from a credit report?

Maybe. According to the national credit bureau, Experian, late rent payments are not generally a part of your credit history unless the landlord or management company is a subscriber to the credit bureau. However, Experian advises that late payments may be revealed if the landlord refers the matter to a collection agency or if a civil court action, the first step toward eviction, is filed against you.

iv. Does consistently paying rent on time help my credit standing?

Maybe. Credit bureaus and tenant screening companies are steadily moving into the business of capturing positive data about rental payments. For example, in January 2011, Experian, acquired RentBureau, which collects data from property management companies. If you and your landlord sign up with ClearNow (another Experian affiliate) which processes electronic rent payments deducted from your bank account or a prepaid debit card, it can report your payments to Experian.

For more about rent payments and your Experian credit report see Experian’s Credit Report Basics.

c. Tenant reports

All three national credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax, offer tenant screening products called "tenant reports."

i. How is a tenant report different from a credit report?

Your credit report includes information about creditworthiness, such as your record of paying bills on time. In addition, your credit report gives landlords an indication of whether past credit problems have ended in a bankruptcy or a state civil court proceeding for non-payment of rent, an action that usually leads to eviction.

A tenant report, on the other hand, may include not only credit information but such things as employment and criminal history, entries on sex offender or other public databases, driving records, and more. A tenant report may also include information gathered from personal interviews with your neighbors, former landlords, or associates.

ii. Do the three national credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax, conduct tenant screening?

Yes. The three national bureaus each offer a variety of tenant screening products. For example, TransUnion offers a product called SmartMove, an online tool with input by consumers and independent landlords. Once information has been compiled, TransUnion uses predictive analytics to determine your “risk level,” and recommends whether the landlord should accept you as a tenant.

With Experian’s product, Connect, a prospective tenant pays a fee to give the landlord online access to his or her credit report and score. Equifax offers customized, web-based tenant screening that includes merged credit reports from all three national bureaus.

iii. Are the three national credit bureaus the only companies that offer tenant screening?

No. In fact, many companies offer tenant screening products. Some companies may offer tenant screening only locally or in designated sections of the country. Others offer online or web-based screening. Still others offer tenant screening nationwide. Large companies that offer tenant screening anywhere in the country include: LexisNexis Screening Solutions, and SafeRent, an arm of CoreLogic, which, among other features, has a national database of landlord-tenant court records.

In April 2013, the Federal Trade Commission warned six companies that provide tenant screening services that they must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) if they "assemble or evaluate information on individuals' rental histories and provide this information to landlords..."  (www.ftc.gov/opa/2013/04/tenant.shtm) These companies are: National Tenant Reporting Company (www.donotrentto.com), M & R Rental Properties (www.badtenantlistings.com), The Landlord Protection Agency (www.thelpa.com), National Tenant Network (www.ntnonline.com), 123 Rent Inc. (www.therentersblacklist.com), and Tenancy Bureau Inc. (www.tenancybureau.us).

iv. Do you have to pay for a screening report? If so, how much does a report cost?

It depends on the landlord and your state law. California law allows a landlord to charge you out-of-pocket expenses, and the cost adjusts yearly. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1950.6) As of 2013, you may have to pay up to $49.50 for the landlord’s screening.

v. Can you get a copy of a tenant screening report?

Possibly. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) gives you the right to obtain your file from a “specialty” reporting company, and tenant screening reports are considered "specialty" consumer reports. The large national tenant screening companies, such as LexisNexis and CoreLogic, allow individuals a means to obtain “file” disclosures on their websites.

However, many different companies are in the business of tenant screening. If the landlord does not tell you the name of the company he or she plans to use, you should ask. If you do not ask questions when a prospective landlord mentions screening, you may be screened without knowing the name of the company. This makes it more difficult to correct potential errors.

To learn more about tenant screening and other specialty reports that are subject to the FCRA, see PRC Fact Sheet 6b, “Other” Consumer Reports: What You Should Know About “Specialty Reports".

For a list of some of the many “specialty” consumer reporting agencies, including tenant screening companies, see the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) website. In November 2012, the CFPB warned companies that they must provide consumers with easy access to their consumer reports.

vi. Do you have any rights if the landlord rejects your rental application after ordering a tenant report?

Yes. If the landlord rejects you because of any information in the report, the landlord must provide you with what the FCRA calls an “adverse action” notice. According to the FTC, the notice must include the following information:

  • the name and contact for the company that supplied the report;
  • a statement that the landlord, not the screening company, made the adverse decision; and
  • notice of your right to dispute the accuracy of the report and to receive a free copy of your report within 60 days.

For more information, see the FTC publication, Using Consumer Reports: What Landlords Need to Know.

vii. Can a landlord charge you a higher security deposit than your neighbor?

Even if the landlord approves your rental, certain actions will still trigger the notice requirements of the FCRA. According to the FTC, if the landlord takes any of the following “adverse actions,” you must receive a notice that you are not being treated the same as others:

  • requiring a co-signer on the lease;
  • requiring a deposit that would not be required for another applicant;
  • requiring a larger deposit than might be required for another applicant; or
  • raising the rent to a higher amount than for another applicant.

For more on your right to FCRA notices, see the FTC’s publication Using Consumer Reports: What Landlords Need to Know.

viii. Do you have any rights when a tenant screening company contacts a former neighbor to ask questions about you?

Yes. When a screening company compiles a report from personal interviews with friends, neighbors, former employers or landlords, it is called an Investigative Consumer Report. Under the FCRA, an Investigative Consumer Report reflects on your “character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living." (15 U.S.C. § 1681a) The FCRA requires that you receive additional notices when a screening company draws information from personal interviews. This includes your right to notice of the “nature and scope” of the information to be sought.

For further discussion of Investigative Consumer Reports and the FCRA, see the FTC’s July 2011 report: 40 Years of Experience with the Fair Credit Reporting Act. (p. 62-64)

If you live in California, the term Investigative Consumer Report has a different meaning. California's Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act covers not only information from personal interviews but also information from “any source” when reports are prepared for employment, rental, or insurance purposes. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1786)

In California, you have the right to request a copy of your report for at least two years after the consumer reporting agency provides your report to the landlord (or anyone else requesting the report). (Cal. Civ. Code § 1786.11) In addition, California law requires that you receive information about the tenant screening company before the landlord orders your report.

ix. Does the landlord have to safeguard personal information?

Yes. When a landlord collects information in credit and tenant screening reports, it is subject to the FCRA and should not be used for any other purpose. In addition, when a landlord is no longer using the data, the FCRA requires when no longer of use, data subject to the FCRA must be disposed of properly in accordance with FTC rules. Proper disposal is required for information included in either paper or electronic format. Landlords, as users of consumer reports, must follow the rules the same as consumer reporting agencies that issue reports. (15 U.S.C. § 1681w (a)(1))

d. Tenant “scores”

i. Is there such a thing as a rental “score”?

Yes. For example, TransUnion has a product called SmartMove, in which its tenant scoring model allows users to accept or reject certain criteria. CoreLogic's SafeRent division markets what the company calls the RegistryScorePLUS, said to predict potential loss to landlords from unpaid rent, lease termination or property damage. According to CoreLogic's website, it calculates rental scores based on data derived from rental applications, credit reports, landlord tenant records, and “other sources of predictive information.” Another tenant screening company, Rate-a-Renter.com, includes among its scoring elements, income to rent and income to debt ratios as well as criminal and eviction records. In all likelihood, many tenant screening companies create their own version of a rental score, with the credit score being at least one common element.

ii. Does the FCRA give you the right to get your “tenant score”?

No. The FCRA gives you the right to purchase your credit score. However, credit history is usually only one part of your overall “tenant” score. The only score you are entitled to receive is your credit score, which is based solely on the data included in your credit file.

To learn more about credit scores and your rights under the FCRA, see PRC Fact Sheet 6c, Your Credit Score: How it All Adds Up.

e. Tenant blacklists

i. Is there a tenant blacklist?

Not officially. The word “blacklist” is often present on websites where landlords share information on individuals they consider problem tenants. In addition, the term “blacklist” has been used to reference lists of tenant names gathered from landlord-tenant court files.

Court records showing that a landlord brought an action against you may harm your chances of getting a rental in the future. Like most court records, landlord-tenant court proceedings are public records. This means the record is available for anyone to see.

Landlords can access these records in several ways. A landlord may physically go or send an agent to the local courthouse to check on a prospective tenant. Alternatively, the records may be available directly through the court’s website. The FCRA does not apply when a landlord or his employee directly accesses the court records.

However, the FCRA does cover screening companies, and tenant screening reports often include information compiled from landlord-tenant actions in local court. This means when a third-party screening company creates a report that includes landlord-tenant court records, you have the same rights under the FCRA as you do when a landlord checks your credit report.

ii. What is an Unlawful Detainer Registry?

The Unlawful Detainer Registry was a regional database of landlord-tenant court cases in California and other Western states. Now, third-party tenant screening companies (considered consumer reporting agencies under the FCRA) collect data from civil court actions that landlords bring against tenants and compile it to create unlawful detainer registries. Unlawful detainer actions, often arising from a tenant's failure to pay rent, are usually the first step toward eviction.

Individuals used to personally visit local courthouses to obtain data from landlord-tenant court proceedings. Today, screening companies are more likely to purchase such data in bulk (largely as a result of digitization). Therefore, the norm is now national, rather than regional, databases of landlord-tenant court records with regional registries being purchased by national data brokers. For example, CoreLogic acquired a number of regional companies in the late 1990s and created a national database of landlord-tenant or Unlawful Detainer actions.

iii. What kind of information is included in an unlawful detainer registry?

In addition to the names of the parties, an unlawful detainer registry may include information such as the fact that the case was filed and the outcome. Sometimes called a tenant “blacklist,” landlord-tenant court registries have been subject to numerous lawsuits.

As a result of lawsuits, judges have made it clear that commercial registries that compile lists of landlord-tenant court records are subject to the FCRA. Further, courts have made it clear that to meet “accuracy” and “completeness” standards of the FCRA, the registry may not omit information that would lead to a misleading or incomplete understanding of the circumstances of the case.

Significant court cases involving landlord tenant registries include:

iv. What can you do if a landlord posts your name on an online renter’s blacklist?

Many websites exist where landlords can post information about former tenants. Whether these sites are "consumer reporting agencies" under the FCRA is subject to interpretation by federal regulatory agencies. A “consumer reporting agency” is:

[A]ny person which, for monetary fees, dues, or on a cooperative nonprofit basis, regularly engages in whole or in part in the practice of assembling or evaluating consumer credit information or other information on consumers for purposes of furnishing consumer reports to third parties, and which uses any means or facility of interstate commerce for the purpose of preparing or furnishing consumer reports. (15 U.S.C. §1681(f))

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has assumed primary oversight and enforcement of the FCRA. If you find that your name appears on one of these websites, you may complain to the CFPB.

For more on filing a complaint, see Section 8 of this guide.

5. When a landlord denies you a rental

A landlord may deny you the rental for any number of reasons. Or, the landlord may offer you the property subject to certain conditions you don't consider fair. A poor credit history, a bankruptcy, a criminal history, unfavorable references, or prior eviction action may result in your rental application being rejected.

In certain situations, the FCRA gives you the right to receive notice when a landlord makes an adverse decision based on a consumer report, and to dispute inaccurate information. However, if negative information is accurate, the landlord may have a legitimate argument for turning you down. Even if the landlord does not find negative information, the landlord may simply consider you a less worthy candidate than someone who, for example, has a higher salary or a longer work history.

All objective things being equal, a landlord should not deny you a rental for simply being who you are. Federal law protects renters against certain forms of discrimination. The Fair Housing Act (FHA), part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. (42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3619) Over the years, Amendments and Presidential Executive Orders have increased FHA protections to include, among other things, anti-age discrimination.

For more on the FHA, see HUD’s publication, Fair Housing – It’s Your Right.

a. Does the Fair Housing Act only apply if the renter receives government funding?

No. The FHA applies to most rental properties, but, as with most things, there are exceptions.

According to HUD, "[the] FHA covers most housing. In some circumstances, the Act exempts owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker, and housing operated by organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members."

b. Does the Fair Housing Act prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity?

No. The Fair Housing Act does not specifically prohibit such discrimination. However, other HUD regulations created to ensure lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) persons have equal access to housing may apply in certain situations such as when the housing provider receives HUD funding or has a loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration. For more information, see HUD’s LGBT resource section.

If you believe you are experiencing discrimination, you should look into your state's laws in addition to any applicable federal protections. One self-help website for tenants, Move.com, lists 13 states that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. As of January 2013, those states include: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin. The site also identifies the following states as ones that prohibit transgender discrimination: California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York City, and Rhode Island.

NOTE: State laws change frequently. For the most up-to-date information on the laws in your state, visit the website for your state department of consumer affairs or fair housing authority. See the Resources Section, Section 8, of this guide for further information on state laws and agencies.

c. Is it legal for a landlord to deny you a rental because of your marital status?

The federal Fair Housing Act does not prohibit discrimination based on “marital status.” However, it does prohibit discrimination based on “familial status,” meaning the presence of children in the household..

In most instances, you will need to analyze your state law to determine whether unmarried couples have protections when it comes to renting. Only Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Michigan and New Jersey specifically provide equal rental opportunity for unmarried couples. In some states, cities, or counties, unmarried couples may find rights under sexual orientation laws or ordinances. Other states that prohibit discrimination based on “marital status” may specify only that married and single renters must be treated equally.

For more on state laws and to find state housing authorities, see HUD’s website for state information.

Also see the Resources Section, Section 8, of this guide for further information on state laws and state agencies.

d. Can a landlord deny your rental application because you have children?

This might depend on the number of children you have. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on “familial status,” that is the presence of children in the household. However, the Fair Housing Act does not prevent a landlord from restricting the number of occupants in the rental. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has issued guidance on the question of occupancy and familial status. HUD states that it considers factors such as the size and number of bedrooms, generally allowing two persons per bedroom, when it evaluates a housing provider's policies. Infants, the guidance says, should not be counted as one person.

State laws may vary, but are likely to have a “reasonable” standard for occupancy limits. For example, in California, two persons per bedroom plus one additional occupant is considered reasonable. For more information about occupancy standards in California, see page 8 in the Tenant’s Handbook, a publication of the California Department of Consumer Affairs. (Rev. July 2012)

e. Can a landlord refuse to rent to someone based on their immigration status?

No. According to HUD, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects all people against prohibited discrimination, regardless of their legal status in the United States. For example, if an advertisement says that the landlord only rents to U.S. citizens, it would violate the FHA.

f. If you are looking for a roommate, can your rental ad state that only a certain type of person may apply?

While a landlord generally should not post such an ad, an individual looking for someone to share their space may do so. At least one court has addressed the issue of whether the Fair Housing Act's anti-discrimination provisions apply to selecting a roommate. See, Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roomate.com, LLC., No. 09-55272 (9th Cir. 2012).

In this case, the court found that Roommate.com did not violate housing discrimination laws in allowing individual subscribers to post roommate preferences. The court noted that Congress' goal in enacting the FHA was to "address the problem of landlords discriminating in the sale and rental of housing, which deprived protected classes of housing opportunities." The court then distinguished the transaction between a tenant and a landlord from selecting a roommate. The court ultimately decided that applying the FHA to the roommate selection process would be "a serious invasion of privacy, autonomy and security."

g. Does California law provide more protection than the federal Fair Housing Act?

California law significantly expands on classes protected under the federal Fair Housing Act. In California, housing discrimination based on any of the following is illegal:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Gender
  • Gender identity
  • Gender expression
  • Sexual orientation
  • Marital status
  • National origin
  • Ancestry
  • Familial status
  • Source of income
  • Disability
  • Genetic information (Cal. Gov't Code § 12955)

For more on California law, see HUD's Rental Help: California resource.

6. Your privacy rights while you rent


a. A landlord’s right to enter

As a renter, you are likely concerned about both your information privacy and your physical privacy. This typically means living free from the fear of unexpected visits from the landlord or his agents. You might expect the landlord to enter your space when you request repairs, or to show the unit if you are moving out. However, you would probably feel uneasy if you found out that people had been entering your home without your knowledge or consent.

Notice is an essential element of privacy. If your landlord gives you adequate advance notice that he or she wants to enter your space, you are less likely to feel that your privacy has been violated. While many state laws include a specific notice requirement, usually 24 to 48 hours, other state laws require only that notice be “reasonable.” Some states do not even have laws restricting a landlord’s unexpected visit. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a "state information" page.

i. The landlord's right to enter in California

In California, 24 hours is generally considered “reasonable” notice. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(d)) However, the notice requirement does not apply in the case of an emergency or if the property has been abandoned. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1954) When a property is for sale, the landlord must notify the tenant in writing that the landlord may contact the tenant in person or by telephone with 24 hours notice before showing the property to a potential buyer.

For more about a landlord’s right to enter in California, see the Department of Consumer Affairs' California Landlord Tenant’s Handbook (pp. 33-35).

b. The right to "quiet enjoyment"

The right to “quiet enjoyment” of your rental unit is another element of rental privacy that is typically addressed in state law. This is a covenant, or promise, that gives you the right to live undisturbed from intrusions by the landlord or neighbors. Situations that may violate the promise of “quiet enjoyment” often lead to disputes or even lawsuits. Just as you have the right to “quiet enjoyment,” so does your neighbor.

You may do as you wish within the confines of your walls, but when your activities interfere with your neighbor’s “quiet enjoyment,” you and the landlord may be held accountable. Excessive noise and smoking are just two situations where your activities may interfere with others.

Before you sign a rental agreement, you should talk with your potential landlord about any situations that would potentially be a disturbance to you or your neighbors. This could include subjects like pets, children, noise limits, designated common areas, visitors, or deliveries. In addition, your lease or a rental agreement may include reasonable restrictions on your activities. If you do not agree with any restrictions in a lease or rental agreement, you must negotiate with the landlord prior to signing the lease.

For information on your state laws, see HUD’s webpage for state information.

i. Your right to "quiet enjoyment" of your rental in California

Laws addressing situations that cause a neighborhood disturbance are often referred to as “nuisance laws.” Under California law, a “nuisance” is “[a]nything that is injurious to health…or is indecent or offensive to the senses....” (Cal. Civ. Code § 3479) Information about California nuisance laws and tips for dealing with difficult situations can be found in Community Nuisance – Neighbor to Neighbor, a publication of the self-help organization Housing Rights, Inc.

In addition, in California, a landlord has the right to prohibit smoking in rental units, but the lease or rental agreement must state this. Cal. Civ. Code §1947.5(a) While not required under California law, specific county or local ordinances in California may specifically prohibit smoking. In this situation your landlord could not expressly permit smoking in your rental.

7. When things go wrong

This section addresses some of the privacy-related problems a tenant may encounter. There is no law to prevent bad things from happening. However, you often have the right to receive advance written notice. The right to written notice is significant. It can allow you the chance to gather further information, present your own version of circumstances, and preserve any other rights you may have.

a. A landlord denies you a rental because of your credit history or a tenant screening history report

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) gives you the right to receive written notice when you are turned down for a rental based on consumer report information. The FCRA also gives you the right to receive a copy of the report and dispute inaccurate information. To dispute an error, you may submit information and a statement outlining your reasons for the dispute. After you file a dispute, the consumer reporting agency must conduct an investigation and delete erroneous information.

For more information on your rights under the FCRA, see Section 4 of this guide.

b. Your landlord terminates your tenancy

When a landlord wants you to move out, written notice is one of the most important rights you have. Unless the property is subject to federal government oversight, the notice requirements for eviction are generally set out in state, and sometimes, in local laws. In addition, state and local laws typically specify the number of days you have to move.

i. Your notice rights in California

If you have a month-to-month rental agreement, a landlord must generally give you either 30 or 60 days written notice to end your tenancy. In some situations, this may allow time to negotiate with the landlord and rectify problems. The time for written notice may, however, be only three days, in cases involving such things as failure to pay rent, violating your lease or rental agreement, property damage, interfering with other tenants’ rights, domestic violence, or illegal activity.

To learn more about written notice of termination in California, see the California Tenant’s Handbook. (pp. 67-71)

c. Eviction or "unlawful detainer" lawsuits

If your landlord gives you a notice to move out, you do not resolve the problem, and you refuse to move, the landlord’s next step is to file a court action (often called an unlawful detainer lawsuit). Each state has its own eviction processes, but generally the landlord will file a lawsuit to evict you, you will be served a copy of the summons and complaint, and have a certain period of time to respond in writing. At this point it is critical to find an attorney or local tenant rights' organization or clinic to learn about your rights. If the court decides in favor of your landlord, it will likely issue an order requiring law enforcement officials to physically remove you from the premises. For general information about evictions, see Evictions: An Overview, published by Cornell University Law School.

Note again that state law and local laws set the standard for court cases filed by a landlord prior to a tenant’s eviction. To learn more about courts in your state, see the National Center for State Courts. In researching, remember that such cases are often called “unlawful detainer” actions.

For California-specific information, see the Unlawful detainer, tenant’s guide to self-help, published by the California Courts. For a detailed discussion of the unlawful detainer process in California, see the Tenant’s Handbook (pp. 72-80).

i. Will an eviction show up on my credit report?

It will not, according to national credit bureau Experian. However, Experian's site states that if the eviction resulted from nonpayment of rent, your credit report may show a collection action or a civil court judgment awarded to the landlord.

While eviction is not normally a line item in your credit report, landlords may gather information about you from other sources. As discussed in depth in Section 4, prospective landlords may conduct more extensive checks that reveal information about your character, general reputation, personal characteristics or mode of living. Therefore, a potential landlord may learn of your eviction from a prior residence when a consumer reporting agency contacts references or previous landlords.

An eviction may also come to light through a tenant screening “specialty” report which generally includes information from commercial data bases that compile data from “unlawful detainer” court files.

d. Your rental is in foreclosure

The economic freefall that began in 2007 led to record numbers of foreclosures. Renters, just like homeowners, can feel the sting of foreclosure, often because they receive no notice that the property has changed ownership. Many states have passed laws to preserve renters' rights during the foreclosure process. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 38 states introduced legislation in 2013 to help troubled homeowners while preserving tenant rights.

On the federal level, there is the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, a part of the Helping Families Save Their Home Act of 2009. This law requires a bank, or any other new owner of a foreclosed property, to give renters at least 90 days advance notice to vacate a property. Note that state or local law may give renters the right to more notice. The new property owner must also permit a tenant to occupy the property until the end of the lease term, unless the new owner wants to live in the property or the lease agreement allows termination under state law (in which case the landlord must still give the tenant 90 day notice).

Originally set to expire in December 2012, the Dodd-Frank Act extended the protections in the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act until December 31, 2014.

If you are a tenant living in a foreclosed property, seek help through your state or local consumer protection agency, housing counselor, or an attorney.

For general information on California tenants’ rights in foreclosure, see: Foreclosure Facts for California Tenants.

8. Resources: find help or file a complaint

Federal Agencies

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

If you have a housing problem and/or want to file a complaint, the best place to start is close to home. To begin, contact a housing counselor in your area through HUD. The HUD website also lists a toll free telephone number for around the clock advice: 888-995-HOPE (4673). HUD’s interactive help system may also provide you with more information: 800-569-4287.

For California renters, one HUD counseling organization, Project Sentinel, offers information on a variety of renter topics. For some situations, particularly eviction or unlawful detainer cases, the best advice will be available from an attorney familiar with state and local landlord tenant matters. To find an attorney, contact your local bar association. These services are easily found through directory assistance or an Internet search. Another resource is the National Association of Consumer Advocates, a consumer-oriented organization with listed attorneys in all areas of the country.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Complaints about credit reports and/or tenant screening reports may be directed to the CFPB online complaint form. Or, contact the CFPB by telephone or mail at:

(855) 411-CFPB (2372)
Español (855) 411-CFPB (2372)
TTY/TDD (855) 729-CFPB (2372) (8 a.m.–8 p.m. Eastern, Monday–Friday)

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
P.O. Box 4503
Iowa City, Iowa 52244

Complaints about violations of federal housing discrimination laws may be directed to the HUD online complaint form. (Scroll down for a list of HUD Regional Offices and toll-free numbers.) Within HUD Regions are a number of local field offices.

Find your state and local housing and consumer protection agency through the website maintained by the U.S. General Services Administration.

Federal Laws

Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3619

Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq.

Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Pub.L. No 111-203 (July 2010)

Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, Pub. L. No. 111-22 (2009)

Service Members Civil Relief Act, 50 U.S.C. §§501-597

State Laws and Resources

Rental Assistance by State, published by HUD.gov

Landlord-Tenant Statutes, State by State, published by Nolo.com

National Landlord-Tenant Guides, published by Rentlaw.com

Unlawful Detainer Statutes by State, published by unlawfuldetainer.org

State and Local Government Agencies, published by the U.S. General Services Administration

State Courts

National Center for State Courts

Other Resources

National Tenant Resources, published by TenantsUnion.org

Landlord-Tenant Law: An Overview, by Cornell University Law School

Sentinel Project, a HUD-approved California counseling agency

Publications


U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Fair Housing Information for Housing Providers

Federal Trade Commission, Using Consumer Reports: What Landlords Need to Know

Federal Trade Commission, Forty Years of Experience With the Fair Credit Reporting Act, July 2011

Landlord and Tenant Privacy Rights, a publication of Nolo.com

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, You Have a Right to See Consumer Specialty Reports too, November 29, 2012

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, So How Many Consumer Reporting Companies Are There?, July 16, 2012

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Key Dimensions and Processes in the U.S. Credit Reporting System: A review of how the nation’s largest credit bureaus manage consumer data, December 2012

California Tenant’s Handbook, a publication of the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

Project Sentinel flyers, on numerous topics, available in various languages

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse Publications

Fact Sheet 6, How Private Is My Credit Report

Fact Sheet 6b, “Other” Consumer Reports: What You Should Know about “Specialty” Reports

Fact Sheet 6c, Your Credit Score: How It All Adds Up

 

Copyright © Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. This copyrighted document may be copied and distributed for nonprofit, educational purposes only. For distribution, see our copyright and reprint guidelines. The text of this document may not be altered without express authorization of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.


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