Slightly abbreviated version of the guidance from NOLO.com
California state law limits credit check or application screening fees landlords can charge prospective tenants and specifies what landlords must do when accepting these types of fees. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1950.6.)
Here are key provisions:
- Landlords may charge a maximum screening fee of around $35 per applicant.
- This screening fee may be used for “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.
- A landlord who uses the screening fee to obtain the applicant’s credit report must give the applicant a copy of the report upon his or her request.
- If the landlord spends less (for the credit report and your time) than the screening fee they collected, they 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.
I am not a lawyer, but it would seem you have two options if you catch a landlord violating these rules.
- Sue them in small claims court for your $30 back.
- Report them to the California Dept of Consumer Affairs, Better Business Bureau, or County District Attorney's office (don't expect much in the way of results from any of these options other than feeling vindicated)
An idea to avoid the whole problem in the first place:
Get a copy of your credit report yourself and take a copy with you to meet the landlord. If they want an application fee, ask why they need it making it clear you know the above law. If they say for a credit report offer to give them a copy in lieu of the fee.