Now that summer is here, renters looking for a new home are shopping during the hottest time of the year — both literally and figuratively — for the rental market.
Rental owners are being inundated with applications and competition is high during the busy season of a low-vacancy market.
To rental shoppers, it might feel a bit like the Wild West when racing to be the first person in line with their application.
But the reality is there are many safeguards and laws in place to guide the process, and to ensure fairness and transparency.
For both the tenant and renter, the process starts with RCW 59.18.257, the state law requiring rental owners to provide all applicants with their minimum screening criteria before accepting an application and screening fee.
This informs the applicant of what types of data will be accessed during the tenant screening, which criteria may result in denial of the application, and the name and address of the reporting agency if a consumer report is used.
Rental owners who do not charge an application fee for screening are not required to provide minimum screening criteria.
These rules are designed to provide prospective renters with the opportunity to determine whether their credit and criminal histories match the rental owner’s minimum standards before money is spent on screening fees unnecessarily.
All residents 18 or older should expect to complete an application — even those who won’t be singing the lease, such as an adult child still living at home.
An adult not signing the lease is not responsible for rent, so they won’t be subject to a credit check.
But rental owners should still conduct background checks to ensure there are no criminal issues of concern.
Throughout this process, both parties should have a clear understanding of expectations and requirements.
Everything should be in writing, including the minimum screening criteria and all copies of signed rental applications.
Minimum criteria and standards should be the same for all units at a given property.
Applicants should always ask in advance about the cost of screenings.
Screening fees should not be excessive — rental-housing owners are limited to charging for actual costs incurred, including their time.
On average, $40 will cover a comprehensive background check, which would include credit, state-specific eviction records and a national criminal search.
Rental owners are advised to have a first come, first served screening policy. This means that the first person to complete and sign an application, as well as pay the application fee, should be the first person screened for the rental.
Such a policy is the simplest, most transparent way to ensure there are no opportunities for complaints of bias or discrimination on the part of an applicant whose application is denied.
Sean Martin is the director of external affairs of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, a not-for-profit association of more than 5,000 landlord members statewide. Rental Resource is the organization’s biweekly column. For more information for landlords or tenants, visit rhawa.org.