Landlord Can Ask About Credit

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QUESTION: I own rental property in San Gabriel, and I create my own rental application forms. I'm curious to know just what I can and cannot ask with these forms.

I believe that getting more information about an applicant's character would be helpful to making the right decision about tenants, but I don't want to be accused of discrimination of some type.

For instance, can I ask if an applicant has ever been convicted of a felony? Can I ask if they have ever filed for bankruptcy? Can you help?

ANSWER: You can ask about bankruptcy, but you can't be certain of an answer unless you can verify it through a credit reporting agency, such as TRW or Trans Union. To do that, you must be an agency member or go through an intermediary like an apartment association, which also requires membership.

According to Pat Thompson, the tenant screening manager of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, "The only legal bases upon which you may discriminate when renting an apartment are income and credit-worthiness. Bankruptcy is, obviously, a key element of credit-worthiness.

"But don't turn down an applicant based solely upon a bankruptcy. They may have a perfectly good explanation of the circumstances leading to it. If they do, you may still have a good prospect, assuming everything else checks out. Also, once a bankruptcy is discharged they cannot refile for seven years.

"Verifying the income becomes particularly important in such a case. You may even want to take extra steps to verify it by requiring that the applicant show you a copy of [the] previous year's tax return.

"You can learn about felony records, too, through credit agencies or AAGLA-type organizations, but they must be checked county by county at about $20 per inquiry.

"I recommend against asking prospects about felony records because to turn one down solely because of a felony conviction is considered discrimination.

"While there is a state of California child molester identification line ([900] 463-0400) that you can call to identify convicted child molesters, you cannot refuse to rent to them, either, solely on that basis. The cost of the call is $10.

"The key to successful renter screening is to screen all prospective residents thoroughly, Thompson said, "including verifying their employment, talking to previous landlords, checking financial data like bank records and using all the renter screening services available to landlords through membership in organizations like AAGLA."

Tenant Upset About Loss of Pool, Jacuzzi

Q: I live in an apartment in Hollywood, and I have a question for you. The pool and Jacuzzi in the complex were broken for two months. These amenities were the very reason I moved into this complex.

Can I deduct part of the rent for the two months the pool and Jacuzzi were broken?

A: The best thing to do in your situation is to talk to the owner or manager and see whether they agree that some kind of rent credit is fair in exchange for the reduced services. If they are aware that the primary reason you rented the apartment was for the pool and Jacuzzi, they may be willing to talk.

Do not arbitrarily deduct any rent. You and the owner--or a judge--might have different ideas about the value of the pool and Jacuzzi. If you deduct rent without some kind of agreement from the owner, you could face the possibility of being evicted for nonpayment of rent.

Under L.A.'s rent-control ordinance, the measure of your damages from a reduction of services is equal only to your pro rata share of what the owner saved in expenses, which is probably not much.

If you and the owner can't reach an agreement about a rent credit, you may be able to sue him in Small Claims Court, but that should always be your last option. Taking someone to court will usually put a damper on future relations even if you win.

Postema is the editor of Apartment Age magazine, a publication of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, an apartment owners' service group. Mail your questions on any aspect of apartment living to AAGLA, 12012 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.

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