Illegal Renting Practices Unchallenged

Caleb Nelson

Credit check and application fees are common aspects of rental agreements in Massachusetts; the problem is that they are illegal. Renters wanting to challenge these fees find themselves facing a concrete barrier of business-as-usual, as well as legislators and landlords who are unwilling to listen.

According to MGL Chapter 186, Section 15B, no landlord may require a perspective tenant to pay any amount in excess of first and last month’s rent, a security deposit, and the cost of changing the locks on the apartment.

An extra fee for application processing, usually around $25, may not seem important enough to create a legal battle over, but some argue that it illustrates a trend. Creative charges like this offer incentive for landowners to review a larger pool of applications for the apartments they lease out, which can leave renters in a vulnerable position. It leads to a more selective process, and thus a more intrusive one.

The standard Massachusetts Association of Realtors application forms already ask renters for their checking and savings account numbers and balances, their employment history, residence history, social security number, and criminal record among other inquiries and background checks, and at the bottom they require a signature under penalty of perjury. With all this information required of potential tenants, there is little indication of confidentiality obligations on landlords.

Allowing landlords to be more selective when choosing tenants certainly puts them in a stronger position. Extraneous fees that facilitate this are against the law, however a number of real estate agents are under the impression that credit check fees are permitted.

The Attorney General’s office said that they needed a pattern of complaints before they could act on enforcing the law. However, with few renters aware that they do not legally have to pay for a credit check before they are eligible to rent an apartment, it is unlikely that the practice will stop in the near future.