I recently applied for an apartment, and the landlord asked for $50 to do a "background check." Is that legal? May a landlord discriminate in renting the apartment based on race?
According to Terrance Keenan, attorney at Foster Pepper PLLC, it is legal for a landlord to do a background check and charge the applicant the cost of performing the check. A background check may include a credit check, employment verification, and a criminal record check.
A landlord may not charge for the cost of obtaining background information unless the landlord first notifies the applicant in writing of (1) what a background check entails, (2) the applicant's right to dispute the accuracy of information discovered, and (3) the name and address of the tenant screening service that the landlord employs. Furthermore, a landlord may only charge the applicant for the actual costs she incurs for the background check. For example, if the landlord uses a screening service, she may pass on only the actual amount charged by the service for the background check.
If the landlord conducts the check herself instead of hiring a screening service, she may charge the applicant for the actual costs she incurs to obtain the information. These costs might include long distance phone charges, mail/copying fees, and the reasonable cost of the landlord's time spent contacting the applicant's current and prior landlords, employers and financial institutions. However, the amount that a landlord may charge the applicant for such a check cannot exceed the normal charges of a local screening service, which ranges from $25 to $50. If you believe the landlord is overcharging for a background check, ask the landlord to provide a receipt.
It is against Washington law to discriminate based on race in the sale or rental of property. If you believe that a landlord has discriminated against you illegally, contact the Washington State Human Rights Commission ("HRC") to discuss your claim with an Intake Officer and receive instructions on how to file a formal complaint. The HRC's phone number is (206) 464-6500, and you can complete a Complaint Questionnaire with the HRC online at www.hum.wa.gov/CQ. You must file a formal complaint of housing discrimination within one year of the date of the alleged incident of discrimination, so contact the HRC well in advance of this deadline.
If the discrimination occurred in Seattle or unincorporated King County, you may contact local agencies to file a complaint. Seattle and King County provide protection against discrimination to some protected classes not covered under state law, including tenants who participate in the Section 8 program. You can contact the County's Office of Civil Rights at (206) 296-7592, or the City's Office for Civil Rights at (206) 684-4500. The deadlines for filing a complaint under these local programs may be shorter than the state deadline, so you are advised to contact the agencies directly for more information.
Answers are intended for general information only and are not intended to take the place of the advice of your own attorney. Ask a Lawyer is in partnership with the Access to Justice Institute at Seattle University and Foster Pepper PLLC. Got questions? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.